Last Thursday, a tractor-trailer traveled down a street where trucks over 30 feet are prohibited and made an illegal left turn into the path of an Expo light rail test train. Luckily, no one on the train or truck was seriously injured, but we cannot rely on luck alone forever.
Some have concluded that Expo should have been on a 50-foot tall elevated track, as Metro once considered about a decade ago.
Second-guessing decisions from a decade ago won’t make our streets safer. We need evidence-based decision-making and actions in support of our goal of reducing traffic fatalities in our city to zero in the near future. With street-level passenger rail returning to Santa Monica after more than half a century, now is the time to educate ourselves about rail safety and to step up enforcement of existing traffic laws so that all road users remain as safe as possible.
The decision to put the Expo light rail at street level along Colorado enjoyed wide support in the community. The alternative, an elevated route on a 50-foot-tall structure that would stretch for nearly a mile along Olympic and require the removal of dozens of mature coral trees, was adamantly opposed by community members and leaders at multiple public meetings. At a city council meeting on February 10, 2009, Councilmember Kevin McKeown said, “I haven’t found anybody who thinks Olympic is a better idea.”
Expo is bringing big change to the Westside, but it is not so great a change that we cannot learn to safely share the street with this new mode of transportation. Many communities throughout the region and the world have at-grade passenger trains and those in the U.S. have become safer over time. A 2004 report of the U.S. Inspector General found that railway grade crossings experienced a 41 percent decline in crashes in the previous 10 years.
The same report notes that the vast majority – 94 percent – of these crashes were due to automobile-driver error, and that most of the remainder were due to stuck or abandoned vehicles on the tracks. Expo, like other street-level passenger trains, is required to operate at safe speeds through our city streets since, like auto traffic, the train will also have to obey signal lights.
The utmost care was put into making sure that Expo meets the highest safety design standards, but it’s up to us to educate ourselves and follow the rules designed to keep us safe, and it’s up to the local police to provide consistent and firm enforcement of those rules.
Left turns have been clearly prohibited from westbound Colorado onto 7th Street for at least a year, but drivers still make this illegal maneuver. Anyone who has heard the roar of a car or motorcycle rocketing down our boulevards knows that dangerous driving is commonplace in Santa Monica.
According to data reported to the California Highway Patrol, there have been 261 crashes on Colorado Boulevard between 5th and 17th, with one fatality and 158 injuries since 2007, which is when planners began seriously considering the Expo right-of-way. In that same time, 45 crashes caused by improper turning have injured 38 people.
In all of Santa Monica, 42 people have died in vehicle collisions on Santa Monica’s streets and an additional 7,200 have been injured since 2007. Twenty-two of those who died were pedestrians and three were cyclists. In three-fourths of the fatal crashes, the behavior of the driver of the vehicle was the primary factor in the collision, with unsafe speed and failure to yield to pedestrians as the top two causes. According to the City’s draft Pedestrian Action Plan, about 70 percent of all pedestrian collisions involve a violation by the driver of a passenger car.
Expo will bring a new way of getting around the Westside and to Downtown L.A., and with it will come increased pedestrian activity near stations and greater consequences for dangerous driving in the Expo corridor. Staying safe on the streets is all of our responsibility and the arrival of Expo will absolutely require more rigorous traffic enforcement, especially along the Expo corridor, to curb dangerous behavior.
Enforcement must be consistent and predictable to be effective. Santa Monica has a regional reputation for consistent and predictable enforcement of parking violations. We need the same for dangerous driving.
It’s possible to significantly reduce traffic injuries and deaths through enforcement. In New York City, 70 percent of pedestrian fatalities are caused by dangerous driving, including speeding, failure to yield, distracted driving, and driving under the influence. As part of New York City’s Vision Zero campaign, NYPD has issued 42 percent more citations to speeding drivers and 126 percent more citations to drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians. The city also has speed-enforcement cameras that have reduced speeding violations by 59 percent.
More consistent enforcement, along with design changes, has made for safer streets in New York City. Last year was the safest year for pedestrians in New York City’s history.
Per the Pedestrian Action Plan, 40 percent of Santa Monica residents say that they are not comfortable walking in the city.
More consistent and predictable traffic enforcement will make the city a better place to live for all residents, visitors, and workers in Santa Monica.
Ernie Powell, Juan Matute, Leslie Lambert, Cynthia Rose, Jerry Rubin, Judy Abdo, Fred Zimmerman, Valerie Griffin, Jason Islas, Jeremy Stutes, Elena Christopoulos, Richard Brand, and Laurie Brenner for Santa Monica Forward. Read previous columns at santamonicaforward.org.