Here's the problem: Dark until activated with a pedestrian's push of a button, the crosswalk light turns red to halt vehicle traffic for only 10 seconds, then begins blinking red — signaling to motorists that they can continue driving through the crosswalk after stopping and determining that no pedestrians are in the roadway.
Unless the person using the crosswalk is a competent sprinter, it's absurd to think that 10 seconds is long enough for anyone on foot to cross six lanes. And because of typical daytime traffic conditions on this stretch of the El Camino — a main highway through town with few traffic lights to keep motorists alert and driving the speed limit — it is often difficult for drivers surrounded by other vehicles to see a pedestrian who is partway into the crossing. So using the pedestrian-activated light feature can prove to be more dangerous than crossing the roadway without the false security that the light provides.
Local resident Dimitris Dimitrelis, in an interview with the Almanac, said he was thrilled when the light was activated last summer, but he and his family won't use it after trying it out. It is far too easy for a pedestrian to get stuck in the middle of the intersection after the solid red light begins blinking, he noted. When traffic appears to clear enough for a stranded person to make a move, he said, danger dictates the strategy: "Run for your life."
This doesn't seem to be a difficult problem to fix. In fact, one doesn't have to be a trained traffic engineer to wonder why the solid red light was timed for only10 seconds. Could the timing be bumped up to 20 seconds? Or 30?
But Caltrans, which has at times frustrated Peninsula residents and city officials with sluggish responses to urgent safety problems on roadways it controls, once again appears to be ambling, not sprinting, toward a solution. Atherton city engineer Marty Hanneman told the Almanac that he has tried the lighted crosswalk himself, and "didn't feel comfortable out there at all." But Caltrans' response to him when he relayed the town's concerns was that the police department should step up enforcement — an impractical solution at best.
A Caltrans engineer has said he is looking at a possible fix, but the agency isn't discussing options publicly at this point. With 13 more of these lights scheduled to be installed on El Camino Real countywide beginning next year, however — including two more in Atherton — the lights' timing must be more carefully thought out to avoid giving pedestrians a false sense of safety that might ultimately cost them their lives.
This story contains 582 words.
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