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Killer curve takes its toll on N.M. 434

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

On a scenic road north of Mora, N.M., is a curve so severe that area residents put up their own traffic sign in 2012 lowering the speed limit and warning of the danger ahead.

Months earlier, a pilot from Colorado honored for his emergency landing of an American Airlines jet carrying 88 passengers was on a motorcycle trip through northern New Mexico and lost his life on the curve.

MILLER: Died on motorcycle in head-on collision

MILLER: Died on motorcycle in head-on collision

Coy Lee Miller, 59, was headed north toward Angel Fire as he drove his Harley Davidson into the curve on the two-lane N.M. 434.

His motorcycle crossed the double yellow line and veered into the path of an oncoming jeep driven by a retiree from Texas, according to an accident report. Miller died at the scene.

State Police found no evidence alcohol was involved and blamed speed and driver inattention.

But a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Miller’s widow contends the state is to blame for failing to correct the road curve, which was known to be unsafe.

“It’s pretty bad. I mean every year we have accidents. There’s always accidents there,” said Jason Duke, who runs the Sierra Bonita Rental Cabins off N.M. 434. “It’s just a wicked curve.”

New Mexico Department of Transportation records provided to the Journal show seven reported accidents at the curve on N.M. 434 over a 12-year period, but several area residents interviewed say that tally doesn’t tell the whole story.

“I’ve lived here 27 years, and I’ve loaded up numerous bodies and people because we had to do traffic control,” said Kelly Powell, who lives south of the curve.

He said he once complained about the curve at a public meeting, and DOT officials said the accident history failed to show a problem there.

A00_jd_15feb_Deadly-Route-434“I said, ‘No, that’s completely wrong.'” He and Duke say most accidents aren’t being reported.

Powell recalled “two or three deaths at that same corner.”

“People out there wreck and they have somebody help them out or have somebody take care of it,” Powell said. “We had a kid here just a couple of months ago wreck there, and he flagged us down.”

DOT identified curve for correction

The 34-mile stretch of N.M. 434 from Mora to Angel Fire is touted on national motorcycle blogs and other tourist websites as a “must see” for its beautiful vistas.

But the killer curve that cuts through a forested mountain area was ranked as the most severe of a dozen curves identified by the DOT’s district office for correction in 2005.

The lawsuit contends the curve sends deceptive and misleading signals to the driving public.

While other less severe curves on N.M. 434 have been improved over the past decade, the state has yet to fix the bend where Miller died.

The DOT improved five of the 12 curves deemed in need of correction in 2006. But the curve where Miller later died wasn’t included in that project.

The DOT had a limited time within which to spend the money for curve corrections that year, testified assistant district engineer Heather Sandoval at a deposition in the Miller lawsuit.

Improving the curve in question was more complex and would have taken too much time, Sandoval testified.

DOT officials in court documents say there’s been no funding available to correct the curve, which a DOT study in 2000 described as “a combination of a sharp vertical (drop) and a sharp horizontal (which) is extremely difficult to maneuver.”

Yet records show a new $1.2 million widening project for N.M. 434 is being proposed by the DOT. The reconstruction just misses the trouble spot, beginning at milepost 17.5, and proceeding north.

Fixing the trouble curve was estimated to cost about $229,000 in 2005, according to DOT records.

Coy Lee Miller, a Colorado resident, was on a motorcycle trip in New Mexico in July 2012 when he crashed head-on into another vehicle on N.M. 434. The accident occurred as he drove north into a curve described by one area resident as "wicked." (Courtesy photo)

Coy Lee Miller, a Colorado resident, was on a motorcycle trip in New Mexico in July 2012 when he crashed head-on into another vehicle on N.M. 434. The accident occurred as he drove north into a curve described by one area resident as “wicked.” (Courtesy photo)

Miller’s widow, Brenda Miller, said she hopes her lawsuit gets the state’s attention.

“They need to correct the road so this doesn’t happen to anyone else. It cost me my husband of 37 years,” she said last week.

Victim a retired major, pilot, biker

Miller, a native of Oklahoma, served in the U.S. Navy and later the U.S. Air Force, where he flew C-130s and retired as a major.

A pilot with American Airlines for 23 years, Miller met most of his Harley riding buddies at the Oklahoma Air National Guard or the airlines, according to a published obituary notice. He had more than 70,000 miles riding experience on various Harley Davidson motorcycles.

In March 2009, serving as captain of a Chicago-bound American Airlines jetliner, Miller made an emergency landing after one of the plane’s engines shredded upon takeoff at New York’s LaGuardia airport, according to news reports and Brenda Miller. The airlines named Miller employee of the year in 2010 for his performance under pressure that day, she added.

“Their (the DOT’s) failure to repair this road contributed to the death of an American hero,” said Albuquerque attorney Mark Jaffe, who represents Miller. “This pilot saved the plane with everybody on board. He was a skilled pilot and a skilled motorcycle rider and there have been a history of complaints about this road and the state appears to do nothing about it.”

The attorney defending the state in the case didn’t return a Journal request seeking comment. But in court filings, the DOT has denied any liability or negligence.

This descanso sits at the side of a dangerous curve where Peter Sanchez was killed in 1999. Since that time, several other fatalities have occurred at the same curve, located on N.M. 434, north of Mora, N.M. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

This descanso sits at the side of a dangerous curve where Peter Sanchez was killed in 1999. Since that time, several other fatalities have occurred at the same curve, located on N.M. 434, north of Mora, N.M. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Any injuries or damages were the result of Miller’s negligence, states the DOT in its answer to the lawsuit.

Within months of Miller’s death, a group of frustrated area residents decided to take matters into their own hands.

They took down the DOT’s 20-mph speed limit sign at the curve and replaced it with a glossy 10-mph sign that stated “DANGER.”

A second homemade sign was attached, stating, “Please, Bikers, Slow Down, Bad Curve.”

The DOT removed both signs.

“After we did the sign, the state highway came out and told us, you can’t be putting signs up like that,” Duke said.

So Duke said he is now taking first responder classes as a member of the newly-formed volunteer fire department for the area.

That way Duke said he can better render aid to people he encounters at accident scenes at the curve or who show up at the cabins seeking help after a wipeout there.

“I think I’ve been on that corner three or four times helping people,” he recalled. “One young couple took that turn way too fast and they went all the way up on the side of the road and took out a tree stump, and totalled his car.”

Duke said when he travels through the curve on his daily commute to work he “always, always” worries about oncoming vehicles.

One neighbor, he said, “has run me off the road three times at that same curve, and he knows it’s a bad spot. I get all over him, man. I say, ‘You’ve got to take that slower, dude.'”

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