Malibu, Topanga and Kanan. All three of these canyons lead into Malibu, allowing traffic to reach the city through the Santa Monica Mountains.
But often these canyon roads become treacherous passes, and tragedy is no stranger to their winding asphalt roads.
A new police crackdown on unsafe driving through the canyons seeks to make driving to and from the Malibu area safer than it has been in recent years.The California Highway Patrol has launched Operation Safe Canyons, an effort that targets illegal street racing organizations that use the canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains as their racetrack.
The operation is notable for its stance on seizing vehicles used in canyon racing. Fran Pavley is the assemblymember for the 41st district, which included Malibu. In her monthly electronic newsletter Pavley addressed the operation’s tactic of confiscation as a deterrent to potential racers. “If adopted by the [Board of Supervisors of Los Angeles County], it is hoped that the prospect of losing their fast cars or motorcycles will make these irresponsible speeders think twice,” Pavley said.
Echoing Pavley’s hopes is Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. Yaroslavsky attended the April press conference on Mulholland Highway that formally announced the beginning of the operation. “We need to do something to control and deter street racing,” said. “A vehicle is expensive, and a vehicle is essential in this town. I think this will be a significant deterrent. This is not a game.”
Officer Leland Tang, Public Affairs and Information officer for the CHP, detailed the CHP’s effort in the canyons. “On weekends, there is an increase of recreational vehicles, motorcycles, high-performance vehicles and bicyclists using these roadways,” Tang said in an interview with Los Angeles news station NBC 4. “This increase in vehicular traffic creates a higher than normal demand for service calls and enforcement…our goal is to create and maintain an environment that promotes a safe and enjoyable use of the Santa Monica Mountains region for all.”
However, not everyone has welcomed the operation with open arms. Karl Brauer, a writer for Edmunds.com, a car news and review website, has been skeptical and cynical. Referring to the published statistics of accident deaths in the Santa Monica Mountains each year, Brauer writes:
“Accident data indicates that approximately eight people a year have been killed on these roads each of the last two years. Eight people. I don’t know about you, but eight people doesn’t exactly sound like much of a ‘growing problem of illegal street racing and other unsafe driving practices.’”
Brauer goes on to say, “I wouldn’t want to suggest that ‘Operation Safe Canyons’ might be yet another excuse to blow taxpayer money and/or generate revenue by creating unrealistic speed limits and having extra cops to enforce them. Actually, I think I do want to suggest that.”
Those who participate in the canyon races refer to the events as “canyon runs.” The riders themselves have adopted the title of “canyon carvers.” Response to Operation Safe Canyons has been mixed among those in the street racing community.
Immediately after the operation went public, the CHP press release and other news stories covering the crackdown appeared on the internet in several motorcycle and racing discussion boards. Usually the articles were posted as warnings. “LA California riders beware!” was the heading of one such posting on Triumphrat.net.
Online forums such as this one had been singled out by CHP and government officials as a new danger to canyon safety because they allow drivers to organize races and share information quickly.
Nevertheless, many racers who commented in the forums seemed to be deterred from racing in the area covered by the operation. “There is a BIG crack down on cars and bikes in the Santa monica range. DO NOT go on the roads listed here as they are the prime target,” wrote user maxmni.
Others shared his sentiment: “I seriously would avoid the Santa monica ranges. Even if you are just CRUISING through them there’s a chance you’re going to get picked on,” said user Antranik.
Some riders refuse to run scared. At Apexhard.com, riders grouped together to share “tactical” information to help them confront the stronger police presence. One member shared his knowledge, saying, “In my experience with encountering CHP and LASD in Malibu, they tend to heavily use Ka-band radar. Of course, knowing that they’re reading this, they’ll more than likely switch to LIDAR or they’ll try to guesstimate speeds while idling around corners (not likely to stand up in court) in hopes to ensnare our kind.”
Other racers showed rational, cool-headed restraint toward the new initiatives. “The first time I was taken to the santa monica canyons, there were too many immature people,” said another forum member.
“Trying to ‘canyon run’ in their truck, van, or saturn. Everyone just needs to take it more seriously, responsibly and cautiously.”
Still many viewed Operation Safe Canyons as malicious. One user on Apexhard wrote: “ ‘Operation Safe Canyons’ is, indeed, a smoke screen, for a concerted asset confiscation and liquidation initiative. Los Angeles Metro is using this issue as a smoke screen to make a grab, for your assets.”
Forum member Antranik also voiced an animosity toward the relevance and usefulness of the operation: “Increased patrol in desolate low-crime areas [are] your tax dollars at work.”
Racers in the forums have also noted that the areas singled out by the CHP for stricter patrol are areas where exclusive residential communities are located. Some have suggested that the real impetus behind the operation was not the approximately eight annual deaths caused by unsafe driving in the canyons, but pressure from residents in these communites.
Said Triumphrat forum member MadMark: “I have to think some of this whole “crackdown” thing is coming from the new developments along Mulholland Hwy near the rock store. Those properties are going for a premium and if you think those new homeowners are going to enjoy thousands of motorcycles every weekend…”
The Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation had taken a special interest in the issue just prior to the April implementation of the operation. In an April update, the federation addressed the canyon operation and expressed its strong support. An aggressive stance against canyon carvers is alluded to in language that is evocative of a general’s battle plan: “We had a very productive meeting where we discussed various “plans of attack” in place for both Calabasas and LA County.
While we were careful not to reveal any tactical information (dates, places, etc.), Federation delegates learned that both the Sheriffs and the CHP (the traffic enforcement arm for the County) do have a plan to begin dealing with the speeding and the noise.”
Speculation can only continue to run rampant while Operation Safe Canyons runs its course.