City takes steps to make highway safer


After the most recent fatality on PCH near Las Flores Canyon, residents implore the city to do something to make the highway safer. Several options are discussed and will be presented to City Council.

By Cortney Litwin/Staff Writer

A speeding motorist making an unsafe lane change last month suddenly loses control of her vehicle and veers toward a home on Pacific Coast Highway-and claims the life of a young man who was standing in the driveway. This and other accidents that have plagued this treacherous highway prompted a special meeting of the Public Safety Commission last Thursday to explore options for making Pacific Coast Highway safer.

Catching speeding motorists, or better yet, getting drivers to reduce their speed voluntarily, was the main topic of discussion. Drivers who ignore the 45-mph signs are by far the most consistent cause of accidents on PCH, according to a Sheriff’s Department report.

This year, from Jan. 5 to Oct. 29, 228 collisions occurred on PCH from the north end of Topanga State Beach to county line, resulting in more than 100 injuries. Fifteen deaths on the highway have occurred since 1997, including Malibu resident Carol Randall’s son-in-law, Mark Osborn, in October. The family tragedy prompted Randall to urge City Council at last month’s meeting to make highway safety a priority.

As a result, the Malibu City Council asked staff to confer with the Public Safety Commission and come up with safety recommendations. The Sheriff’s Department also stepped in and evaluated its deployment in Malibu.

“Staff has evaluated enforcement, engineering and educational options to address this confounding issue,” wrote City Manager Katie Lichtig in an agenda report. To The Malibu Times, she added, “What the commission recommended to the council was that they consider a program that includes the addition of a [Sheriff’s Department] motorcycle instead of an existing traffic car. They’re more productive in terms of catching violators.”

Currently, the city pays approximately $203,000 for one traffic car, which operates seven days a week for 56 hours. A motorcycle officer contract would cost $10,000 less, but would only work five days a week, at 40 hours. But, as noted, a motorcycle would catch more violators. Another option is to have both a car and motorcycle. The Sheriff’s Department recommended the first option.

Staff also recommended installing solar-powered speed indicator signs, which have an “over the threshold” setting that will cause the display to change only for blatant speeders. These would cost $49,000 for four units, including installation.

Another possibility is enhancing the number of laser radar devices, as opposed to traditional radar guns.

“Laser radar guns are more accurate,” Lichtig said. “We already have some; the question is, can we get more?”

Law enforcement and engineering professionals were less optimistic about educating motorists about the dangers of speeding, although the use of local news, Web site and cable television articles, as well as banners, and even a full-fledged PR campaign directed at commuters and tourists, were also discussed.

A couple of options were raised but discarded, such as speed cameras to issue citations (“legally impossible”) and sending warnings using the same technology (“financially prohibitive”).

However, speeders aren’t the only bane of the highway. Any activity that takes one’s eyes off the road spells trouble, according to Sheriff’s Detective Doug DuVall.

“It’s becoming apparent that people are very distracted-eating, phoning, changing radio stations, reading the mail,” he said. “One person was going down PCH and had their AAA road map open, completely obstructing their view of the windshield.”

He has observed women putting on makeup and men shaving in their cars.

“I see that all the time,” he emphasized. “It’s commuter time in the morning.” He remembered one woman who was in an accident several years ago, the cause of which was apparent by the lipstick smeared clear across her face.

The most dangerous areas in Malibu for accidents were recently identified by the Sheriff’s Department, which analyzed 999 traffic collisions that occurred from 1995 to1998 and accounted for 53 percent of all collisions in Malibu during that time. These high-collision areas and the resulting number of accidents are: PCH at or near Las Flores Canyon Road-97, Big Rock Drive-87, Serra Road-74, Sweetwater Canyon Road-68, Carbon Canyon Road-64, Cross Creek Road-63 and Webb Way-52.

In light of the Osborn fatality, which occurred near Las Flores Canyon Road, the department has deployed a motorcycle officer for selective enforcement at the east end of PCH.

As for the financial ramifications of these improvements, staff is researching funding sources, which may include the remaining federal funds secured by Congressman Sherman, who had proposed in 1999 that $650,000 from the previous year’s federal Transportation Equity Act for the 21st century be used to fund safety improvements along PCH, many of which have been implemented.

Other sources being considered are funds from Proposition A or Proposition C transportation funds or other traffic safety grants.

The next step is presenting the recommendations at the City Council meeting. “We’ll do our best to get it on the December agenda,” Lichtig said.