‘Don’t Die’: Sign campaign puts brakes on reckless driving

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SIGN OF REMEMBERANCE

The county isn’t alone in its effort to make the roads safer through signage. The family of Estefania Soto and Kaliyah Adkins, who died in Agua Caliente in a head-on collision on their way to Kaliyah’s elementary school in 2017, have also recently taken an activist approach.

A street sign memorializing their lost loved ones, paid for by the family but installed by Caltrans, was erected three weeks ago at the accident site. Forced under threat of daily fines to remove the white cross that had previously marked the location of the accident, the Soto’s sign simply reads “Please don’t drink and drive. In memory of Estefania Soto and Kaliyah Adkins.”

Before its removal, the family had gathered at the cross to mark birthdays and anniversaries. “It was a comfort,” said Soto’s aunt, Yvonne Soto Pomeroy.

The black and white signs seemed to appear out of nowhere, sprouted from the shoulders of particularly busy roads. “Don’t die,” read the first, “Don’t kill” read the next, “Drive slow” said the third in an unfussy, bold typeface.

Eye-catching and blunt, the dark roadside warnings were the brainchild of the county’s Department of Transportation and Public Works (TPW), designed to curb the aggressive driving officials credit for many preventable crashes.

They are posted near Glen Ellen on Bennett Valley Road, on Verano Avenue at the intersection of Robinson Road, and at some 50 other locations around the county.

Johannes Hoevertsz, director of TPW, said an uptick in deadly crashes was the inspiration for the campaign. “We were going through an increase in collisions six months ago, and had been looking at aggressive driver behavior for over a year,” Hoevertsz said. “We had to do something that would shock. We had to be brutal to get people’s attention.”

At the same time, that attention needed to be fleeting, in order to avoid the very distraction TPW was hoping to mitigate.

The tryptic of low-budget signage was the answer, six words printed in black and white to reduce cost.

Reaction to the campaign has been mostly positive, according to Hoevertsz, though some people have contacted TPW to complain, too. “In one subdivision in Cloverdale, neighbors don’t like them. People are stealing the signs,” Hoevertsz said. “And we’ve heard complaints from some people that they trigger PTSD.” But mostly the signs have been met with enthusiasm, and Hoevertsz believes they are starting to work.

“There was this one lady we heard from who was planning to commit suicide by car, and was driving down the road looking for a semi-trailer to hit head on. She read the signs and pulled over and started crying. When she wrote to us, thanking us, she said the signs stopped her cold and prevented three little girls from losing their mother. Everyone here was in tears,” Hoevertsz said.

Distracted driving is an “epidemic,” in Hoevertsz’ opinion, and drunk driving is a perennial problem in wine country. Speeding, unsafe passing, red light violations and failing to yield to pedestrians or other drivers all fall into the category of “aggressive driving,” and Hoevertsz cites overscheduling and poor planning as the main culprits for that. “People aren’t setting their alarms on time, they’re not being punctual or planning ahead. Traffic is all about human behavior. We cram our schedules, and then try and make up time by speeding.”

For local architect Chris Cahill, who bought a home on Arnold Drive in 2002, rampant speeding was a daily aggravation. “It was very frustrating to witness motorists and huge trucks speeding on Arnold Drive, sometimes 15-20 miles over the posted speed limit. I eventually sold, in part to live on a quieter street,” he said.

Enforcement of traffic laws in the Valley is the responsibility of the California Highway Patrol and the county Sheriff’s Office, and Sonoma Police Chief Orlando Rodriguez likes the TPW campaign. “If it slows people down or it calms drivers and makes them think twice before taking out their aggressions on other drivers, it’s win-win for everyone,” Rodriguez said.

While acknowledging that the metrics for evaluating the signs’ efficacy are “really difficult,” Hoevertsz is pleased by the anecdotal evidence. “People are slowing down. They’re having a positive effect.” So much so, in fact, that his department plans to roll out a second campaign.

Sometime this fall the public will be asked to submit ideas for a new series of signs, to keep drivers from becoming inured to the first. The hope is that the simple reminders will add up to safer roadways. “We want it to be catchy and a little aggressive with a clear message,” said Hoevertsz.

Hoevertsz knows firsthand of the havoc reckless driving wreaks, having suffered a “cracked forehead” in an encounter years ago. If a cryptic message flashing past can get drivers to slow down and pay attention, that’s a good day at the office, in his estimation. “We don’t want to talk about issues like this, but we need to,” Hoevertsz said. “Please drive carefully.”

Contact Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.

SIGN OF REMEMBERANCE

The county isn’t alone in its effort to make the roads safer through signage. The family of Estefania Soto and Kaliyah Adkins, who died in Agua Caliente in a head-on collision on their way to Kaliyah’s elementary school in 2017, have also recently taken an activist approach.

A street sign memorializing their lost loved ones, paid for by the family but installed by Caltrans, was erected three weeks ago at the accident site. Forced under threat of daily fines to remove the white cross that had previously marked the location of the accident, the Soto’s sign simply reads “Please don’t drink and drive. In memory of Estefania Soto and Kaliyah Adkins.”

Before its removal, the family had gathered at the cross to mark birthdays and anniversaries. “It was a comfort,” said Soto’s aunt, Yvonne Soto Pomeroy.

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