After Debbie Killelea’s Death, Her Work for a Safer City Is Carried On

The image is pervasive and haunting: Debbie Killelea, caught in the fuzzy, flickering lens of a video camera, standing, feet planted wide, arms folded in the quintessential stance of an angry woman. How many times I’ve seen women in my neighborhood take this same stance as cars go speeding through streets populated by children. How dare you, the stance says, endanger my children and terrorize my neighborhood.

That’s what Debbie Killelea appeared to be saying to the car that came speeding down her alley a block from the ocean on Balboa Peninsula last September. But the car didn’t stop. She was barely able to push her two children out of the way before the car struck and killed her. The driver was convicted of “gross vehicular manslaughter.” While the jury was deliberating his fate, the videotape of Debbie Killelea’s last few seconds of life--taken by a passenger in the death car--was played over and over on television.

In the aftermath of tragedy, we always look for something hopeful, some sign that a small increment of good can be wrenched from the finality of death. That’s why the efforts of Killelea’s family and friends and neighbors have taken on some of the overtones of a crusade, a crusade to see enacted into law the traffic-safety measures for which she worked so diligently. It’s almost as if the finest memorial that can be erected to Debbie Killelea is the knowledge that her death prodded her city to take every possible measure to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

So how effective has this crusade been? Has the city moved on the traffic reforms sought by Killelea and the Balboa Peninsula Point Assn., of which she was a member?

I asked those questions of Newport Beach Mayor Donald Strauss and Assistant City Traffic Engineer Jim Brahler. Both said that prior to last September, Newport Beach generally resisted the use of speed bumps on city streets and alleys, mostly because of possible liability and insurance problems. The question was on the agenda of the city traffic committee when Killelea was killed; city officials grant that her death and the amount of public concern and interest thus generated speeded up both City Council consideration and approval of the use of traffic bumps on an experimental basis.

While the legislative machinery was grinding, Brahler said, two immediate changes were made: The alley in which Killelea was killed was made one-way in the direction of traffic going toward rather than from the beach (“because people coming off the peninsula tend to speed more than those arriving”) and a broader area of curbing was painted red to prevent parking at intersections “in order to increase visibility for approaching cars.”

Meanwhile, city traffic engineers met with homeowners associations throughout Newport Beach to determine their wishes about participating in an experimental speed bump program. Newport Shores hasn’t yet been heard from; when they are, the engineers will submit the locations to the council. If they are approved--which appears certain--work will start in May.

So about 9 months after Debbie Killelea’s death, the speed bumps she worked for so hard will finally be installed in her neighborhood in two areas on Ocean Boulevard. Traffic will be studied carefully both before and after to determine if they are effective.

“I don’t think speed bumps would have prevented what happened to Debbie,” Brahler said. “Speed was just one of the factors involved. We looked at a lot of data from Thousand Oaks and Pasadena, which use speed bumps, and it’s difficult to say (if) they cut down on accidents, but they do cut down on speed.”

According to William Wren--who worked with Killelea for traffic reform through their homeowners’ association--peninsula residents are reasonably satisfied with the progress being made. “The city is working with us,” he said, “and is receptive. Obviously, we’d like them to do everything we want right now but within the strictures of government, I think they are doing all they can.”

He stressed, however, that the speed bumps are only a Band-Aid on the peninsula’s traffic problems. “We knew something like Debbie’s accident was going to happen years ago and it will happen again if we don’t deal with the basic problem of cruising, which is a time bomb that hasn’t yet been defused. We badly need a traffic circulation plan for the entire peninsula to deal with the cruising problem.

“Debbie’s death has made us very determined, and we’re not going to let it drop. The city has made a start but they owe it to the community here to come up with a viable overall plan.”

And, he might have added, they owe it to the memory of Debbie Killelea.