Fifth St. W.: Cross at your own risk
Based solely on the accident history of recent weeks, the most dangerous stretch of roadway in Sonoma is Fifth Street West between West Napa Street and Curtin Lane.
On Oct. 27, two teenage boys were struck in the crosswalk at Sassarini School by a Toyota Corolla driven by a 92-year-old man who later told police he thought the youths had been fighting and somehow jumped on his car and smashed the windshield.
On Nov. 7, 93-year-old Alvin Hesse, riding an electric scooter on his way to the Safeway store, was killed in the crosswalk at Studley Street when an 80-year-old Boyes Springs man hit him with a PT Cruiser and then left the scene.
During both accidents, electronic signal lights buried in the crosswalk and installed along the curb, had been activated and were functioning properly.
The intersection’s fatal accident history goes back to 1996, when 51-year-old Beatriz Villanueva was hit and killed in the Studley Street crosswalk by a 78-year-old driver. And in June 2006, Anna Marie Simmons, an 82-year-old grandmother, was killed in the same crosswalk by an unlicensed driver.
This tragic history inspired the city to ask Sonoma police for a reexamination of the intersections involved and results of their preliminary study, presented at the Nov. 19 City Council meeting, offered little hope of a simple solution.
Police Sgt. Dave Thompson presented a compilation of the traffic collision history on Fifth Street West over the past six years, during which time the only fatality was Alvin Hesse. But in the same period, there were 194 injury accidents (averaging about 32 a year), and 522 non-injury accidents.
From 2007 to November 2012, there were 38 accidents involving pedestrians and 47 accidents involving bicyclists, with an upward trend from 2010 to the present. So far this year, there have been 12 bicycle-related accidents on Fifth Street West, three more than any year back to 2007.
But the police statistics presented to the council were not detailed enough to provide insights about the reasons for the accidents, although Thompson made it clear that the data presented indicated an upward trend in both the reported number of collisions and the number of collisions involving pedestrians and bicycles.
Thompson added that, while precise causes for the upward trend have not yet been determined, the police department’s patrol officers believe there has been an increase in collisions caused by inattention and distracted driving.
And, in collisions involving pedestrians and bicyclists, the walking and pedaling parties seemed to be most often at fault.
None of this, however, sheds significant light on the frequency of accidents at the Safeway crosswalk.
Sonoma Public Works Director Milenka Bates reported the history of crosswalk improvements and traffic lane changes on Fifth Street West and concluded that, “Staff believes existing conditions are safe” and expressed the belief that no structural changes “can make them safer.”
And Thompson reiterated, “All the safety measures had been activated and were working properly when the (recent) collisions occurred.”
But Bates added that there was reasonable cause to “evaluate the intersection further” and evaluate the issue of left-hand turns into and out of the Safeway parking lot on Fifth Street. She also suggested that the city should consider conducting a new traffic study at the site, and should explore a possible state grant to fund additional traffic police staffing and to pay for more training and outreach for elderly drivers through a program at Vintage House senior center.
During a public comment period, Bill Casey, an occupational therapist at Sonoma Valley Hospital, pointed out that the Occupational Therapy Association of California is working with the Department of Motor Vehicles to develop a safe driving guide for seniors. But Casey argued that “factors of environment” at the intersection were at least partly responsible for recent accidents and said, “I think a big study has to be made.” He said that older drivers have visions problems, that there is no overhead lighting at the crosswalk site and he advising removing the crosswalk until appropriate improvements can be identified and made.
Sonoma resident Scott Pace asked if there had been an increase in accidents on Fifth Street West since bike lanes were installed and traffic lanes were reduced from four to two. He urged for the city’s Traffic Safety Committee to take a new look at lane configuration. He suggested that extreme congestion at the intersection could be contributing to accidents.
Steve Meloan, father of one of the two boys injured in the Sassarini crosswalk in October, said the boys pressed the crossing button, looked both ways before entering the intersection and clearly had their eyes on approaching traffic because “my son’s friend held up his hand in disbelief” as the car bore down on them.
Meloan said he favored the addition of bumps or a flashing red light that forces cars to stop when pedestrians are in the crosswalk.
Veteran council-watcher Herb Golenpaul, who lives near the problem intersection, called it “an accident waiting to happen,” and argued that one solution would be “speed bumps every 100 yards or 100 feet.”
City historian George McKale observed that he has experienced “incredible anxiety ever since the lanes were changed,” pointed out that motorists are now using the center turn lane as a passing lane, and concluded, “I’d like to see it go back to the way it was.”
Councilmembers than weighed in with their own impressions, and Tom Rouse said he conducted his own research by walk through the crosswalk six times on both a Friday and a Monday to see what the experience was like.
“Not once did I feel threatened,” he said. But after the walking test, Rouse said he stood beside Safeway and watched as “countless people” who turned right onto Fifth Street blocked the view of oncoming traffic so that cars turning into Safeway blocked the view of pedestrians trying to cross the street.
Mayor Joanne Sanders said, “The experience of drivers is different from the experience of pedestrians,” and suggested that traffic congestion near the crosswalk is compounded by cars entering Fifth Street from both Studley Street and Curtin Lane. She suggested that one of those streets could be closed, with no access to Fifth Street.
When all was said and done, the City Council was left with a wide range of suggestions and the understanding that more information – and possibly a full-blown traffic study – was needed to decide the next course of action.