A quarter mile past the rocks, the road turns sharply left and dips dramatically — it's a depression to allow a seasonal stream, dry today, to flow over the road. "And then we have people who crash right here in this dip area," Goodwin says. "You have to slow down pretty quickly to get through the dip, and people go hauling butt through here and crash over there in that ditch just north of the dip."
She points to the right at a narrow gravel turnout beyond which a ditch opens up to the right of the road. Heavy black skid marks on the road lead straight into this area. "We get a lot of calls for accidents right here. When [the dispatchers] say, 'Just north of the dip,' everybody who patrols this area knows what they're talking about."
Goodwin says she's seen some "gnarly" wrecks along Wildcat Canyon but demurs when asked to describe the worst, saying only, "The crashes up here can be grinders. A good majority of them are grinders."
"Twisted metal, and ambulances everywhere, fire trucks, police vehicles, metal-cutting tools, having to cut people out because the car is so smashed around them that we can't remove them from the vehicle, blood everywhere. Sometimes you have someone who has died because of the crash, and you have to tow the vehicle to another location in order to extricate the body. Those are pretty bad. It's just...you know...it can be unnerving. As emergency personnel, you do your job, and you hope you don't take it home with you. If you do, you hope you have somebody at home who will understand and be able to support you."
To make the road safer, many would like to see the road widened to four lanes -- two in each direction. The Barona Indians have lobbied for widening for years, especially for the section of Wildcat Canyon between the reservation and Willow Road. But as soon as you use the word widen, Goodwin says, "That's when the residents start objecting, and I don't blame them. Look at where they live." She gestures around at the landscape of chaparral hillsides studded with live, black, and Engelmann oak trees and creek beds lined with sycamores. "They moved out here for a reason -- for the remote, rural feel of it, and they don't want that to change. They'd rather change the drivers, and I understand that. But with the amount of traffic that goes up and down Wildcat Canyon, it's not an unrealistic wish for law enforcement and the county to want to do that."
Short of widening the road, Goodwin suggests building more turnout areas as a way to make Wildcat Canyon safer. Turnouts, she says, would allow slower drivers "to pull over so people could get past them. You get the older people going to play bingo who don't even drive the speed limit. They have a parade behind them, and people are getting to be frustrated because they're doing 35 on a road that says 50. So now you're going to have people who are getting impatient and trying to pass on a curve or where the double yellow lines say it's not safe to pass. If we had more turnouts, maybe that would help a little bit."
A greater enforcement presence is another solution Goodwin lists, though she says enforcement is difficult on Wildcat Canyon because "it's not safe for us to make stops in this road because there is no place to stop. We do the best we can. We try to pull them into a driveway or just follow them all the way down to the bottom of the hill until we can find someplace down off Willow to stop them, or things like that."
More turnout areas would solve that problem, too. Regarding signage, Goodwin says, "You can't oversign the road. If you start putting too many signs up, they get lost because people will tune them out. If there's a specific area where people don't seem to be seeing the sign, you might want to oversize it. But it's been proven statistically, if you oversign a roadway, people will tune out all of them.
"We need to change driver behavior," Goodwin continues, "because as soon as we change the driver behavior, the road itself is not dangerous. It's the people that drive the road that make it dangerous," she says, repeating her earlier adage.
But Goodwin admits, to make a road like Wildcat Canyon absolutely safe, you can't just change driver behavior, you have to change every driver's behavior. "You can drive carefully," she says, "but you can't control what other people do. You can just be cruising along, minding your own business, driving the road properly, being safe, and some idiot who is trying to do 70 miles per hour through a curve comes across the double yellow and smacks you."
That is what happened to Lisa Whitcomb. On March 17, 2000, the 42-year-old El Cajon resident and divorced mother of four boys was driving along Wildcat Canyon Road when a Ford pickup traveling the opposite direction crossed the center line and slammed into her head on. Whitcomb died a few days later.