Records from the state Office of Traffic Safety show that Berkeley has consistently been one of the least safe—and in some cases the most unsafe—places in California for bicyclists and pedestrians for the last several years.
When the Berkeley Police Department announced last week that it was launching a month-long pedestrian safety campaign in honor of Zachary Michael Cruz, the five-year-old who died in a motor collision while walking to an after-school program Feb. 27, 2009, Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan cited a OTS study which ranked Berkeley as the most dangerous city of its size for pedestrians.
However, a little more digging by the Daily Planet revealed that the situation has been just as bad since 2003.
“Berkeley has been very bad for the last five or six years,” said Chris Cochran, a spokesperson for the Office of Traffic Safety. “But the good thing is it seems to have identified its problems and is working toward fixing it. If you do something high profile for a month, it lasts in the public mind for a longer time. But the longer you do it, the more effective it becomes.”
According to the Berkeley Police Department, officers will concentrate on violations that place pedestrians at risk, especially dangerous driving behavior such as speeding, cell phone use and pedestrian right-of-way violations. The department will also provide additional training to officers which will help them spot problematic driving habits.
Meehan told the Planet that the police department was “putting more and more attention” to pedestrian safety.
“Zachary’s death was a wakeup call—pedestrian safety is important now and will become more important over time,” he said. “We don’t want to treat people as numbers. This is something we will be looking at in more detail and devising strategies to address it. There’s a feeling that if you arrest enough people then that solves the problem but the world doesn’t work that way. Along with enforcement, engineering and education is what counts.”
Last year, 106 pedestrians were injured in collisions in Berkeley. All three of the city’s fatal collisions in 2009 involved pedestrians in crosswalks.
In 2008, Berkeley was listed in the second highest population category—between 100,000 to 250,000—for California cities.
A report prepared by the Office of Traffic Safety showed that on any given day people drove an average of 950,000 miles inside Berkeley city limits.
There were a total of 634 collision-related deaths and injuries, making Berkeley fifth among 55 like-sized cities in its category when ranked by daily vehicle miles traveled. It was fourteenth when ranked according to population.
“Shows Berkeley isn’t doing too well,” Cochran said. “It’s not doing very well for speeding, nighttime or hit and run injuries and collisions.”
There were a total of 93 pedestrian deaths and injuries the same year—the most in any similar-sized city, with eight fatalities under the age of 15, a phenomenon Cochran described as “worse than average.” Berkeley also ranked number one for pedestrian deaths for age 65 or above.
“These are numbers I am looking at,” Meehan said. “Berkeley is a complex moving place and we are working to reduce the number of people getting hit by cars. We are looking at when and why and how things are happening.”
The only place where Berkeley didn’t come out looking so bad was alcohol-related deaths and injuries. Berkeley hovers somewhere in the middle for this category.
In 2003, Berkeley was ranked at the very top in numbers of both pedestrian and bicycle-related deaths and injuries and has showed little or no improvement in all the categories it has been ranked in since then, Cochran said.
Cities comparable to Berkeley within Alameda County include Hayward and Fremont. While Hayward has its share of problems, they are not as bad as Berkeley’s. Its main problem is pedestrian safety for young people. Fremont ranks in the middle for most categories.
Although the Office of Traffic Safety carries out these reviews periodically, cities are not penalized for their poor ranking.
“The penalty is that people are dying,” Cochran said. He added that the OTS published the rankings “so that cities can look at them and see how they can improve either on their own or with help from the Office of Traffic Safety.”
“If you are in a position like Berkeley, we encourage the Berkeley Police Department to come to us,” said Cochran.
The Office of Traffic Safety, which is federally funded, regularly provides grants for DUI checks and seat belt and red light enforcement, among other things.
UC Berkeley also carries out a free pedestrian assessment for cities.
Alameda County Safe Routes to School Director Nora Cody said discussions with the City of Berkeley’s Bike and Pedestrian Planner Eric Anderson revealed that “even if it’s true” that Berkeley ranks highest among comparable cities when it comes to the number of pedestrian injury collisions, it is important to remember that the city has “one of the highest rates of pedestrians and bikers” in California.
“If you have many more pedestrians walking, you will have more injuries,” said Cody. “It should be looked at by injury per pedestrian rather than injury per capita.”
Cody said that although Safe Routes to School—which launched a traffic safety campaign in the Berkeley public schools after Zachary’s death—had not been contacted by the Berkeley Police Department about the March campaign, they were happy it was taking place.
“And of course I want it to be more than a month,” she said. “It’s going to be a great challenge next year because of all the budget cuts. Both the city and our school district are going to be devastated by the cuts.”
Anderson said that Berkeley’s first pedestrian master plan is scheduled to go before the Berkeley City Council in April.
“It’s not a legislative document—it’s mainly going to outline safety for all those people who walk for recreation and transportation,” he said.
Zachary’s father Frank Cruz said his family proudly supported the BPD in their effort to make the city a safer place for all pedestrians.
Cruz has been sharing his experience with the Berkeley Police Department as part of the campaign.
“We hope that through these efforts we can raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving, and perhaps save other families from having to go through the kind of loss our family lives with everyday,” Cruz said. “I hope that Berkeley Police Department’s focus on enforcement, engineering and education this month will make a positive difference in Zachary’s honor. Zach’s seventh birthday is coming up [on March 12], and I think a safer city would be a nice gift for him and all the other kids of our community.”
Sgt. Robert Rittenhouse of the BPD Traffic Division and Meehan accompanied Cruz to the City Council meeting Tuesday to receive a proclamation declaring March as Zachary Cruz Pedestrian Safety Month.
“[Frank Cruz] has had the courage to come to our roll-calls, he speaks about Zach and he speaks about traffic safety,” Meehan said, adding that “many of us, including myself, have young kids at home.”
Cruz, who was with his wife Jody and son Miles, thanked the council for remembering Zachary.
“I also want to thank the men and women of the BPD who are going to be out on the streets enforcing pedestrian safety,” he said. “I was shocked to hear that Berkeley is the most dangerous city of its size for pedestrians in California. I think that has to change.”
Later, on the verge of tears, Cruz said: “I want to say happy birthday to Zachary, and I would like to accept this proclamation on his behalf and on behalf of Miles, his one-and-a-half-year old baby brother.”