What will make PCH safer?

Local officials, law enforcement call for improvements but say making the highway safer is up to everyone.

By Kim Devore / Staff Writer

Whether one is merely inconvenienced by a two-hour delay or is suffering the unspeakable loss of a loved one, every accident on Pacific Coast Highway serves as a reminder-the streets are only as safe as the motorists who drive them and the amount of people put out there to patrol them, officials and citizens say.

The biggest problem, some say, is that Pacific Coast Highway is a 45-mph residential zone that’s treated as a 65-mph freeway and is, therefore, more dangerous.

“The freeway is a lot safer than PCH,” Malibu Public Safety Commissioner Marlene Matlow said. “You don’t have pedestrians standing in the middle of the freeway. You don’t have people making U-turns on the freeway, or people parking or backing up or pulling out of driveways. You don’t have people trying to get to the beach with their kids and running in front of traffic. Here you do, and it’s scary as hell.”

One organization that knows the value of safety on the road is the California Department of Transportation. Caltrans recently held a memorial service for the 166 workers who have been killed while trying to maintain the state’s roads.


“We want people to realize that safety should be everyone’s priority,” said Dan Freeman, Caltrans deputy director for maintenance.

Despite a pair of recent deaths, the agency trumpets the success of its “Slow for the Cone Zone” safety campaign. The educational effort, in conjunction with double fines in work zones, has cut the number of fatalities by 35 percent since the campaign began in 1999, according to Caltrans.

That made some safety advocates wonder why Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have doubled fines on five of the state’s deadliest highways, including Pacific Coast Highway. The governor said there was no evidence to suggest that those increased fines would be effective without education and enforcement to go along with them.

As Councilmember Andy Stern sees it, problems on the highway go beyond Assembly bills and speeding.

“There are dangerous drivers in general,” he said. “No matter how many laws you pass, you can’t stop people from doing dumb things.”

Still, safety commissioners, like Carol Randall, who lost her son-in-law to a speeding motorist in front of her Pacific Coast Highway home, say that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

“We need a greater presence,” Randall said. “We need to send a message to residents as well as visitors that Malibu does not tolerate speeding.”

Fellow commissioner Matlow wouldn’t mind seeing a few California Highway Patrol officers working in tandem with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

“We have well-seasoned, well-trained officers and we all value what they do,” she said. “But they are doing double duty. They are looking for general law issues and looking for traffic issues. They need help.”

The loss of the CHP dates back to 1991 when Malibu became a city. In doing so, the city assumed responsibility for the roads and the highway in Malibu, as well as law enforcement, and entered into an exclusive contract with the Sheriff’s Department. Changing that to include the CHP would require a change in state law. The other option would be for the city to enter into a contract with the state and pay extra for patrol of the highway. The city says it doesn’t have the money to do so.

While the burden of paying for additional enforcement is up to the city, some safety advocates say that residents shouldn’t have to.

“A lot of people think we shouldn’t have to pay for enforcement,” Randall said. “We are being used as an alternative to the 101 and 405 freeways.”

In the meantime, there are some plans in the works to make the highway safer.

Six new solar-powered VCalm, or Vehicle Calming signs, will be posted along Pacific Coast Highway reminding motorists of their speed and urging them to slow down.

“That’s great news,” Randall said. “If it slows down one more person who can hit me, I’m thrilled.”

The installation of one of these signs took place on a trial basis two years ago on the highway near Topanga Canyon, when the city announced it had purchased six of them. After a lengthy approval process, the signs should be up and running within the next several months.

In addition to the VCalm signs effort, Sen. Sheila Kuehl, who chairs the PCH Safety Taskforce Committee, has said she will look into applying for an Office of Traffic Safety grant, which could lead to more money for more officers and more enforcement.

“Obviously the more officers we have out there, the better,” said Sgt. Phillip Brooks of the Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station. “We are doing the best we can with the resources we have, but I’d say we are on the shallow side of the curve.”

Brooks has also advocated the use of more median barriers or delineators.

“They’ve shown to be effective,” he said. “The barrier has a visual effect that causes you to slow down.”

Despite the gains, Randall and other safety advocates say serious additional measures are needed and vow to continue their fight.

“I have family living here. I have a 1-1/2 year old granddaughter,” Randall said. “I don’t want anything to happen to them. We can do better.”

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