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Creek curve poses threat to drivers

Flowers at the scene of a car crash Jan. 26 where three Chico State students were involved. The Orion file photo.

Tom Bailey, an 87-year-old Chico man, said that his wife could tell by the hum of the engine whether a passing car would make the curve or fly off into the creek.

Off the beaten path of Nord Avenue’s busy intersections is Bidwell Avenue, a winding neighborhood street that runs alongside Big Chico Creek.

It’s a thrill-seeker’s road at night, riddled with blind turns and scarce in street lamps, reflectors and guardrails to guide newcomers away from the creek’s steep embankment.

The road’s many curves have their history of crashes, mostly caused by people driving too fast and too drunk, said Gary Quiring, who’s lived in the neighborhood since the 1950s.

Three Chico State students were heading westbound on Bidwell Avenue January 27 at an unreported speed and failed to make the same curve Bailey’s wife could listen for.

The car, a 1998 BMW, crashed into the creek, turned over on its roof and came to rest a few feet away from the water, according to the California Highway Patrol.

One of the passengers, 20-year-old Austin Silver, was dead at the scene from severe head trauma. The other passenger, 19-year-old Bryant Mata-Adams, died a day later in the hospital after being in a coma.

The driver, Diego Arriaga-Rodriguez, 18, was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. He was transferred to Enloe Medical Center to recover from his injuries and remained in a comatose state until April.

Tom Swingle, 66, who’s lived on Bidwell Avenue for six years, saw the aftermath of the accident when it was still dark.

“All you could see was the bottom of the car,” he said.

It was the first fatal accident on Bidwell Avenue reported by the California Highway Patrol, according to a report going back to 1998.

In the past 16 years, 24 accidents were reported on the road, 10 of which involved drunk driving.

Almost all of the accidents occurred between the intersections connecting Bidwell to West Sacramento and Rose avenues, a mile-long stretch of road containing the curve the students didn’t get past.

The highway patrol’s digital records don’t go back any further than 1998, said CHP officer Andrew Henken. Bailey said he remembers an old neighbor who grew tired of hitching cars out of the creek.

The curve can be dangerous for drivers who aren’t familiar with the road, Quiring said. If going too fast, it’s easy to slide across the gravel shoulder and off into the bank.

“That particular curve is really set up to lose it on you,” he said.

The gravel shoulder blends with the asphalt in the evening, giving the illusion that the road goes straight out, Swingle said. A turn sign could help, especially when there’s no light out.

“Come down here on a dark night,” he said. “It gets so pitch black out here when there’s no moon.”

The road is safe enough, Bailey said. A 25 mph speed limit sign warns drivers to slow down and take it easy, but the road’s narrow bends challenge young drivers to step on the gas.

“It’s always someone driving too fast,” he said. “They want to see if they can take it.”

Most of the projects completed on Bidwell Avenue were to prevent erosion and overflow from the creek, said Mike Crump, Butte County’s public works director for the last 20 years.

He said the county currently has no projects planned along that road and he doesn’t recall anybody complaining about curves and vehicles.

As of April, Arriaga-Rodriguez is awake and recovering at a rehabilitation facility.

The highway patrol investigated the crash and recommended that Arriaga-Rodriguez face charges for DUI manslaughter, which he will likely receive, said Mike Ramsey, district attorney for Butte County.

That night, Arriaga-Rodriguez had an alcohol blood content of .06 and marijuana in his system, according to a toxicology report.

A guardrail or reflector posts could have made a difference in what happened that night, said Steven Silver, the father of one of the passengers.

“There may still have been a crash, but it might have made it less tragic,” he said.

“Other than a possible sighting of Bigfoot,” the highway patrol found no evidence of a dangerous road as a factor of the crash during their investigation, Ramsey said.

Mozes Zarate can be reached at [email protected] or @mzarate139 on Twitter.

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