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.

Shootings are Second to Crashes

More police have been killed by cars over the past decade than have been shot. In fact, the number one cop-killer in the US is the car, not the gun. Add in motorcycle crashes and its more than all violent deaths combined.

Transit Miami, in an article about public apathy over traffic deaths, found a table with the causes of police officer death as collected by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund over the past 10 years. Nationally, 173 officers have died nonviolently, such as a job-related illness, 650 officers have been killed violently, and 687 have been killed in traffic.

Think about that. More cops die on the road than die in the street.

People fixate on the violent deaths and try to prevent those, but pay little heed to traffic fatalities. A quick search of Google trends data finds peaks about officers shot or killed. Only one article, from Maryland, was about an officer killed in a car crash, but it’s a memorial piece. There’s talk about the dangers police face every day, but, just like when a civilian dies, traffic deaths are taken as inevitable.

They’re not inevitable. Simple things, easy things, can make police officers and civilians safer when travelling. Road safety isn’t as sexy as bulletproof vests or Tasers, but it’s the difference between life and death for those who have pledged to serve and protect the public. We owe it to them, and ourselves, to never forget that it’s roads, not just guns, that kill.

Police officer deaths by type

It’s Our Infrastructure that Kills Us

UK DOT statistics on vehicle/pedestrian collisions

When a car and a person collide, survival is all about speed. Almost everyone survives getting hit by a car going 20 miles per hour; at 30, survival is a bit better than a coin toss at 55 percent. Only 15 percent of people survive a crash at 40 miles per hour. Novato’s main roads are legally limited to 35 miles per hour but, given a comfortable five mile per hour margin, are effectively 40 mile per hour zones. In some places, the lanes are as wide as those on a freeway, giving the illusion of safety at 50 or 55. Novato is a dangerous place to be a pedestrian, and it’s dangerous by design.

Last Thursday, Hailey Ratliff was riding her bike home from her new middle school. A recent transplant to Marin, the seventh grader was settling in well, and it seemed like the move would be a success.

Elsewhere in the United States, the ability to ride a bike home from school is a rare privilege. Many new schools are built with only the car in mind, along wide roads that lack sidewalks, let alone crosswalks or bicycle lanes. Only 15% of American children walk or bike to school, down dramatically from even 20 years ago when half could get themselves to and from their classes.

As she was on her way home, someone else was driving into town on Novato Boulevard. As the road winds through rural Novato and West Marin, cars can speed along at 50 or 55 miles per hour, an easy five or 10 miles per hour above the posted speed limit but we typically concern ourselves with.

As the driver would have just started to slow down for the first stop sign that marks the entrance to Novato, Hailey somehow got in the driver’s path. The SUV struck her with such force it left Hailey’s helmet and shoes in the road and threw the bike back into a telephone pole.

The road where the two collided is actually wider than the rural road just before. Drivers respond to visual cues better than posted speed signs to determine a “safe” speed. We all know what it’s like to feel like we’re driving safely, only to be pulled over for speeding. The new tunnel for Doyle Drive is an example – its wide lanes and easy curves are at odds with the 35 MPH posted speed limit. Where Hailey was hit, the eastbound lane effectively widens to 15 feet as the paint delineating the shoulder is almost worn away. The center turn lane that suddenly appears makes passing cars feel like they aren’t going so fast, giving the illusion that it’s safe to drive even faster than before. Though the speed limit drops to 35 normally and 25 during school hours, that road is built for 50.

So while the collision between Hailey and that driver was probably the result of inattention by one or both of them, it was the speed that killed Hailey Ratliff, a speed that we normally shrug our shoulders about. It’s a speed that Novato encourages through roads designed for cars, not people. Hailey should be alive today, but the negligence and auto-oriented myopia of Novato’s planners made that road entirely unsafe. It’s our infrastructure that killed Hailey Ratliff, and it will keep on killing us until we say enough.

Mid-Week Links: Formalization

Marin City Sunset

Marin City at sunset. Photo by Veit Irtenkauf on Flickr.

Marin County

  • Marin City is pondering incorporation. Though it would give the community of 6,000 greater independence in some respects, it would also mean higher costs, its own RHNA, and added responsibilities now taken care of by the county. (IJ)
  • Skywalker Properties was partially to blame for the Grady Ranch debacle, at least according to the state water board, because it knew certain aspects of its creek restoration effort were “unacceptable.” (IJ)
  • New housing guidelines are in development for unincorporated Marin, and the county wants your input. (Pacific Sun)
  • And…: The Marin District Attorney has launched an investigation into a $350,000 housing loan given to former RVSD general manager Brett Richards. (IJ) … Belvedere has an interim city manager. (IJ) … Fairfax to get electric vehicle charging stations. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • Metro Atlanta rejected a major investment in its transportation infrastructure on Tuesday, turning down a 1% sales tax in all but three of its regions, which will see their own investments. Transit advocates are, of course, disheartened. (Streetsblog)
  • The fiscal health of a city is related to its urban form. Sprawling suburbs cost more to maintain than more densely packed cities and towns. Stockton and Bakersfield didn’t go under because of too much housing; they went under in part because they spread it too thin. (CNN)
  • Coddingtown Mall is throwing its weight around, demanding that the Coddingtown Station Area Plan leave some streets without bicycle lanes, cut out other bike lanes and new streets that cross mall property, and more, saying they would impose “undue economic hardship” on the property. (Press Democrat)
  • Napa County has a new director of transportation and planning. Kate Miller’s resume is thick on more urban experience, running AC Transit and working for MTC, and here’s hoping that will translate into better service for the Valley. (St. Helena Star)
  • When Caltrans wants to improve air quality in Los Angeles, it doesn’t turn to transit, it turns to wider roads. (Bay Citizen)

The Toll

  • A 37-year-old cyclist died in Santa Rosa after a driver hit him at an intersection. He’s the fifth bicyclist to be killed in Santa Rosa this year. (Press Democrat)
  • Sonoma: A very intoxicated driver seriously injured himself and a man standing in the shoulder of Highway 116. (Press Democrat) … A driver ran off a cliff and survived. (Press Democrat) … A driver was beaten and his car was stolen after a minor fender-bender in Santa Rosa. (Press Democrat)
  • Marin: Two motorcyclists riding at around 100 miles per hour collided, seriously injuring one another. (IJ) … The plaid-hating Tiburon driver apparently also hates bicyclists. (IJ) … A woman drove off Highway 101 and injured herself. (IJ)
  • The toll this week was one person killed, six people injured, and one person beaten.

Mid-Week Links: Plaid

Now that Fairfax and Sausalito are cracking down on cyclists violating stop-signs, perhaps it’s important to ask whether current law is the best law. A bicycle, after all, is absolutely not a car – it can stop faster, gives a better field of view, and is much more efficient when moving than when stopped. Idaho allows cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, to great effect. California ought to pass the same.

Marin County

  • Marin and Sonoma both dropped state parks from their park taxes after $54 million was found in the state parks department’s coffers. While Sonoma’s plan is dead, Marin’s tax plan would go to county open space instead. (Planetizen, IJ, Press Democrat)
  • Larkspur and Tiburon are both pondering library expansions, though residents in both communities wonder if the proposed buildings will be too large for the demand. (IJ)
  • HOV lanes in Novato are now open to the driving public, ensuring easy driving for a little bit until traffic catches up with capacity. (IJ)
  • A permanent farmer’s market, a roundabout, and other improvements will come to the Civic Center under a plan recently approved by the Board. Unfortunately, it’s at odds with the SMART Station Area Plan for the Christmas Tree Lot just south of the station, which calls for 4-5 story residential and retail. Planning and design for the improvements will cost about $2 million. (IJ)
  • And…: Construction has begun on SMART’s railcars. Delivery is expected in about a year. (Patch) … Novato will convert a city-owned building into art studios for around $100,000. (IJ) … A West Marin ecotopia could be shut down for running afoul building regulations, but its builders pledge to carry on. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • Projections of growth are so often wrong, but they always inform whether we build new freeway lanes or rail lines or whatever. There must be a better way. (Strong Towns)
  • Activists accuse Veolia Transportation, which operates Sonoma County Transit, of human rights violations and want the county to investigate. Veolia’s parent company operates bus service between Israel and West Bank settlements. (Press Democrat)
  • MTC will study a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) tax on Bay Area drivers to raise money for roads and transit. The tax hasn’t gone anywhere in other jurisdictions, but boosters are optimistic a VMT would be an answer to the Bay Area’s financial woes. (Mercury News)
  • Some Chicago designers want you to help create the perfect transit app. Not only would it tell you how to get where you’re going with the schedule, it would give you real-time arrival information, allow stopovers for coffee or errands, interface with your calendar, remind you to bring an umbrella, and more. (Co.Design)

The Toll

  • You’ll notice I have this new section for the death and injury toll on the roads in Marin and Sonoma as reported by local news outlets. Why? Because in the first three months of this year, 7,280 people were killed on the road in the US, doing nothing more than living their lives. It’s the least we can do to report on the human cost of our road-centered policies in this little corner of the country. (Atlantic Cities)
  • A Tiburon man drove onto a sidewalk to hit a pedestrian whose plaid jacket he didn’t like. The suspected driver, Eugene Thomas Anderson, has been arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon. (IJ)
  • Three cyclists were struck by drivers in Santa Rosa this week, though one driver claims to have lost control of her vehicle. None suffered more than moderate injuries. Separately, a driver suffered moderate injuries after running his car off the road. (Press Democrat)
  • In Marin, two people were slightly injured in a bizarre two-crash incident in Novato. Another driver drove off the road in San Rafael, giving herself minor injuries. A driver couldn’t negotiate a turn and so rolled his van about 150 feet down a West Marin hill, resulting in minor injuries to himself and one of his four passengers. Lastly, a driver lost control of his truck in Larkspur, crashing it into a nearby townhouse. The driver and passenger sufferend moderate injuries. (IJ, Twin Cities Times)

Mid-Week Links: Progress

July 4th, 2009

by Brendan Landis

Marin County

  • Contract negotiations between Marin Transit and GGT are starting to pay off, though a timeline for finishing the new contract is still elusive. The MT board delayed a decision on Monday, deciding to let the negotiations play out. (IJ)
  • Structures built in the SMART right-of-way, i.e., stations, will not be required to go through the local design review process thanks to legislation introduced by Assemblyman Michael Allen and passed by the state legislature. They will, however, still be subject to local zoning ordinances. (Pacific Sun)
  • The new federal transportation bill, recently signed into law, will likely cost Marin some $500,000 in Safe Routes to School funding. Local sources of funding means the program will stay alive in the county, but with rather less robust finances. There is, of course, much more to the bill. (IJ, Streetsblog)
  • The Marin County election season is heating up again, with Sausalito’s hand-slapping Mike Kelly retiring after eight years on the council being the biggest news so far. In all, 28 positions around the county will be on the ballot come November. (IJ)
  • The venerable anchor-out community of Sausalito holds some of the most colorful, despondent, independent, thoroughly old-school Marinites in the county. With the America’s Cup around the corner, some of the anchor-outs wonder if their time is up. (Bohemian)
  • Novato’s new city office building broke ground on Tuesday, signalling an end to one of the major controversies swirling around the community, though don’t count on hearing the end of it at council meetings. (IJ)
  • Since the Pacifics began playing at Albert Park, there have been few problems, despite the vociferous arguments made during the process to approve the team’s use of the field. (IJ)
  • And…: GGT apparently runs unscheduled ferries between Sausalito and San Francisco to pick up bikers. Why not put them on the books? (IJ) … San Rafael touts the recent HOV freeway widening as consistent with its Climate Change Action Plan. (News Pointer) … Give your ideas for the Larkspur’s SMART Station Area Plan this Monday at 6:30pm. You already know my idea. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • Plan Bay Area has been criticized as too oppressive and too dictatorial to communities that believe all development is character-destroying development. In trying to ameliorate these concerns, PBA may have become too weak to actually achieve its goals. (Underground Science via Google Cache)
  • The legal hurdles for California High Speed Rail got a little bit shorter this week. Five lawsuits are in settlement, and other opponents have been cowed by the project’s recent victory in the state legislature. (Mercury News)
  • Downtown Phoenix, Arizona, really isn’t that great, but it doesn’t have to be. Shade, density, non-car connections, and a grocery store would all make the core of that desert metropolis more livable. (TDG)
  • Demand for walkable neighborhoods is at an all-time high. Riding high on the trend are new urban cores like Bellevue, Washington or Silver Spring, Maryland, which have retrofitted their suburban downtowns into something much more traditionally urban. (Fiscal Times)

The Toll

  • A 60-year-old bicyclist was sent to the hospital last night after a crash involving a car driver in downtown San Rafael. The driver stayed on the scene. (IJ)
  • Jessie Garcia died Saturday while driving in Santa Rosa. A vengeful driver struck his car instead of her boyfriend’s motorcycle, which she had been aiming for, causing his vehicle to flip and burst into flames. That driver, Heather Holmes, has been charged with second-degree murder. (Press Democrat)

Have a tip? Want to contribute? Email me at theGreaterMarin [at] gmail.com.

Monday Links: Go Abroad


We often imagine that the Dutch were always cyclists.  While that’s correct in some sense, the Netherlands faced sprawl and auto-centric development in the 1950s and 1960s, just as the United States did.  Unlike Americans, though, the Netherlands fought back, and the result is the Netherlands we see today.

Marin County

  • Corte Madera’s abandoned Madera Vista apartment complex will be renovated. They have sat vacant since a 2008 fire. (Twin Cities Times)
  • Infill development near freeways should take into account auto pollution and take steps to mitigate it.  This is especially important in Marin, as the SMART corridor runs parallel to 101 for much if its route, and to the One Bay Area process. (California Watch)
  • San Anselmo wants to buy Bald Hill, currently in Ross, but nobody knows how to get in touch with the owners.  The hill is owned by Asian Alliance LLC, and the founder and last contact the town had died years ago. (IJ)
  • Downtown San Anselmo is undergoing a bit of a shake-up, with a number of storefronts vacant and a Goodwill moving in.  A group wants to convince George Lucas to open a theater in town, but making that happen could be difficult (IJ)
  • Sausalito’s Housing Element is nearly complete and will be submitted officially to the City Council on January 31.  If approved, it goes to the state on February 2.  (Marinscope)
  • Mill Valley wants to update their General Plan, refocusing on transit and traffic-calming.  With sometimes half-hourly buses it stands a better chance than some areas, but hopefully it will work with Marin Transit and GGT to enhance transit options. (Mill Valley Herald)
  • Larkspur Landing might get $2 parking after all, given a tepid Board response to a premium-space idea. This will help manage demand a bit at the terminal, which tends to fill up early. (IJ)
  • West Marin’s open space portfolio will soon increase by 22 acres after a successful fundraising drive. (IJ)
  • San Rafael’s red light program will be studied to assess its impacts on driver behavior, including rolling right turns, which can be unsafe to pedestrians. (IJ)
  • A 90-year-old driver struck and killed a pedestrian at Second and G in San Rafael.  The exact circumstances are unknown. (IJ)

The Greater Marin

  • Looks like downtown living really is good for you.  Residents of areas with a high density of businesses walk three times as much as others, but the areas need to draw in non-residents to succeed. (Atlantic Cities)
  • San Francisco’s SFPark project is dramatically increasing hourly revenue on its meters.  The project gives drivers the option of paying by credit card, phone, or cash, which is useful for the large hourly charges in popular locations. (SF Examiner)
  • California’s ability to establish cycletracks, bikeways, and other proven bike facilities is stymied by too-conservative design guidebooks that call these “experimental” facilities.  Sadly, AB 819, which would change that, is slowly being gutted. (Streetsblog)
  • The American Public Transit Association (APTA) has published a rundown of how to talk to opponents of high-speed rail projects with a new report of common criticisms and appropriate responses. (Streetsblog)
  • Head of the California High Speed Rail Authority has stepped down, as has the chairman of its board, citing personal reasons. (Sacramento Bee)
  • Caracas has a gigantic, abandoned office tower in its center, and some entrepreneurial folk have set up their own town inside. The best part, they say, is having so much transit access in the middle of the city. (Foreign Policy)
  • It’s estimated we’ve paved about 3,590 square miles for parking, about 2 spaces for every man, woman, and child in the United States, and it’s time to take them seriously not just as blight, but as public space. (NY Times)
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