by Zusha Elinson, The Bay Citizen
Caltrans was ordered to pay $8 million to the family of Emily Liou, who was struck by a Toyota in 2006 while crossing the highway in a crosswalk. Age 17 at the time, she was left in a coma. The jury found that Caltrans had known for years that the crosswalks without traffic signals were dangerous but had taken no action to prevent the accident.
Despite the jury’s verdict, Caltrans has done little since then to improve the crossing at Ludeman Lane where Liou was hit or three similar crosswalks within a six-block stretch of El Camino Real. Since the accident, 11 more pedestrians have been hit in these crosswalks. In the past six weeks alone, three people have been injured.
Caltrans spokeswoman Gidget Navarro told The Bay Citizen last week that the agency had installed pedestrian lights at the intersection where Liou was struck. But a visit to the site found no lights. On a rainy evening last week, pedestrians waited along El Camino Real for several minutes at a time for rush-hour traffic to thin just enough so they could scamper across the highway.
In an email late Wednesday, Navarro acknowledged that the lights had not been installed but gave no further explanation. Caltrans has jurisdiction over El Camino Real, also known as state Highway 82.
After the Liou trial, Caltrans repainted the crosswalk and added white triangles on the pavement outside the white lines, indicating drivers must yield.
Pedestrian advocates, local officials and lawyers say that Caltrans has a long history of ignoring pedestrians in favor of car traffic. After Liou was hit, Caltrans blocked a 2006 effort by Millbrae to install flashing lights at a nearby crosswalk. During the 2010 trial, Liou’s lawyers showed that Caltrans had never studied pedestrian accident rates in the area or how many people used the crosswalks.
“I think they’re way behind the eight ball when it comes to pedestrian safety,” said Rich Shoenberger, an attorney who represented Liou’s family in the successful lawsuit. “In this instance there couldn't have been a bigger wake-up call to pay attention to the El Camino Real.”
The heavily traveled section of highway is near shops, restaurants, three schools and four parks and is about a mile from the Millbrae BART and Caltrain station.
Navarro, the Caltrans spokeswoman, said earlier that the agency has initiated a pilot program to address pedestrian safety in San Mateo and Solano counties. She said the agency will install pavement markings and flashing beacons that can be triggered by the push of a button at all uncontrolled intersections along that stretch of El Camino Real. The project “will take a couple of years to finalize,” she said but gave no target date for completion.
Millbrae resident Jean Escobar and her 13-year-old son, Ruben, were hit by a driver on the morning of Oct. 13 while crossing El Camino Real in the crosswalk at Santa Helena Avenue. The car slammed into Jean Escobar’s leg and lifted her son onto the hood, injuring his arm.
Under California law, pedestrians in a crosswalk have the right of way.
“We just want to feel safe crossing the street,” said Escobar, a 34-year-old mechanical equipment saleswoman, who on one occasion used glow sticks to make sure passing motorists saw her and Ruben as they crossed the road.
A month later, a 17-year-old girl was walking in the same crosswalk when a car hit her. She sustained major injuries, according to the San Mateo County Sheriff.
“It cost so much money for those people’s accident,” Escobar said, referring to the Liou verdict. “Why don’t they just invest that money to prevent it in the first place?”
The jury awarded Liou's family $12.2 million, finding Caltrans 50 percent at fault, the driver 30 percent and Liou, who was wearing dark clothes and listening to an iPod, 20 percent. Caltrans' share ended up being $8 million because the driver's insurance didn't cover her percentage of the damages, according to Schoenberger.
Schoenberger, a partner at Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger, said he was surprised that so little had been done to improve safety for pedestrians.
“The fact that they have done nothing to alleviate the obvious and well-known hazards on that roadway is egregious and bordering on despicable because more and more people are getting hurt,” Schoenberger said.
The accident toll of 11 since 2006 is based on data from UC Berkeley’s Transportation Injury Mapping System and the San Mateo County Sheriff.
Millbrae officials say they have battled Caltrans for years to make changes to El Camino Real. After Liou was hurt, the City Council voted to spend $75,000 to install flashing pedestrian lights at nearby Millwood Drive. But Caltrans rejected the plan, said Millbrae City Clerk Angela Louis.
Caltrans told the city it would install a traffic light at Millwood instead, Louis said, but the work has yet to begin. She noted that it took nearly a decade for Caltrans to begin installing a traffic light that the city had requested on another section of El Camino Real.
“We’re going to be patient,” Louis said. “The wheels of government move slowly sometimes.”
In the meantime, Millbrae has taken matters into its own hands, rolling out a temporary lighted sign that warns oncoming cars about pedestrians at the intersection where Liou tried to cross the street on a March evening in 2006.
On a half-mile stretch of El Camino Real in Millbrae there are four crosswalks, which are marked but have no stop signs or traffic lights. Pedestrians continue to be injured by cars while crossing in the crosswalk even after the state was held liable for a dangerous design on that stretch of highway.
This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.