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Laguna to Caltrans: Light up highway crosswalks, soon

Recent vehicle accidents in Laguna Beach involving pedestrians have prompted the City Council to put pressure on the California Department of Transportation to fast-track a plan to add warning lights at three crosswalks on South Coast Highway.

A representative from the state agency, which owns the highway, told council members during their meeting Tuesday that it would be about 18 months before crews could place blinking lights into the crosswalks at Brooks, Calliope and Anita streets. The agency also plans to erect two overhead arms with warning lights at Calliope and Anita, and add lights to an existing arm over the crosswalk at Brooks.

This work is in addition to short-term steps such as restriping pavement markings to make the crosswalk areas more visible and adding brighter lights on streetlight poles that illuminate the ground. Caltrans has started some of this work.

But the plan to install blinking lights at the intersections in 18 months was too long for Councilman Bob Whalen, who had requested a report from Caltrans on pedestrian improvements along South Coast Highway.

"When I first got the email from the city manager about someone else being hit in the crosswalk on Thanksgiving ... it tore me up," Whalen said. "I did not feel good about it at all. To see that the summer of 2018 would be the ultimate solution, three years after first accident in the Brooks crosswalk, I just don't think that is good enough."

Residents attending the meeting Tuesday echoed Whalen's comments.

"It's frustrating to me to have children that cannot feel confident to walk out our doors on [Brooks] Street as my brother did that night," said Erica Jones, whose 45-year-old brother was struck by a car while walking in an intersection on Thanksgiving night and hospitalized. "You guys need to speed this process up a little bit quicker. Nobody can wait for this."

Jones said her brother suffered serious injuries from the incident.

On Dec. 8, a car hit a pedestrian walking in the crosswalk at Calliope Street and South Coast Highway. The person was also hospitalized.

Laguna Beach has seen six pedestrians killed since 2007.

In 2014, Laguna College of Art and Design student Nina Fitzpatrick was struck and killed by a motorist as she walked in a crosswalk near the college's main campus, at 2222 Laguna Canyon Road.

Fitzpatrick's death led Caltrans to install a traffic signal at that crosswalk.

The crosswalk had warning lights embedded in the ground, but residents and LCAD President Jonathan Burke said at the time that the lights did not do enough to ensure that drivers come to a complete stop for pedestrians.

"We're very concerned about pedestrian accidents that have occurred," James Pinheiro, Caltrans' deputy director of operations and maintenance, told the council.

Pinheiro said Caltrans will consider adding rumble strips to roads, though he didn't specify possible locations.

Rumble strips, which send vibrations through a car as it passes over them, alerting drivers to be especially attentive, come in a variety of styles, according to the U.S. Federal Highway Administration website.

Pinheiro also said he will discuss with Caltrans staff whether the in-ground lights and overhead arms with warning lights could be installed sooner.

Four intersections along South Coast Highway — at Mountain Road, Oak Street, Pearl Street and Table Rock Drive — and another along North Coast Highway at Jasmine Street currently have blinking lights in the pavement and the overhead mast arms with warning lights, city Public Works Director Shohreh Dupuis wrote in an email.

Laguna Mayor Pro Tem Kelly Boyd said Tuesday that part of the problem is distracted drivers.

"I can't believe how many people I see talking on their cellphone or texting," Boyd said. "Our [Police Department] needs to start emphasizing the fact that, I mean, I could write 30 tickets in an hour just for people talking on their phones. This has to stop, and we have to start enforcing things like that."

bryce.alderton@latimes.com

Twitter: @AldertonBryce

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