Will anything ever change?

With the death of Aura Celeste Machado on Point San Pedro Road still fresh in our minds, neighbors and safe streets activists are again calling for traffic calming on the high-speed thoroughfare. But they did the same two years ago when a driver killed Hailey Ratliff on her way home from school in Novato, and there were no substantial changes. Others rallied when a driver killed Olga Rodriguez on Heatherton in San Rafael last year, but nothing changed there, either. Will Celeste’s tragic death be the last straw?

Celeste was jogging around a fallen tree that hadn’t been reported to city maintenance workers when a driver hit her. Though she wasn’t killed instantly, doctors said she wouldn’t recover consciousness and her parents made the heart-wrenching decision to remove her from life support.

The section of road where she was killed is thickly peopled, with residential neighborhoods rising into the hills on one side of the road and commercial and other services descending on the other side into San Rafael Bay.

It is also a high-speed divided thoroughfare, with freeway-width lanes and a median barrier. The posted speed limit of 35mph means a typical speed of 40mph, and the forgiving roadway design means speeds of 50 and up are easy to imagine.

The speed and the design that facilitates it are important factors. At these speeds, any mistake by someone driving or someone walking is likely to mean death or life-changing injury for the person on foot.

Activists working with the elementary school have been trying to get a stop sign installed for years to no avail. A stop sign is the easiest form of traffic calming on a road like this, as it slows traffic down for a considerable distance around the sign as drivers decelerate and accelerate. It works well on D Street, as it slows drivers who have come down off Wolfe Grade on their way to downtown San Rafael.

We don’t know if a stop sign would have saved Celeste, but it would certainly have improved her odds. Though a collision at 40mph means almost certain death, a collision at 25mph rarely results in death.

The pessimist in me says nothing will change. We will pour out sympathies, again, and cry over the life cut short, again, but then still prioritize high-speed traffic over lives and safety.

I hope we can do more than shed crocodile tears.

An entirely preventable death in San Rafael

The place of the crash. Image from Google Streetview. Someone lost a daughter last week. Olga Rodriguez was killed by a driver while crossing the street in downtown San Rafael. Though her unnamed walking companion survived, he's in the hospital with serious injuries. The driver, who stayed on the scene and is cooperating fully with police, only stopped after he heard them being hit. According to him, he never saw them.

The driver was turning left from Third Street to Heatherton. From photos, it appears that he was in the inner left-turn lane where it would be harder to see anyone in the crosswalk. The truck is also quite tall, so it's entirely possible he never did see either Olga or her companion. That's a sign the intersection is broken, and the crash was likely preventable.

The fix is fairly straightforward: give pedestrians a head start when crossing (something known as a Leading Pedestrian Interval, or LPI). After the light on Heatherton turns red to southbound traffic, pedestrians crossing Heatherton would get a walk sign but Third Street would stay red. Three or four seconds later, Third Street would turn green.

Whether or not the truck driver could have seen Olga or her companion before he hit them, they would have been much harder to miss had they had a short head start. As well, rather than trust drivers to give pedestrians priority, the structure of the intersection gives priority to pedestrians instead.

The LPI isn’t just window dressing. A study by Michael King in New York City found that a pedestrian head start leads to a 12 percent reduction in crashes over the baseline or 28 percent reduction compared to unmodified intersections, which saw crashes increase by 17 percent over the course of the study. While crashes did still occur, their severity occurred declined 55 percent overall and 68 percent in comparison to unmodified intersections.*

A flashing yellow arrow would make things even more apparent. Research on yellow arrows in this situation is scant, but in situations with two-way traffic they make drivers exceptionally aware of oncoming traffic. This is precisely the kind of awareness drivers need while navigating an awkward and busy intersection like Third and Heatherton. A zebra-striped crosswalk would further raise the visibility of people crossing.

Though these kinds of changes require advanced signal hardware, it needs to be purchased anyway to tie SMART in to area’s traffic signals. It would simply be part of that purchase.

The ubiquitous pedestrian barrier is often the tool of choice for San Rafael’s public works department, but deploying it here would just give up on the intersection. It’s a vital connection to the Transit Center for commuters at the park and ride and anyone coming from east San Rafael. The area can get sketchy at night, and discouraging legitimate foot traffic will only make it sketchier. Nobody should ever fear for their lives while crossing the street, especially not in an area that’s supposed to be the heart of the county’s transit system.

We cannot erase the physical scars of Olga's companion. We cannot bring back Olga or wash her blood from the conscience of the driver who killed her. But we can honor the companion's wounds and Olga's death and make sure this never happens again.

* New York State assigns numerical values to crashes based on cost to society. Collisions with fatalities were multiplied by 2729, those whose victims were hospitalized and seriously injured were multiplied by 1214, those whose victims were hospitalized but not seriously injured were multiplied by 303, and those whose victims were injured but walked away were multiplied by 76. The total was then divided by the number of crashes.