Traffic Safety Comes to Forefront for Berkeley Schools and Parents

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Tuesday March 03, 2009 - 10:15:00 PM

The tragic accidents of two Berkeley public school students within less than a month of each other has put the spotlight on traffic safety and improvements for many parents, community members and transportation officials in Berkeley. 

On Jan. 30, a 6-year-old girl was hit by a Toyota 4 Runner when she darted into the crosswalk at Ashby and Ellis streets on her way to Malcolm X Elementary School in the morning. The child, who suffered a fractured skull and clavicle, started school this week after recuperating from her injuries. 

Four weeks later, on Friday, 5-year-old LeConte student Zachary Cruz was killed after being hit by a welder’s truck at Warring and Derby streets while walking to an after-school program at the UC Berkeley Clark Kerr Campus nearby. 

LeConte PTA president Sarah Kayler said that although parents were still recovering from the initial shock of the loss, concerns about traffic safety were at the back of everyone’s mind. 

Farid Javandel, Berkeley’s transportation manager, said that although he had not received a police report about last week’s accident, he was investigating concerns raised about the intersection in the past. 

“People have been worried about the traffic volume and speed in that area,” he said, adding that it was one of the routes drivers took to get to UC Berkeley, especially if they were coming from highway 24.  

Javandel said that the T-intersection at Derby and Warring had all the necessary signage, including stop signs at all the intersections and an island which acted as a pedestrian refuge. 

At a forum held by the Malcolm X PTA on Feb. 11, about 50 parents, neighbors and members of the South Berkeley Senior Center met with representatives from the Safe Routes to School Alameda County Partnership program and city officials to discuss modifications to enhance traffic flow and improve safety on Ellis Street and Ashby Avenue, the broad artery which runs from Berkeley’s bayshore to the hills, connecting with the Warren Freeway and Highway 24 leading to the Caldecott Tunnel. 

Visitors at the senior center told the Planet right after the Jan. 30 incident that they viewed the Ashby and Ellis intersection as “extremely dangerous.” 

In 2003, Fred Lupke, 58, an activist for the disabled community, was killed when his wheelchair was struck by a car on Ashby Avenue near the Ellis Street intersection. 

Ideas put forward by parents present at the meeting included increased enforcement for speeding in a school zone and violating pedestrian right-of-way in crosswalks, additional signage around the school along with pedestrian activated in-street cross lights and adding a crossing guard at Ellis and Ashby. 

After listening to community members, transportation officials proposed a list of improvements to the area surrounding Malcolm X, including barring U-turns on Ellis and installing flashing beacons at Ashby and Ellis to warn drivers about pedestrians. 

Javandel said that the city had applied for $55,000 to complete the projects under the statewide Safe Routes to School funding program, which allots $48.5 million in traffic safety improvements every two years. 

Cheryl Eccles, Malcolm X PTA president, said that the school had formed a traffic committee, comprising of representatives from the school, neighborhood and the senior center, which would help to set up walking school buses—groups of students chaperoned by a parent—and create more awareness about traffic safety at the school. 

“We were concerned that traffic was flying too fast and it was not safe for pedestrians there,” said Susan Silber, education coordinator for Safe Routes to Schools. “We want to make that crosswalk more prominent.” 

Nora Cody, director of the Safe Routes to School Alameda County Partnership, said that Berkeley was one of the more congested cities in the area when it came to traffic. 

“Two accidents is definitely two too many,” she said. “It’s very, very tragic—a parent’s worst nightmare. It could very well be a strange co-incidence but we can’t deny the fact that in both cases, the victims were very young. Many kids are just not getting basic pedestrian safety training. The schools should continue to do safety training.” 

Cody said that she was hopeful that the interest generated about traffic safety following the two accidents would not fade after a few months. 

“The more parents we can get to walk children to school the better,” she said. “The fewer cars we have on the streets, the safer it is for our children. We need to get more people to bike or walk everywhere.” 

According to a report published by the Surface Transportation Policy Project, pedestrian injuries are most common among elementary school children aged 5 through 9. 

The report states that these children “often lack the cognitive skills necessary to safely interact with traffic, and can be inattentive to their surroundings, leading them to engage in high-risk behavior, such as dashing in front of traffic.” 

According to the report, the most common type of child pedestrian injuries involve “midblock dart out and dash behavior,” accounting for 60-70 percent of the total pedestrian injuries for children under the age of 10.  

Data from the California Highway Patrol show that one-third of California’s pedestrian injuries and fatalities for children aged 5 to 17 occurred while they were crossing at a crosswalk. 

Berkeley Unified School District spokesperson Mark Coplan said that pedestrian accidents in the Berkeley Unified School District were extremely rare and the two accidents were an exception, rather than the norm.