An elderly couple drove off O’Byrnes Ferry Road last week and ended up 200 feet down an embankment.
They suffered minor injuries.
But at other embankments in the Mother Lode — including the notorious Priest grades on Highway 120 and the twisted ribbon of Highway 49 near Carson Hill — veering from the road can be fatal.
“Fatal collisions can occur just as easy on a two-foot embankment just as much as a 300 or 400-foot embankment, it just depends on the circumstances surrounding the collision,” California Highway Patrol Sonora - Area Officer Steve Machado said.
Though embankments are not inherently dangerous, Machado said, (seatbelts and practicing safe speeds were a better indicator of danger), the treacherous drops alongside highways of the Mother Lode still present complications: how to stop vehicles from going over, and locating and extracting them if they do.
Machado said two locations in Tuolumne County with steep grades were prone to run-off accidents: Highway 120 at New Priest Grade (parallel to the even-steeper county-maintained road Old Priest Grade) and Highway 108 between Long Barn and Cold Springs.
According to United States Geological Survey topographic maps, Highway 120 at New Priest Grade begins at about 1,000 feet. For a little more than five miles, New Priest Grade bends and rises from 1,800 feet to approximately 2,400 feet elevation.
Steep mountain peaks straddle the north roadway edge and a ravine canyon below is nestled between the old and new grades. The canyon rolls and ascends eastward with the road, but the bottommost points are between 100 feet and 300 feet down from New Priest Grade.
According to Union Democrat records, vehicles drive off New Priest Grade at least once a year.
Machado and California Highway Patrol San Andreas - Area Officer Tobias Butzler said the agency does not track accidents by location or whether vehicles traveled off embankments.
Butzler said other dangerous locations includes Highway 49 between the Stevenot Bridge and Red Hills Road in Angels Camp and Highway 26 between Mokelumne Hill and the junction with Highway 88 in Amador County.
“We don't really have a common area where a lot of collisions occur, but the steepness of those embankments, if they do go over the side, it could be a long way down depending on their speed,” Butzler said of Highway 49.
On Highway 49 between the Stevenot Bridge and Red Hills Road, the steepness of the embankments vary in height and slope, though certain portions descend approximately 300 feet into a canyon cut by Carson Creek, a tributary of the Stanislaus River.
Butzler said there were vehicles from the 1950s still at the bottom of the canyon.
Highway 108 between Long Barn and Cold Spring has a more gentle slope compared to the Priest Grade canyons, though the elevation drop into the North Fork Tuolumne River canyon south of the road ranges from 500 feet to 600 feet.
At Long Barn, the road elevation begins at approximately 5,120 feet and rises to approximately 5,680 feet near Cold Springs.
Butzler said he tells student drivers that if they drive off the roadway, “you better hope there is a field and not a tree or a cliff there.”
Warren Alford, Caltrans public information officer, said guardrail upgrades and rumble strip installation was planned throughout Tuolumne County in the coming years.
“The main thing for Caltrans we are always interested in trying to make the highways safer,” he said.
The criteria for guardrail installation includes the history of vehicles running off the road; road alignment and curvature; climate and operating conditions such as traffic volume, speeds and lanes. Caltrans uses a formula to derive whether the probable severity of an accident is increased or decreased by a guardrail.
In most cases the installation of guardrails is more common as embankment height and slope increase.
“The real issue is, would having a guardrail result in less severe collision than not having a guardrail there,” Alford said. “If we can keep you from having that collision, if that embankment is not as steep, maybe we don’t have a guardrail.”
When a 2003 Honda Accord belonging to a missing Lodi man was located deep in the canyon off of New Priest Grade in February, Robert Shaw from Miller Brothers Automotive in Groveland was called to pull it out.
“I got to go out to random areas and find random people and get them to a safe location and get them home. No matter what time of day or night, rain, snow, or 110 degrees outside, that’s what we do,” Shaw said.
During a vehicle extraction, Shaw is guided by a cable down steep embankment grades teeming with poison oak and snakes. He drags chains weighing hundreds of pounds down the vehicle and attaches the vehicle to recovery equipment on the surface.
“It's not just an easy thing to do,” he said.
Shaw also pulled a 2004 Chevrolet K1500 pickup in October 2016 from 100 feet down near Moccasin Pass. In June 2016, a man from San Jose suffered major injuries after driving his Toyota Tacoma off the grade.
A white Fiat belonging to Shannon Scott, a Wilseyville man missing since August 2018 was located down a 40- to 50-foot embankment off of Highway 16 in Amador County last month when a man mowing his property saw it.