Dimitris Dimitrelis said he and his family were thrilled when installation of a new pedestrian-activated stoplight on El Camino Real at Almendral Avenue in Atherton was completed in late August.
Until they tried to use it.
Mr. Dimitrelis said he, his wife and 13-year-old daughter often used that crosswalk to get from their Lloyden Park neighborhood on the east side of El Camino Real to west Atherton, where they like to walk. Now, he said, crossing with the light is so dangerous they won't cross there.
He said the light, which is dark until activated with a push button, shows drivers a solid red "stop" signal for only 10 seconds. That, he said, is only enough time for a pedestrian to get to the middle of the intersection, especially after waiting for oncoming traffic to stop.
After the 10 seconds, the light that drivers see then begins to flash red, which means drivers can proceed after stopping, if it's safe. The problem, he said, is that on the six-lane road a car in one of the center lanes can hide a pedestrian from cars in other lanes. "One car goes and all the others go," he said, leaving the pedestrian mid-intersection with cars whizzing past.
To finish crossing, he said, pedestrians must wait for traffic to clear and then "run for your life."
"That's a liability waiting to happen," he said.
After several town officials observed the same problem at the light, Atherton asked Caltrans to adjust the timing.
The problem's impact goes beyond that crossing, because Caltrans is in the process of installing 13 more such pedestrian-activated lights on El Camino throughout San Mateo County, starting with two in Atherton at Isabella and Alejandra avenues. Construction of those two lights recently began, and they are scheduled to go into operation in 2017.
Caltrans controls El Camino Real because it is a state highway.
Atherton requested the Almendral light after 32-year-old Atherton resident Shahriar Rahimzadeh was killed crossing there in July 2014. The $360,000 cost of the light was split by Atherton and the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, but Caltrans will pay for the other 13 pedestrian-activated stop lights, also called pedestrian hybrid beacons.
Caltrans agreed to put in the lights after a court ordered it to pay $8 million to the family of 17-year-old Emily Liou, who was left in a coma after she was hit in an El Camino crosswalk in Millbrae.
In July, the state agency was found 90 percent liable for the death of 62-year-old Chris Chandler in an El Camino crosswalk in Atherton and ordered to pay an additional $8.5 million in another lawsuit.
City engineer Marty Hanneman said he's tried out the Almendral light "numerous times" and had the same experience as Mr. Dimitrelis. "I didn't feel comfortable out there at all," he said. "You can get caught in the middle there."
"If they made that flashing red just a steady red, I don't think there'd be a problem," he said. "The way it's set up now, for me, doesn't seem to be the best way to do it."
Mr. Hanneman met with Caltrans engineer Min Yin Lee on Oct. 25 to discuss the issue. After the meeting, Mr. Lee sent a two-paragraph email concluding: "We understand your concerns with drivers failing to yield or pedestrians entering the intersection after the signal has changed to (the flashing red). As these behaviors are undesirable, the approach should be enforcement to discourage these behaviors."
Acting Atherton Police Chief Joe Wade said the department has trouble policing the intersection because it is not routinely used by pedestrians. "We spend a lot of time on El Camino," he said, but officers have not ticketed any drivers at the crosswalk since they staged a "sting" operation with an undercover officer there on Aug. 26, when they issued four citations.
Mr. Lee said he is looking at a possible solution, but could not say what his potential fix is until a supervisor approves it.
He does, however, admit there is a problem. He says he has asked Caltrans workers to try out the signal, and they also found themselves mid-intersection with cars whizzing by.
"I'm looking into options," he said.