Speed cameras needed on deadly Pacific Coast Highway

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LA County Sheriff's Capt. Jennifer Seetoo provides an update on the the fatal Oct. 17 traffic incident at the City Council meeting on Monday, Oct. 23. Photo by Samantha Bravo/TMT

Gov. Newsom approves AB 645, but not for the Malibu

By Benjamin Marcus 

Speed provides the one genuinely modern pleasure. 

– Aldous Huxley.

Running a NASCAR track through a residential neighborhood, beach community, and university town is a bad idea. Everyone in Malibu knows that, because anyone who has lived in Malibu for any length of time has witnessed, heard, dodged, cringed, caused, been inconvenienced, victimized, traumatized, or all of the above by high-speed driving traffic accidents. 

Idiotic, irresponsible, adrenalized, deadly driving is epidemic. Citizens living along PCH face the daily dread of backing their cars onto the Autobahn. Surfers running across PCH mesmerized by the waves play Frogger with their lives. Bicyclists avoiding car doors. Motorcyclists splitting lanes. Moonshadows employees regularly run across the “valet of death.” 

PCH is a charnel house and has been going back at least as far as World War II when — believe it or not — driving PCH at night with headlights on was illegal. There was a fear Japanese subs would use those lights for targeting, but there were dozens of car crashes and deaths because of that law.

And through the decades, PCH crashes have injured, maimed, or claimed dozens and hundreds, famous and anonymous: “Romancing the Stone” writer Diane Thomas in 1985. Ben Vereen seriously injured by David Foster in 1992. Emily Shane in 2010. Caitlyn Jenner involved in a fatal accident at Corral Canyon Road in 2015. And now Niamh Rolston, Peyton Stewart, Asha Weir, and Deslyn Williams.

On and on. PCH doesn’t play favorites.

Everybody knows PCH is deadly dangerous and there have been decades of hand-wringing, editorializing, and attempted legislating — but like the weather, everyone talks about high speed on PCH but no one does enough to monitor that speed and mitigate the risks.

But now there is a ray of hope.

In mid-September, the California State Assembly and Senate wisely and finally voted into law Assembly Bill 645. Subtitled “Vehicles: Speed Safety System Pilot Program,” the law allows pilot programs for speed cameras and other mechanized traffic control systems in certain California test jurisdictions.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law on Oct. 13 — one day after 25-year-old Geoffrey’s employee Luis Fernando Escobar Gonzalez died in a single-car — possibly high speed — accident on Malibu Canyon Road that closed it for five hours. 

Four days after Newsom signed the law, 22-year-old Fraser Bohm crashed his BMW on Dead Man’s Curve, causing the death of four Pepperdine seniors. The investigation closed PCH both ways for 15 hours.

PCH through Malibu is controlled by Caltrans and monitored by the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. There aren’t enough deputies to patrol the two main exits out of Malibu. Parking dummies in sheriff’s vehicles is cute, but disregarded by locals because after a day they know it’s a decoy. 

Speed bumping PCH-like Malibu Road would slow things down, but will never happen — too many low-slung Ferraris and Lamborghinis — not to mention fire trucks and ambulances need to get places in a hurry. 

And PCH is a state highway, not Malibu Road.

These are the days of miracles and wonders: Electric cars, Soyrizo, artificial intelligence, yoga pants, shooting rockets to Mars. Surely a clever, tool-loving species can devise some electronic, computerized system that can accurately gauge the speed of a moving vehicle, identify the owner/driver of the vehicle, and send them a notice of warning and/or violation?

Some public safety officials and citizens believe the unblinking, infallible eye of speed cameras are the only way to monitor and mitigate speed on roads and highways. Newsom has wisely signed that bill into law — but unfortunately the law does not yet include the place that needs it most.

Assembly Bill 645 was written by 44th District Assembly member Laura Friedman and was passed by the California Senate 29/6/5 on Sept. 12 and the California Assembly on Sept. 13 62/9/9. 

The legislation can be downloaded here for those who want to read all of it:

https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billVotesClient.xhtml?bill_id=202320240AB645

Regarding Malibu, AB645 disregards Malibu. The bill as passed and signed into law designates the cities of Los Angeles, San Jose, Oakland, Glendale, and Long Beach, and the city and county of San Francisco as permitted to establish a Speed Safety System Pilot Program if the system meets specified requirements — which are minutely detailed in the bill. 

That’s the city and county of San Francisco but only the city of Los Angeles, which means Malibu is not included in the pilot program — a fatal oversight.

Section 1 states that traffic speed enforcement is critical to reduce factors that contribute to traffic collisions that result in fatalities or injuries. But traditional enforcement methods have had a well-documented disparate impact on communities of color, and implicit or explicit racial bias in police traffic stops puts drivers of color at risk.

What that means is, machines don’t discriminate by race, creed, color, zip code, net worth or value of vehicle — only on speed.

Under AB645, jurisdictions with a population of less than 300,000, the bill allows no more than nine systems.

For Malibu, some of those locations are obvious: The intersection of Stuart Ranch Road and PCH. The Frogger zone from the Malibu Pier to Cross Creek Road. Both sides of the approach to Dead Man’s Curve at Carbon Canyon Road and Dukes. Malibu Canyon at PCH. 

(While writing this, Howdy Kabrins asked who owns the La Salsa building and statue. He wants to hang a “SLOW DOWN!” sign from La Salsa Man.)

According to AB 645, the zones watched by speed cameras must be forewarned with “Photo Enforced” signs no more than 500 feet before the placement of the system.

Under the pilot program, those caught speeding will be issued warning notices rather than notices of violation for excess speed detected by the speed safety systems during the first 60 calendar days of enforcement under the program. 

For those worried about Big Brother and privacy: “The speed safety system, to the extent feasible, shall be angled and focused so as to only capture photographs of speeding violations and shall not capture identifying images of other drivers, vehicles, or pedestrians.”

The speed cameras will be triggered by cars traveling 11 MPH or more over the posted speed limit and notices of violation shall only be issued to registered owners of those vehicles based on that evidence.

Penalties will be $50 for 11 to 15 mph over, $100 for 16 to 25 mph, $200 for 26 mph or more over the posted speed limit. And those going 100 mph or more over the posted speed limit, the fine will be $500 — and most likely a stern talking-to by a judge.

There is a lot more to the law, but that’s the gist as it applies and doesn’t apply to Malibu. There are more than a few public safety officials all too familiar with the danger of PCH who are all for it.

In 2019, I heard, then saw, a 76-year-old man hit by a car and killed during the opening of Cliff Diver. In 2009, I saw the son of a famous actor lose control of his giant American car heading westbound at Surfrider, hop the curb on the inland side and nearly kill a surfer girl changing out of her wetsuit. And as someone who lived along PCH next to the Verizon building for many years — and learned to hate the sound of breaking glass — and as someone who crosses with the light at PCH and Webb Way a couple of times a day, I know all too well how crazy dangerous PCH is. We all do.

People drag race along Malibu Road behind Ralphs. Dumb.

I began writing this story on the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 18, after reading that Governor Newsom had approved a speed camera law. Just as I said for years, Malibu needs a sports bar — and now we have Sparkys! — and I’ve also believed speed cameras are the only way to monitor and mitigate speed and reduce casualties on PCH.

On Oahu, the police drive their own cars with blue lights always visible flashing on top. The thinking is, anyone who sees that blue light will stop doing what they’re doing wrong — including speeding. I say the same thing could work on PCH: Speed cameras with lots of bells and whistles threatening fines would slow people down — even if half the cameras were decoys.

That Wednesday morning, I began writing this and contacting Caltrans, the Highway Patrol, and other agencies. An email to the Lost Hills Station for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department returned an almost immediate phone call from Capt. Jennifer Seetoo. 

Think of the angry African American female cop exasperated by dealing with drunk hooligans in “The Hangover”: “Every F@#$% day!!!” Captain Seetoo is a more polite, professional, measured version of that angry cop. 

But it’s not at all funny. It’s life or death. Every F@#$% day, week, month, year!!!

In an animated, emotional conversation, Seetoo said, in essence, that her deputies were more than fatigued — physically and emotionally — by constantly having to deal with injury and fatality accidents along PCH and throughout the Lost Hills jurisdiction, the majority of them caused by high-speed driving but also illegal turns: Comforting injured and dying accident victims, contacting next of kin and blocking PCH and Canyon roads for as much as 12 hours to allow for thorough investigations and ensure justice for victims.

Seetoo believes speed cameras have proven effective in Europe, and she would love to see them applied through Malibu and elsewhere — Calabasas and Westlake Village. High-speed driving is a problem everywhere. See: The Iskander brothers in Westlake Village, September of 2020. 

After a day of emailing, calling, researching in a sad case of synchronicity — sadchronicity — that very same Wednesday evening at around 8:30, a Malibu kid caused the death of four young Pepperdine girls and made ghoulish headlines around the world. 

A day after the accident, I talked to a local guy — code name Fights With Sharks — nursing a beer at Sparky’s who was still shook after witnessing the before, during, and aftermath of the accident. He witnessed the speeding BMW, and when they stopped at the red light at Dukes, he attempted to tell the driver to cool it. The driver zoomed off and 15 seconds later, the citizen came across carnage.

This guy drove right into the middle of it, pulled the kid from the car and stayed there for three hours. The next day he still had a grim look of horror. This is what the deputies, firefighters, EMTs, and ambulance drivers have to deal with “every f@#$ day!!!”

Around Malibu, from Sparky’s to the Chevron Station to Legacy Park to the newsstand, I got the inside scoop on the who, what, when, where, how much, and how fast. Someone said Bohm had that car only two days before the crash, and other rumors pegged his speed at anywhere from 80 to 140 mph. Some say he was racing, texting, reaching for something. The investigation will reveal all that soon.

I’m sworn to secrecy, but the public details are available elsewhere — from this Malibu Times to People magazine to the Guardian UK.

The question some ask: “Would a speed camera at Dead Man’s Curve have prevented that tragedy?” 

If there were a warning sign at the traffic light at Duke’s — and another at Carbon Canyon Road on the other side of Dead Man’s Curve — letting everyone know they were entering a highway danger zone monitored by the unblinking eye of speed cameras that would hand out hundreds of dollars in fines: Would that have slowed the guy down? Would it have slowed down anyone?

At a Thursday afternoon press conference, the day after the crash, Seetoo mentioned speed cameras.

“Right now we’re looking at speed cameras, we have to look at law enforcement differently, we’ve got to change with the times where technology is an option and these speed cameras will be in six cities starting in 2024,” Seetoo said. “We’ve got to keep our eyes on this technology because we believe that it will save lives, we’ve got to do something about it. PCH is deadly. We’ve lost way too many people on PCH. It’s a highway that runs through a city and a college town.”

One of the people I called was retired firefighter/paramedic Gene Rink, who was assigned to LA County Fire Station 88 as a paramedic/engineer (driver). The paramedic’s jurisdiction covers PCH from Coastline Drive to Corral Canyon which included most of Malibu and Topanga Canyon. Rink also dealt with the carnage “every f##$% day!!” and was not at all hesitant to speak on the record about the dire need to improve traffic safety on PCH 

“I talked to Pamela Ulich about this years ago,” Rink said. “At the time I said they should reduce the speed limit through Malibu to 35 miles per hour. You’ve got paparazzi running across PCH chasing celebrities, valets running and customers wobbling out of Moonshadows, surfers crossing PCH at Surfrider — all of it insanely dangerous. Speed cameras will slow people down if they think it’s going to effect their pocketbook. I’m all for it.”

Speed cameras are coming to California, and that’s good, but they won’t be protecting Malibu for a while — if ever — unless the citizens and city fathers stop talking about the weather and do something about it. 

High-speed driving is a clear and present danger along the 21-mile Pacific Coast Autobahn, and if speed cameras are the answer, can Malibu wait until 2032?

As a citizen and a sheriff’s captain, Seetoo believes AB645 is encouraging and a start, but it does not apply to the community and highway that needs it most.

“California needs a bill — a new bill that applies to state highways,” she said. “We can’t piggyback the current bill because it excludes state highways. We can use some of the same verbiage but must create a bill.”

Seetoo believes the tragedy of Niamh Rolston, Peyton Stewart, Asha Weir and Deslyn Williams — and Fraser Bohm, whose life, future, and conscience have most likely been permanently damaged — will be a catalyst and a turning point in the effort to Make PCH Safe Again.

“We as a community must work together and say enough is enough,” Seetoo said in an email on Sunday, Oct. 22, as she was preparing for an emotional memorial at Pepperdine University. “We must not let the tragic deaths of these four young women, who had so much to live for, be in vain. We must stop the blame game, [stop allowing] promises that go unfilled, and we must demand real change.” 

Seetoo is not alone in this. 

“On Thursday morning, Supervisor Lindsey Horvath, Sheriff Robert Luna, Mayor Steve Uhring, and nearly all the Malibu Council members personally called and pledged their support to make PCH safe,” Seetoo said. “We owe it to these four young women, their families, and all those who’ve lost loved ones on PCH. I promise the community, I will not stop until there is REAL change that will save lives.”  

Seetoo said her focus will be on the Three E’s, which she identifies as “Education, Enforcement, and Engineering.”

“But, I need the help of the community and elected officials,” she said. “I’m now working with a nonprofit called ‘Streets Are For Everyone.’ The founder of this nonprofit, Damian Kevitt, was instrumental in getting the speed camera bill — AB645 — passed. I’m also working with grassroot community members including Kathy Eldon, Chris Wizner, Chris Frost, Michel Shane, Keegan Gibbs, and Dermot Stoker.” 

Stoker said it best: “There is no I in can’t!”  

“We know enforcement works. We witnessed this in 2019 when Supervisor Sheila Khuel gave Malibu Sheriff’s Station nearly a half a million dollars to provide enforcement on PCH in Malibu,” Stoker said. “I worked with Andy Cohen and Chris Frost to split the 21 miles of PCH in four sections. Patrol deputies did high-visibility patrol and enforcement. This was the first summer I know of where there weren’t any fatalities, and collisions were reduced. Enforcement works, but unfortunately there is a nationwide lack of peace officers. So now we must use technology to fill that gap, and speed cameras can fill that gap.”

These are the days of miracles and wonders, but you have to wonder how long it will take to protect Malibu citizens and visitors with the unblinking eye of speed cameras.