You don't have to be a pedestrian trying to cross El Camino Real at an uncontrolled intersection in Atherton to know how dangerous such an attempt can be. Motorists driving down the six-lane roadway, surrounded by other vehicles – many speeding – can be caught by surprise by a suddenly visible and all-too-vulnerable person in the crosswalk only yards ahead.
In recent years, numerous pedestrians have been killed or seriously injured in marked El Camino crosswalks at Atherton intersections with no traffic signals or other lights to warn motorists to stop, leading town officials to plead with Caltrans to install safety features at those crosswalks.
Those pleas have been only partially successful; a pedestrian-activated stoplight was to be activated this week on El Camino at Almendral Avenue, and two more of the special stoplights are scheduled for installation. But the approval-through-construction process to put them in place has been frustratingly slow, and the one light that is nearly completed was paid for by the town and the fire district, not Caltrans.
Local officials and residents hope that a July 25 jury verdict will lead to a more intensive – and swifter – effort by Caltrans to improve pedestrian safety on that thoroughfare. That verdict awarded the family of Chris Chandler $9.5 million, 90 percent of which must be paid by Caltrans because of the agency's responsibility for Mr. Chandler's 2010 death as he attempted to cross El Camino in a crosswalk.
Mr. Chandler was killed in the crosswalk at El Camino Real and Isabella Avenue, where two years later two women were struck and seriously injured. Since Mr. Chandler's death, at least three other pedestrians have been killed and at least three – including a teenage girl – severely injured in El Camino crosswalks in Atherton.
Lawyers for Mr. Chandler's family made a convincing case in arguing that Caltrans was culpable in Mr. Chandler's death: Just three months before Mr. Chandler lost his life, Caltrans was ordered to pay $8 million to the family of a teenage girl struck in an uncontrolled El Camino Real crosswalk in Millbrae. That incident left the girl brain-damaged and in a vegetative state.
The Chandlers' attorneys also presented evidence of the dangers of crosswalks at uncontrolled intersections on multi-lane roadways with heavy traffic. Federal Highway Administration studies underscore the perils of such crosswalks – the conclusions are well-known to transportation agencies nationwide.
It would be easy, and all too convenient, for Caltrans to argue that it must allocate its financial resources wisely in setting priorities for its hundreds of statewide projects, and that engineering studies to determine appropriate fixes to problems take time. But how many deaths and injuries must occur before needed measures are fast-tracked when undisputed danger is identified?
In an interview with the Almanac after the jury award was announced late last month, State Sen. Jerry Hill took an appropriately big-picture stance: Caltrans appears to be treating deaths and injuries on state roadways as "the cost of doing business," and that's an aspect of the agency's culture that must change. The agency must react to dangerous situations with greater urgency. "To me, it gets down to prioritization and making safety a significant issue. We haven't seen that," Sen. Hill said.
Since 2010, Caltrans has been ordered to pay out damages totaling around $16.5 million for tragic pedestrian accidents on El Camino Real in this county. It's a bitter pill to swallow, considering how that money could have been spent to improve safety on this heavily trafficked roadway.
Sen. Hill is right: The massive Caltrans bureaucracy must become less complacent and figure out how to move more quickly to address urgent safety concerns. And state lawmakers must hold the agency's top officials accountable when millions of dollars are spent to compensate grieving families rather than to fund much-needed projects to protect the public.