10 years show faint signs of progress on Malibu’s highway

Changes within the Sheriff’s Department mean less traffic enforcement for Malibu.

By Max Taves / Special to the Times

In an ominous warning to city leaders on the eve of incorporation in 1990, the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley predicted that safety on the Pacific Coast Highway in the 1990s would “severely test the wisdom and foresight of elected officials and operating department heads in maintaining the quality of life expected by their constituents.”

Today, Pacific Coast Highway is no less burdensome. Macabre headlines of high-speed crashes and fatal collisions have become commonplace but not less painful. Five people were killed in auto accidents last year in the city. Every year, multiple intersections on the Pacific Coast Highway have accident rates that exceed the state averages. Malibu Canyon Road, Corral Canyon Road and Latigo Shore Drive are intersections that consistently have high accident rates.

For the past 16 years, an intricate and decentralized network of city leaders, community activists, Department of Transportation engineers, state legislators and sheriff’s deputies have shaped safety on Malibu’s 27-mile stretch of the state highway, but often with conflicting agendas, imperfect communication and incomplete information.

Data collected by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Department of Transportation between 1995 and 2005 and analyzed by The Malibu Times show only faint signs of progress on the state highway and city roads.


Fatal collisions in Malibu have varied widely from year to year with no significant upward or downward trend. The total number of collisions has increased significantly during this time period. As a result, in addition to the loss of life or injuries, Malibu residents face increasing costs to replace, insure or fix damaged property.

Sumeer Haddadeen, an engineer with the Department of Transportation, or DOT, who is responsible for structural changes to Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu, attributes the rise in collisions to the 2,000 additional trips along the highway since 1996. The DOT estimates that an average of 31,000 trips are made on the highway daily.

Councilmember Andy Stern said he believes the city’s recent role in limiting commercial development at the Chili Cook-Off site and the Ahmanson and Soka University properties will “dramatically reduce traffic.”

However, the increase in traffic on the highway might have unintended benefits: according to the Department of Transportation, the average speed on the state highway has decreased, which is attributed to the added traffic, Haddadeen said. From 1996 to 2003, the average speed in the northbound lanes fell from 55 mph to 52 mph. In the same period, the average speed for southbound lanes fell from 56 mph to 52 mph. The department performs comprehensive studies of highway speeds every five to seven years.

The DOT data also show the number of collisions that resulted in injuries has shown no significant increase or decrease in the past 10 years. But accidents as a result of drunk driving have decreased.

There has also been a significant decrease in the total number of traffic citations since 1999. The number of citations written for speeding and drunken driving has also sunk. Experts with the Department of Transportation say these numbers are not fully explained by the decrease in average speed along the highway. Transportation analysts use citations to measure the efficiency of traffic enforcement.

The city of Malibu contracts its traffic and law enforcement out to the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department.

Sgt. Phillip Brooks, who oversees Malibu’s traffic enforcement for the department, said that budget decisions at the county level have gradually reduced the number of sheriff’s cars that patrol Malibu.

The city once benefited from cars that patrolled mostly unincorporated areas but also spent a portion of their time in incorporated cities such as Malibu. Now, the city no longer receives traffic enforcement from cars that it has not specifically requested by contract. Brooks could not specify when this policy began.

Brooks also said that there was an “exodus of experienced deputies in 2000.” The deputies that currently work in the city are “less experienced,” he said. Deputies often live far across Los Angeles County and transferring to Sheriff’s stations closer to home is often a top priority.

Despite the decrease in service, Malibu’s budget on traffic and law enforcement has increased in the past nine years. In the fiscal year 2005, the city will pay more than $4.5 million to the Sheriff’s Department.

Malibu is one of two cities in the state that does not receive traffic enforcement from the California Highway Patrol for its state roads. The California Vehicle Code specifies that CHP service in Malibu will be provided, if requested by the city, and if a contract is entered into between the state and the city. Also, if a contract is made for services, Malibu must pay for the service. Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Jennings said that a decision was made long ago that it would be more cost effective to have just the Sheriff’s Department patrol the highway, since the CHP provides only traffic enforcement.

“[It was decided that it would be] more cost effective to have one agency doing both jobs,” Jennings said.

Jennings said he did not know why Malibu is singled out in the vehicle code as having to pay the state for traffic enforcement on a state highway. He did say it might have had something to do with the “incorporation wars” that took place when the city incorporated 16 years ago.

Federal and state funds have gone toward structural changes on Pacific Coast Highway. The Department of Transportation made several improvements on the highway between 1998 and 2001. The road was resurfaced, lanes were repainted, signals were updated, and “rumble strips” were placed in the median. Engineers with the department said these changes helped to make the highway safer.

To possibly aid further highway safety projects, Malibu will most likely benefit from a federal transportation bill that promises to bring California $5 billion in the next several years. The Department of Transportation in California is currently putting together a strategic plan to allocate that funding. Haddadeen, an engineer with the department, said that Malibu’s stretch of the highway will be a likely recipient of funding.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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