Despite long daily commute, Nicholson feels no regrets about teaching at SHS

May 22, 2019 — by Edwin Chen, Kevin Sze, Kaitlyn Tsai and Michael Wong

Most people who commute to work deal with rush-hour traffic and perhaps heavy rains at most. But those who commute on the notoriously dangerous Highway 17 through the Santa Cruz Mountains deal with more serious risks. They face dangerous weather conditions and daily accidents on a poorly designed highway.

“When you drive on Highway 17, you have to drive with respect,” biology teacher Kellyanne Nicholson said as she talked about the dangers she faces when commuting to school from her Santa Cruz home, one of several teachers who make the drive daily.

Under normal conditions, the drive takes her about 40 minutes. However, Nicholson leaves by 6:30 a.m. to give herself some leeway for the heavy morning traffic.

“Every day, you don’t know when you’re going to arrive,” Nicholson said. “Just not knowing whether you’re going to be at school or not is stressful.”

Due to a series of storms throughout the Bay Area this past year, students and staff have experienced everything from damage to homes and transportation struggles to numerous power outages.

According to the Mercury News, the Bay Area has surpassed 100 percent of its normal rainfall. After early February storms, a freezing air mass lowered snow levels in the region to around 1,000 feet, and commuters going over Highway 17 encountered delays due to the dusting of snow — a phenomenon that had not been seen near Saratoga since 2011.

The increased rainfall and during the early months of 2019 led to mudslides and extensive damage due to fallen trees.

Nicholson lives in a regular neighborhood and doesn’t live in a neighborhood surrounded by trees that could fall.

In the horrendous winter of 2017,  she remembers having to get up at 4:30 a.m. because of road closures.

One night when she went home, Nicholson said she saw four trees fall in front of her. The debris took over 7.5 hours to clear before she could arrive home safely.

Even so, landslides and falling trees are unusual Nicholson said. What is more common are the daily accidents that impede traffic on 17.

Nicholson recalls seeing a car with just one rear tire hanging off the retainer wall and a girl dangling precariously further down, who had to be rescued by a team of firefighters.  

“The places the cars end up are so scary,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson believes that part of the reason there are so many accidents is because of the way Highway 17 was built. According to her husband, a civil engineer, parts of 17 aren’t banked right, so driving over the speed limit can pitch a driver’s car left and right.

English teacher Amy Keys, who also lives in Santa Cruz, attributes the frequent accidents to people who drive dangerously in stormy weather.

“They get cocky and overconfident, and they drive too fast or change lanes too quickly,” Keys said. “Right before the February break, it took me two hours to get home, and I just sat there, and that stank.”

In 2017, Keys, along with a couple teachers who also live across the mountains, stayed overnight with other teachers instead, which Keys described as “kind of fun” because they had a dinner and a sleepover.

Keys, who usually carpools with English teacher Suzanne Herzman, also recalls one of her worst experiences when she was stuck in traffic with the stomach flu.

“I didn’t want to stay with anyone, especially people who have small children,” Keys said, “so I was trying to hold myself together. It took six hours to get home, and as soon as I got home, I fell ill.”

Despite the heavy traffic and hours of idle waiting, she still stays on the highway because she believes it is the safest option.

“A lot of people will use Waze to take other roads, but those roads are not built for the kind of traffic that those roads get from people using Waze,” Keys said. “I feel like those are really unsafe roads, especially when people use them too much.”

Luckily, Keys said most teachers are able to navigate the dangers of Highway 17 as part of their normal routine and sometimes the commute isn’t bad.

“I have a theory that more people stay home, that there are a lot of people who live in Santa Cruz or over the hill who have the option of commuting four days a week,” Keys said. “Sometimes the traffic seems a little lighter on days when there’s a big storm, and for the most part, when it rains, people drive more cautiously and slowly.”

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