An entirely preventable death in San Rafael

The place of the crash. Image from Google Streetview.

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.

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About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

9 Responses to An entirely preventable death in San Rafael

  1. Pingback: An entirely preventable death in San Rafael « Vibrant Bay Area

  2. Wendi says:

    The whole block around the transit center needs major renovations. There is no safe way to access the transit center. It’s all configured for the freeway entrance. count downs and zebra stripping are good low cost quick fixes But San Rafael needs to do much more than that for the long term when the train comes to town.

  3. Pingback: Change a Traffic Signal, Save a Life | Streetsblog.net

  4. sever says:

    I agree 100% with the need for a leading pedestrian signal interval at that corner.
    I often drive that and nearly miss seeing pedestrians stepping out there under the shadow of the freeway. It is SO NECESSARY there to install an LPI. And is usually just a tweak in the computer in the Public Works office.

  5. dw says:

    The two most important changes to prevent pedestrian deaths:
    1. Do not put crosswalks where they result in high danger crossings.
    2. Somehow educate pedestrians to understand the concept of “dead right”.

    What we’re doing in situations as discussed here is tricking pedestrians into high risk behavior.There was a very similar story in San Jose recently, pedestrian in crosswalk dies when car makes left turn.

    Sure, it’s the driver’s fault, but it’s the pedestrian who suffers the real consequences.

    Near as I can tell, crosswalks unprotected by signal lights are almost always a bad idea. We’re better off with pedestrians expecting no protection at all than becoming trusting of a painted line.

    • AJ says:

      Blaming the victim. Classy, dw.

    • Sprague says:

      dw, your solution to the problem appears to be very automobile-centric. Rather than relatively quickly and cheaply modifying the traffic signals at this specific intersection, you seem to propose the elimination of this crosswalk. This would be an inconvenience and a disservice to the many pedestrians that utilize the existing crosswalk. Numerous San Francisco intersections now have LPI and, as the author points out, for the sake of safety it should be added to 3rd and Heatherton, too.

  6. Pingback: Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog San Francisco

  7. Beverly Freeman says:

    It would great to have the traffic upgrades so Olga will not have died in vain

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