Niles Canyon Road: Can it be safer? | January 6, 2017 | Pleasanton Weekly | |

Pleasanton Weekly

Column - January 6, 2017

Niles Canyon Road: Can it be safer?

by Jeb Bing

How many more people have to die in order to make critical safety changes to Niles Canyon Road? That's a question that Dr. Jacob Wouden is asking Caltrans in its current assessment of the scenic road's safety.

Wouden, the director of magnetic resonance imaging at Washington Hospital, knows the dangers of the narrow, curving roadway both as a driver and part of the medical team that all too frequently cares for motorists and cyclists injured on Niles Canyon Road.

Wouden finds that driving through Niles Canyon is often a harrowing and dangerous experience. The main issue is the narrow width of the road and lack of an adequate safety shoulder for much of the drive.

This means that if a driver traveling the opposite direction crosses the mid-line, you have no direction in which to escape. You would be forced to choose between taking the head-on collision, running into the rock wall on one side or potentially going off a cliff on the other side.

Wouden sees as the ultimate solution adding a divider barrier in the center of the road to separate oncoming traffic in either direction, markedly increasing the safety of driving through the canyon and dramatically reducing the fatalities.

Wouden grew up near a canyon that shares features with Niles Canyon, called Sardine Canyon. This connects Brigham City to Logan in Utah. He would frequently hear of deaths in Sardine Canyon from head-on collisions. In fact, during his senior year of high school, one of his classmates died in a head-on collision in the canyon. Eventually, Utah's Transportation Department added a center divider to separate traffic, which resulted in a sharp decrease in the road's fatality rate.

He believes that Niles Canyon certainly warrants a similar center divider, as well as widening of the safety shoulders. This would lead directly to the preservation of life by preventing head-on crashes.

Niles Canyon has high injury and fatality rates and has been identified in the Caltrans Monitoring Program for head-on fatal collisions. The rumble strip installation did help, but the accident rate remains much too high. Between the years 2000 and 2014, 390 people were injured and 14 died in 507 crashes in Niles Canyon. Will the next one be someone you know?

As a physician, Wouden has observed the ravages of motor vehicle trauma. A neurosurgeon colleague at Washington Hospital turned into one of the "statistics" for Niles Canyon. He was involved in a major motor vehicle accident there, ending up in the intensive care unit for an extended period of time and eventually succumbing to his injuries.

Other colleagues who drive the roadway to reach Washington Hospital tell Wouden of their daily fear driving through the canyon. Several refuse to drive through the canyon at night for fear of their safety. One of Wouden's partner physicians grew up in Livermore. When he was younger, he used to drive through Niles Canyon frequently. Now, however, he avoids the canyon at all costs.

An ultrasound technologist at Washington Hospital lives in Pleasanton and is an avid biker. She told Wouden that while some of her biking takes her through Niles Canyon, she finds it a frightening proposition due to the narrow character of the road and lack of shoulder space for a biker.

Wouden is asking Caltrans to consider adding a center divider and widening the safety shoulders in Niles Canyon, and he asks that all of us do the same. Send your views to Caltrans at or write Caltrans at Caltrans District 4, Office of Environmental Analysis, Attn. Elizabeth White, 111 Grand Avenue MS 8B, Oakland, CA 94612. The Niles Canyon project website is

Wouden can be contacted at


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