How new Atherton stoplight makes crossing El Camino more perilous

Caltrans plans to install 13 more pedestrian-activated lights on El Camino

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.

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


30 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle
on Nov 1, 2016 at 10:26 am

This light should have been installed as a normal, red, yellow, and green light that drivers are used to seeing at intersections. By having it operate the way it does, it creates confusion for drivers and pedestrians and it needlessly increases the chances of a collision. I am wondering why this type of signal was chosen in the first place, did Atherton have any input on the way it currently functions? What benefits does the current setup provide over a standard signal (red/yellow only vs. red/yellow/green)? At a minimum, Caltrans should fix the flashing red situation, and the response from the Caltrans engineer shows how out of touch with reality Caltrans is. Enforcement should not be the solution to a faulty intersection design.

28 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 1, 2016 at 10:57 am

Agree that a standard green-yellow-red signal is the only way to go here. This is a wide road and if the driver in just one of the lanes is confused, then the pedestrian is road kill. Minimize the confusion by using a standard traffic signal.

Caltrans is probably using this weird signal to speed up car traffic, but that should be a secondary priority to pedestrian safety.

14 people like this
Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Nov 1, 2016 at 11:38 am

Since Caltrans is now aware this remains a dangerous intersection due to inadequate traffic control, it could still be held primarily liable if an pedestrian accident were to occur at this intersection.

6 people like this
Posted by Improve
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Nov 1, 2016 at 12:46 pm

It seems that the idea was probably to allow vehicle traffic to continue when the pedestrians are on the other part of the roadway. This makes sense as a goal even if the implementation is bad.

Perhaps it should have separate zones for each side/direction of the road.

4 people like this
Posted by Westside Trucker
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Nov 1, 2016 at 12:51 pm

What is being done at the most dangerous intersection of all?
The Selby Lane El Camino crossing

14 people like this
Posted by Annabelle
a resident of Menlo Park: Sharon Heights
on Nov 1, 2016 at 2:48 pm

It should operate as a standard stop light. When it does light for a pedestrian, it will be a complete surprise to drivers who have learned to ignore the fact that it exists in that location because it is always dark.

10 people like this
Posted by concerned
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Nov 1, 2016 at 2:58 pm

As the genrtleman suggest, you are hidden by one car stopped and the car in the next lane can't see you,

Dumb, Not thought out as stated by engineer, waste of money and only a matter of time before others get hit,

Hope cal train keeps picking up the tab,

how about a 1 year trial before installing others. How about taking it down and having people use a real cross walk at 5th ave.

I feel sorry for the next family that has someone get hit.

6 people like this
Posted by Menlo Parker
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Nov 2, 2016 at 12:12 am

Some European pedestrian lights show how many seconds you have to cross. They also have 2 lights on wide streets; you can judge whether you have time to get all the way across or should wait on a concrete island in the middle for the next light. Quick walkers may get across 6 lanes, but slower folks are protected from the type of collision invited by the current configuration.

2 people like this
Posted by Susan
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Nov 2, 2016 at 5:02 am

It just doesn't make sense and is confusing/counterproductive.

Also stupid is the recent repaving of Almendral that did absolutely nothing to improve the water drainage situation at the foot of El Camino and Almendral. Why would Atherton repave this and not take care of that hazard. Boggles the mind and more taxpayer dollars down the tube.

Like this comment
Posted by Former Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 2, 2016 at 12:04 pm

Ask any traffic engineer -- new crosswalks typically increse pedestrian incidents. Looks like cheapskate Atherton might have to actually spend some of their precioius money to protect lives.

6 people like this
Posted by SteveC
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 2, 2016 at 12:51 pm

SteveC is a registered user.

Can't the walk light be extended so people can get across the street????

2 people like this
Posted by Roberto
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 2, 2016 at 12:53 pm

Roberto is a registered user.

@ apple: you are correct. Although, read about the last time they were liable at this very same intersection, they had to pay.....wait, make that US, Calif. Residents had to pay... if CalTrans was a business, they would see it different.
@ Former Resident: I am sure whilst all the conversation and diagrams were presented here and many other places you lent your expertise? Otherwise cheap seats are just that. Remember, SR82 (aka El Camino Real) is a "State Route" meaning the state controls with town influence

2 people like this
Posted by charles reilly
a resident of another community
on Nov 3, 2016 at 5:19 am

As local streets become more congested with bikes, pedestrians AND cars, it's a temptation for local communities to invent their own local traffic laws, signals and signage. But not all of us live in Atherton; not everyone drives El Camino every day. For everyone's' safety, street signs should be standardized AND EASY to follow.

8 people like this
Posted by Hybrid
a resident of Atherton: other
on Nov 3, 2016 at 6:01 am


Turns out Atherton didn't come up with this signal. It is actually standardized, endorsed by the federal government and incorporated into the published roadway engineering design and signage manual. Web Link

They are rare relative to the more common red, yellow, and green traffic signal. Drivers don't know what to do. There is an education component to their use. DMV needs to include them in the driver license test so that drivers know how to handle them.

That said, drivers should already have the basic skills: solid red = stop, flashing red = treat like a stop sign, person in the crosswalk has the right of way.

CalTrans needs to adjust the timing to allow for people to make it across the intersection and that would clean this problem up. There are going to be (lots) more of these signals on El Camino and elsewhere in the state. That will help drivers become more accustomed to them.

4 people like this
Posted by lookbothways
a resident of Atherton: other
on Nov 3, 2016 at 8:12 am

The beacon appears to be working EXACTLY as it is supposed to: Web Link
Notice the light is flashing with the pedestrian in the crosswalk. It is not designed to hold solid red while the ped gets all the way across. You still have to stop at flashing red.The main thing I see here is the pedestrian continues to look for traffic even though the signal is in operation, not looking down at his smartphone. That alone would probably make these signals not needed. My momma taught me how to cross the street.

11 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Nov 3, 2016 at 9:39 am

I'm sorry, but if cars are blowing through a flashing red light without stopping or even slowing down, then this signal is a big fail. Cars go so fast on El Camino that no matter how carefully a pedestrian stares down traffic, they are not going to be able to out run a car. If you stop at each lane to try to make sure cars stop in the next lane, there is no way you will get across the street before the signal turns green again and you face certain death.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Menlo Park: Suburban Park/Lorelei Manor/Flood Park Triangle

on Mar 13, 2017 at 1:58 am

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Don't be the last to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

Nationally renowned Indian restaurant expanding to Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 2 comments | 2,496 views

Summer travel: Is anything changing?
By Sherry Listgarten | 8 comments | 1,078 views

Premarital and Couples: "Our Deepest Fear" by Marianne Williamson
By Chandrama Anderson | 1 comment | 675 views

Swimming with the kids
By Cheryl Bac | 2 comments | 606 views

Cap On? Cap Off? Recycling Bottles is Confusing
By Laura Stec | 10 comments | 558 views