But with six lanes and high rates of speed, El Camino is a giant obstacle between east and west Atherton, and presents any pedestrian or cyclist who wants to use an unsignaled crosswalk with a huge risk, especially during peak commute hours. It is not uncommon to see cars whizzing by at 40 or even 50 miles per hour, a challenging crossing for even the most daring pedestrian.
El Camino has become one of the town's toughest problems in the last few years after a spate of deaths and serious injuries to pedestrians and cyclists hit by motorists who either didn't see them, or could not stop in time if they did. The situation is complicated by the fact that El Camino is a state highway, so Caltrans is in charge of installing signals of any kind along its length.
At a recent meeting with a Caltrans representative, the City Council hoped to convince the state agency to work quickly to install flashing lights that could warn motorists to stop for someone in the crosswalk. Caltrans officials say they are considering installing a flashing beacon at only one of the uncontrolled crosswalks along the 1.6-mile stretch of El Camino, although serious accidents have occurred at numerous locations. And even that safety measure would take four to five years to put in place, the agency representative told the council.
The representative did have some good news — that the Selby Lane intersection at El Camino qualifies for a traffic signal. But although council members eventually agreed that Caltrans should begin the funding-approval process in case the town decides to proceed on the costly signalization project, it is crosswalk safety that is desperately needed now, they said.
Atherton and Caltrans need to address these dangerous intersections to protect the safety of residents and to guard against lawsuits alleging negligence for allowing these problems to go unaddressed. One such lawsuit has been filed on behalf of a Sacred Heart Prep student who suffered a broken pelvis and brain injuries when she was hit by a motorist in the crosswalk at El Camino and Alejandra Avenue last year. The suit names Atherton, Menlo Park, the county and the state, who, the suit claims, "were negligent and careless in the design, construction, maintenance, inspection, repair and control" of the road at that intersection.
This and similar lawsuits are a wake-up call for Atherton and the state. Serious discussions need to begin soon to find ways to make these dangerous crosswalks safer and to warn motorists when someone is preparing to walk or bike across El Camino. Reducing El Camino from six to four lanes is an option Caltrans is studying and at least some council members appear to support. But the bottom line is that pedestrians must be able to cross without fearing for their lives.