A father’s personal perspective on Fifth Street West
I applaud the Sonoma City Council for discussing the Fifth Street West corridor – exploring ways to make it more efficient (and safer) for both cars and pedestrians.
This much-needed discussion was prompted by an accident in which my teenage son and his friend were struck by a driver in the Sassarini School crosswalk, and by a second accident 10 days later where a pedestrian was struck and killed in the Safeway crosswalk, just a block away.
While the City Council gathering included proposals and discussions of such things as speed bumps, yellow dot placements, lane re-configurations and pedestrian safety programs, I was surprised that I was the only one who mentioned what seemed the obvious common denominator in these two accidents – elderly drivers who should not have been behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. Both of these accidents occurred in broad daylight, in crosswalks with embedded flashing lights and with flashing caution lights on an elevated pole. In the case of my son’s accident, he and his friend pressed the cross button, looked both ways, saw cars either stopped and waiting for them, or cars seeming to slow in the distance.
After the 92-year-old driver hit them head-on, he initially told the police that he never even saw them, in spite of my son’s friend holding up his hand in last-second disbelief, just before being struck. Several days later, the driver claimed that he never even hit them, that he had stopped to break up a fight between two teens and that they had broken his car window in the fracas. Countless eye witnesses, and the police report, make clear that he did in fact hit them, and that it was the body of my son’s friend that broke the man’s window.
And then 10 days later, a senior was run down and killed in the Safeway crosswalk as he made his way across the street in an electric cart (in a similarly vividly-lit and marked crosswalk, and in broad daylight). The 80-year-old driver in this accident (with an already suspended license) initially drove away from the scene, but when later located by the police reported that he remembered “running over some debris” in the crosswalk.
These accidents are not without long-term human consequences. One man is needlessly dead. My son’s friend is still on half-time at his school, after sustaining a serious concussion and skull fracture. And my son sustained a seriously broken finger, which has left him unable to play sports through his entire basketball season, and unable to play with his music group, which had previously performed at venues as far away as Petaluma and Santa Rosa.
I’m genuinely sympathetic to the issues and needs around senior drivers. My own elderly mother lives in town (but no longer drives). I think few reasonable people would argue that the two drivers in the above accidents should have been behind the wheel of a car. In an ideal world, I would like to see all California drivers above a certain age (perhaps 80) required to take an annual behind-the-wheel driving test. Short of this, I would like to see the Sonoma City Council urge implementation of programs at the local senior centers (for both senior drivers and their adult parents) to address safety issues around advanced-age drivers, as well as a family plan for transitioning to non-driving status and “hanging up the keys.”
Too many tragic deaths from drunk drivers led to public awareness campaigns in terms of designated drivers and recognizing when one is not fit to drive. The same societal discussions need to occur around elderly drivers. And if one weighs the significant monthly cost of automobile upkeep, gasoline and insurance, there are viable elder-transportation alternatives in a town the size of Sonoma.