• When marked crosswalks can be more dangerous for pedestrians Monday, July 19, 2010

    By J.G. Preston

    A car-pedestrian crash with tragic consequences in suburban San Francisco may bring about safer crosswalks in California, after a San Mateo County jury this month awarded more than $12 million in damages in a civil trial.

    Emily Liou

    Emily Liou

    Emily Liou was in a marked crosswalk at an intersection without a traffic signal on State Route 82 (El Camino Real) in Millbrae when she was struck by a southbound car.  Liou, who was 17 years old at the time of the crash in 2006, suffered extensive brain damage and is left in a permanent vegetative state.  She has required 24-hour care from the time she was placed in the ambulance and will continue to require such care for the rest of her shortened life.

    Her attorneys, Richard Schoenberger and Doug Saeltzer, provided evidence that the marked crosswalk, intended to provide more safety for pedestrians, actually left Liou less safe.

    “We presented evidence that Caltrans [responsible for the highway] had a dirty little secret,” Schoenberger said.  “Namely, Caltrans has known for years that marked crosswalks at uncontrolled intersections are dangerous in general because they give pedestrians a false sense of security.  These intersections may be safer without any marked crosswalk.  This seems counterintuitive, but statistics, taken from study after study, bear this out.”

    Schoenberger and Saeltzer found evidence of knowledge of the dangers of marked crosswalks dating back to a 1972 study commissioned by the city of San Diego.  That study, which investigated 400 pedestrian accidents over a five-year period in the 1960s, concluded “approximately twice as many pedestrian accidents [per pedestrian crossing] occur in marked crosswalks as in unmarked crosswalks.”  Those results were referenced in a later study, sponsored by Caltrans, conducted by the department of civil engineering at California State University-Chico in 1994.  And that study reached the same conclusions:  marked crosswalks have a higher frequency of pedestrian accidents than unmarked crosswalks at uncontrolled intersections.

    Then in 2002 the Federal Highway Administration (part of the U.S. Department of Transportation) analyzed more data in a report titled “Safety Effects of Marked Versus Unmarked Crosswalks at Uncontrolled Intersections.”  That report concluded marked crosswalks should not be used on roadways with four or more lanes and a raised median that see an average of at least 15,000 vehicles a day.  At about that same time, Caltrans issued a directive promoting pedestrian protection.  The legislature also got involved, passing a vehicle code instructing Caltrans to pay more attention to pedestrian safety issues.  (Pedestrians are involved in only 3% of vehicle accidents statewide, but pedestrians account for 22% of fatalities from vehicle accidents.)

    The crosswalk where Emily Liou was struck

    The crosswalk where Emily Liou was struck

    El Camino Real, in the area where Liou was struck, has six lanes of traffic and a raised median and sees an average of more than 25,000 vehicles a day.  “But Caltrans has never once inspected this crosswalk for the purpose of protecting pedestrians,” Schoenberger said.  “They simply left it in place rather than removing it or improving it, as it could, for instance, with pedestrian-activated signals.  Caltrans merely paid lip service to the idea that pedestrian safety was important.”

    Schoenberger and Saeltzer discovered Caltrans had never studied the pedestrian accident rate on any of its roadways.  If they had, they would have realized the danger of the crosswalk where Liou was struck, crossing El Camino Real at Ludeman Lane.

    Four other pedestrians had been killed or injured in that same crosswalk over the previous ten years, and Caltrans used that as evidence of the crosswalk’s safety.  “Their defense was, look at how many cars went through that intersection,” Saeltzer said.  “They said there had been 90 million cars.  But you can never adequately monitor pedestrian safety if you’re not actually monitoring pedestrians.  And Caltrans has never systematically measured pedestrian crossing rates.”

    By never doing a study to determine the number of people using the crosswalk who had the potential to be struck, Caltrans was in essence using the wrong denominator to determine the accident rate.  So Schoenberger and Saeltzer did the study Caltrans should have done, counting the number of pedestrians using the Ludeman Lane crosswalk.

    “We found there were only 70 people crossing there every day,” said Schoenberger.  “So it was infrequently used.  But over the ten years prior to when Ms. Liou was struck, there had been four pedestrian accidents, including two deaths.  We estimate there would have been a total of about 250,000 pedestrian crossings during that time.  And four pedestrian injuries out of 250,000 crossings, by traffic engineering standards, is a very high rate.

    “We found people working at businesses in the area who told us, ‘I won’t use that crosswalk because it scares the crap out of me.’”

    A satellite photo shows three marked crosswalks on El Camino Real, all nearly identical to the one at Ludeman Lane, within one-third of a mile

    A satellite photo shows three marked crosswalks on El Camino Real, all nearly identical to the one at Ludeman Lane, within one-third of a mile

    Indeed, that rate was more than 20 times higher than what had been deemed an unacceptable rate in the Federal Highway Administration’s study.  Furthermore, Schoenberger and Saeltzer determined there had been similar pedestrian injury rates at two similar crosswalks on El Camino Real that are within one-third of a mile.

    The attorneys also pointed out other problems with the crosswalk at Ludeman Lane.  For southbound vehicles, such as the one that hit Liou, the intersection sits at the crest of a hill that makes it not only difficult for drivers to see the intersection but also impossible to see the crosswalk markings.  Drivers actually see the traffic light at the next intersection long before they notice the Ludeman Lane intersection, especially at night, when Liou was hit.

    After hearing the evidence presented by both sides, the jury awarded $12.2 million in damages, most of which will cover the costs of Liou’s medical care and her lost future income.  But the amount Liou will receive will be reduced by 20 percent, the degree to which the jury found her at fault for the accident because she was wearing dark clothing and did not see the vehicle in time to avoid impact.

    The driver of the car was determined to be 30 percent at fault even though she was sober at the time of the crash, was driving well below the speed limit and had a clean driving history.  After all, California’s vehicle code requires drivers to yield to pedestrians in a marked crosswalk.

    But the jury found Caltrans to be 50 percent at fault for the crash, for allowing the dangerous crosswalk to remain in place and not even attempting to study the risk there.  “Caltrans had blamed our client and blamed the driver, “Schoenberger said.  “They systematically avoided any responsibility for their own crosswalk.  The jury didn’t agree.”

    This is one of the first times Caltrans has been hit with such a verdict for a pedestrian crash, and Schoenberger believes that will lead to changes.  “This will cause them to rethink how they evaluate pedestrian safety,” he said.  “They don’t need to remove all marked crosswalks, but they need to study them.  If it turns out an intersection isn’t a problem, then it’s okay to let the crosswalk remain.  But they’ve got to think about it.”

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