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The death last week of 32-year-old pedestrian Shahriar Rahimzadeh, who was struck by a car and killed while crossing El Camino Real in Atherton at Almendral Avenue, near his home, has thrust the issue of pedestrian and bicyclist safety on that major thoroughfare onto center stage, once again.
Caltrans and the town of Atherton have studied the safety issue for years, ramping up their efforts in 2012, when two women were struck and seriously injured in a crosswalk at Isabella Avenue, two years to the day that a man on a bicycle was struck and killed in the same crosswalk. A number of other vehicle-vs.-pedestrian fatalities and serious injuries in the last few years have also occurred along the 1.6-mile stretch of the state highway that runs through Atherton.
The investigation into the July 24 incident is still ongoing, but it appears that the driver of the car that struck Mr. Rahimzadeh, as he was trying to run through the last of six lanes to reach the west side of the road, was not speeding. His presence was obscured by other vehicles traveling in her direction, and she just didn't see him. This won't surprise people who regularly drive this six-lane portion of El Camino, nor would it surprise those who have tried to cross the busy roadway on foot: It is a difficult, often frightening experience to cross six lanes of highway, even in a crosswalk, at an intersection with no traffic light.
Understandably, Atherton residents sounded the call for action. They called Town Hall and other agencies. City Manager George Rodericks said he received a call from state Sen. Jerry Hill's office; the senator's aide told him that the office had received a call or two from people demanding that the state and the town act to improve El Camino safety.
The reality is that Atherton and Caltrans have been intently focused on the issue, and have come up with options for future safety-improvement projects. A study is looking at options including narrowing the roadway from six lanes to four -- an idea that would be difficult to sell, particularly to neighboring jurisdictions. There's been enhanced striping and signage at crosswalks at uncontrolled intersections. And state funding is already secured to place flashing beacons at crosswalks at Isabella and Alejandra avenues.
But it's more than a cliche to say that public agencies move at glacial speed. Even the fully funded crosswalk beacons won't be in place until sometime in 2017. The El Camino problem demands more action, now.
Already, police officers have stepped up enforcement on the highway, ticketing speeders, and though speed was probably not a factor in the recent tragedy, anyone who drives El Camino knows that there's a speed problem, making crossing the road even more hazardous. More enforcement was a positive step, but still more is needed. Atherton residents have supported a robust police force, and a greater police presence on El Camino should move even higher on the priority list.
The town and Caltrans have also worked together to increase visibility by trimming trees and removing vegetation within medians. Is there more that can be done in this area? If so, it should be done.
Also, could Caltrans' seemingly ubiquitous electronic message boards be called into service in areas pedestrians frequently cross, flashing a message that motorists are approaching a hazardous crosswalk?
The town and Caltrans cannot be faulted for doing nothing. But last week's tragedy reminds us of the need to take interim measures to protect pedestrians and bicyclists today while the wheels of government agencies roll along their measured ways.