by Zusha Elinson, Center for Investigative Reporting
After Jose Flores Miguel, 65, was killed in 2010 crossing a busy Concord boulevard, city officials took action: They scraped off the crosswalk where he took his last steps and installed a metal gate with a sign warning walkers not to cross there.
But that didn’t solve the problem. With the next crosswalk 460 feet away, people still cut across the five lanes of Clayton Road at Barbis Way, where Flores is remembered with a wooden cross decorated with rosaries and surrounded by yellow tulips. The draws are a bus stop and shopping center on the north side of the street.
This Center for Investigative Reporting video examines the prosecution of drivers who kill pedestrians:
Flores’ daughter, Maria Banjos, said the city should have improved the crosswalk, perhaps with signs or lights, instead of getting rid of it.
“If I was going to sue the city, it wouldn’t have been for money – it would have been for injustice and so that there wouldn’t be so many accidents like the one with my father,” Banjos said. “We have seen people crossing there so many times since then.”
The stretch of Clayton Road embodies many of the ways American street design can be hostile to pedestrians: wide roadways with fast-moving traffic and long stretches between crosswalks at traffic signals. Such thoroughfares are particularly dangerous for the elderly.
In retirement, Flores, a punctual man, relied on public transit. He would cross the street nearly every day to catch the bus or pick up groceries – as he was doing the evening he was killed.
In each of the Bay Area’s five largest counties, the roads with the most pedestrian deaths were multilane thoroughfares where traffic reaches 35 mph or more, according to a Center for Investigative Reporting review of fatalities from 2007 through 2011.
State Route 82, the historic El Camino Real that runs from San Jose to San Francisco, was the most deadly in the Bay Area, claiming 18 lives in five years. San Jose’s Capitol Expressway saw six deaths. Five people died on Fremont’s Mowry Avenue, another suburban thoroughfare with long stretches between crosswalks. In San Francisco, Geary Boulevard, 19th Avenue and Mission Street were the most deadly streets. Three pedestrians died on Clayton Road, the most of any street in Concord.
The Bay Area also stands out from the rest of the country in pedestrians being killed in crosswalks. More than a third of the 434 who died during those five years were hit in legal crossing spots, CIR found – about three times the national average.
More than a third of those deadly crosswalks are marked only with paint on the pavement, lacking any additional warning for drivers, such as a stoplight, stop sign or flashing lights.
Streets sometimes favor cars in subtle ways. CIR found that some crosswalk signals where pedestrians were killed were not timed to federal standards – and therefore not giving people enough time to cross.
Traffic engineering for so many years was just not mindful of pedestrians; for so many years, it was just about moving cars,” said Michelle Ernst, lead author of “Dangerous by Design,” the national pedestrian fatality study by research and advocacy group Transportation for America.
To be sure, the urban Bay Area is better designed for walkers than more suburban parts of the country where sidewalks are rare and crosswalks even rarer. But officials are reluctant to make improvements even after fatal crashes, CIR found.
After repeated deaths in Atherton, Councilman Bill Widmer implored the California Department of Transportation to add flashing lights at some crosswalks on El Camino Real. He said a state official told him it could happen – in three to six years.
“I thought he was joking,” Widmer said. “There is a mile-and-a-quarter stretch where there are no lights, so the vehicles speed up to make up some time. It’s residential there, so people are trying to get across – it’s a mess that needs to be fixed.”
Caltrans spokesman Robert Haus responded in an email that his agency is working with cities to improve pedestrian safety along El Camino Real: Signs will be installed and white triangles painted on the pavement to warn drivers of upcoming crosswalks. Some crossings also will get pedestrian-activated flashing lights, he said.
“We want to provide the safest facilities and are always looking for ways to improve them,” Haus wrote. “Every life lost is serious to Caltrans whether caused by an impaired, inattentive or inexperienced driver. Every road is only as safe as the drivers who use them.”
On city streets, local leaders have let crosswalks fade and failed to reset crosswalk signals to the slower federal standards. And by removing the crosswalk in Concord where Jose Flores Miguel died, along with another crosswalk 800 feet away with no traffic signal, the city might have made things worse on Clayton Road, some experts said.
The city did add a new traffic light down the road at the same time, but the gap between lights is now nearly one-third of a mile.
“Too often, the spacing of the walks with better controls are too far apart,” said Michael Moule, a transportation engineer with the San Francisco-based consulting firm Nelson\Nygaard. “The question should not be to mark or not to mark, but the question should be, ‘How do we best help pedestrians to cross?’ ”
Ray Kuzbari, Concord’s transportation manager, said the changes made the road safer for walkers.
“It’s safer to direct pedestrians to cross at the signalized intersections,” Kuzbari said. “There’s many arterials where the distance could be more than half a mile between traffic signals. I think, to the contrary, this is a very walkable distance.”
Six pedestrians were hit along that stretch from 2007 to the day Flores was killed, Feb. 15, 2010. Crash data since then is incomplete, but at least one more pedestrian has been hit there.
Risk Rises With Speeds
Speed kills. The odds of being killed by a car traveling 40 mph are more than five times greater than by a car going 30 mph, according to a 2010 study by the London Department for Transport.
About 60 percent of pedestrian deaths in the United States between 2000 and 2009 took place on roads with a speed limit of 40 mph or more, according to “Dangerous by Design.” Meanwhile, 1 percent of the deaths in which the speed limit could be determined happened on roads with a 20 mph limit or less.
In Concord, Marie Judy Jensen told police she was traveling about 40 mph on Clayton Road as she approached Barbis Way in the lane closest to the center around 6 p.m. The speed limit there is 35.
Jensen, a retired bus driver, told police she saw a “shadow or blur” of a white jacket – but it was too late. The right side of her 2003 Buick slammed into Flores and sent him about 50 feet into the farthest lane.
Banjos, Flores’ daughter, ran out of the family’s home a half-block away. She saw traffic stopped and her father on the ground, his shoes and groceries scattered in the street. Banjos rushed to Flores’ side and heard him take a last breath, full of blood, she said.
The impact fractured Flores’ skull, sternum, ribs and tibia, the coroner found. It caused his brain to hemorrhage. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. The cause of death: “blunt force head and chest injury.”
The speed limit on El Camino Real as it passes through Santa Clara also is 35 mph. Kim Chinh Wilson was in that zone, driving between 27 and 36 mph, when she hit Santosh Racherla, 22, as he crossed the thoroughfare Jan. 16, 2009, police later would conclude.
As the Indian exchange student entered the third lane, witnesses said he “put out his right hand in an attempt to deflect” Wilson’s Chevrolet.
Racherla flipped into the air, his head hit the windshield, and he was carried on the hood for 51 feet before the car stopped and he rolled to the ground. Racherla suffered major head trauma and brain swelling. He was pronounced brain dead within an hour.
Caltrans should find ways to lower the speed on El Camino Real, said Dan Burden, a former Florida Department of Transportation official who runs the Washington state-based nonprofit Walkable and Livable Communities Institute.
“I would say that the biggest factor to look at is the dominant speed,” Burden said. “The higher speed, the more likely the fatality.”
Haus, the Caltrans spokesman, said any speed limits under the maximum 65 mph for freeways and 55 mph for conventional highways must be supported with engineering and traffic surveys.
“Further, the American Automobile Association published a study that says an artificially-low speed limit can actually increase the accident rate,” Haus wrote.
But a 2011 AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety report on pedestrian fatalities also found that the risk of death increased markedly with speed, rising from 10 percent at 23 mph to 25 percent at 32 mph and up to 90 percent at 58 mph.
The erased crosswalk in Concord illustrates the ongoing debate about the safety of crosswalks without traffic lights or signs to stop traffic. Some traffic planners say they pose more of a danger to pedestrians than no crosswalks, giving a false sense of security amid swift-moving traffic.
A recent study on the subject for the Federal Highway Administration found no difference between crash rates at marked and unmarked crosswalks on two-lane roads. But on streets with more than two lanes, the study found that a marked crosswalk “was associated with a higher pedestrian crash rate.”
The author of the federally funded study, Charles Zegeer of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote that simple improvements such as raised medians could “significantly lower pedestrian crash rates on multilane roads.”
Flashing lights on the sides and middle – and embedded in the roadbed – are potential improvements missing from many crosswalks in the Bay Area.
Lacking those, pedestrians sometimes take matters into their own hands. Millbrae resident Jean Escobar, who was hit in an El Camino Real crosswalk with her 13-year-old son last fall, has taken to carrying glow sticks to alert motorists during the evening.
Even at crossings with full traffic lights, pedestrians don’t always have enough time to cross the street. In 2009, the federal standard for crosswalk signals was changed from 4 feet per second to 3.5 feet per second to give people more time to cross. But compliance is uneven.
Morena Torres, 59, was killed in 2010 while crossing Tasman Drive at Calle Del Sol near a shopping center, a long walk across seven lanes and two light-rail tracks in Santa Clara. CIR found that the length of that crosswalk, 127 feet, would require more than 36 seconds to cross. But on a recent afternoon, the crosswalk signal allowed less than 32 seconds – the out-of-date rate of 4 feet per second.
Investigators concluded that the pedestrian was at fault for walking on a “don’t walk” signal, but it is unclear if the signal changed too quickly that day because authorities don’t make full collision reports available in cases in which no charges are filed or arrests are made.
Fred Laigo, a Santa Clara traffic operations engineer, acknowledged that the timing there was not set at the new slower standard. He said the city is in the process of updating all its intersections.
In San Francisco, 500 – or about half – of the city’s intersections have been updated, according to Paul Rose, spokesman for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. In San Jose, public works crews have retimed 600 of the 900, said Lily Lim-Tsao, a program manager for the city.
Inconvenient Bus Stops
Because cars are given priority in street design, bus stops can land in inconvenient locations – far from crosswalks or traffic lights. And, CIR’s analysis shows, transit-dependent senior citizens tend to suffer most.
Teresita Malixi, 68, was on her way to catch a bus in San Jose when she was hit and killed by a Land Rover in 2008. The following year, Thalia Hsiung, 74, was walking to another San Jose bus stop when she was struck and killed.
Roads in San Jose’s Alum Rock corridor are in poor condition. Many of the seniors who visit the Eastside Neighborhood Center on Alum Rock Avenue for meals and activities are immigrants who come on the bus. For years, the closest bus stop was midblock on the opposite side of the street, across four lanes of traffic.
“We knew what was going to happen,” said Milton Cadena, who runs the center for Catholic Charities. “That’s such a temptation. They just jaywalk.”
In 2011, a senior citizen who had come to the center for a meal was seriously injured while cutting across the street to the bus stop. The seniors protested, and the city moved the bus stop closer to an intersection with a stoplight and slowed the crosswalk signal to allow more time to cross.
But last May, Trinidad Cruz, 63, was killed nearby, on Jackson Avenue as it approaches Alum Rock Avenue. Cruz’s death reignited the outcry from seniors, who Cadena said now are pushing to lower area speed limits, too.
“We say thank you for the change,” Cadena said, “and we say hopefully we will see other changes, too.”
This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.