Malibu wants a safer PCH

Pacific Coast Highway is many things to the tens of thousands of people who traverse it daily.

For the day trippers who park on the shoulder and haul their coolers across the roadway, it’s the route to some of the best beaches around. For the “Z drivers” — commuters who take the canyon roads west over the mountains to PCH en route to Los Angeles — it’s the quickest way to work. For the cyclists who ride along the shoulder, it’s a workout and a rush.

For the 13,000 people who call Malibu home, PCH is their main street and the only route through town. And since the death of 13-year-old Emily Rose Shane, a local eighth-grader who was hit by a car that ran off the road as she walked on the shoulder April 3, the locals are sick of sharing it with a world that looks on it as a highway.

Residents gathered this week for a public ceremony for the latest victim, Petty Officer Oscar Avila Mendoza, 23, who died after his car was hit by a speeding wrong-way driver on July 16. The wrong-way driver, James Sorg, also died, and Mendoza’s passenger was hospitalized.

Community activists said the five fatalities on PCH in the greater Malibu area so far this year show that despite stepped-up law enforcement and added barriers on the road, the highway is still not safe enough.

“As beautiful as Malibu is, we who live here know first-hand what an ongoing dangerous nightmare the Pacific Coast Highway can be,” Julie Eamer, 51 and the mother of three, told Thursday’s assembly.

Eamer and two other local “moms with mouths” as they call themselves — Susan Saul, 48, and Maria-Flora Smoller, 45 — formed a grassroots group called A Safer PCH after Emily Shane died. The group now runs an e-mail list with more than 350 subscribers and the group’s meetings draw dozens of residents.

“This community came together for us when this tragedy happened,” said Emily’s mother, Ellen Shane.

Born and raised in Malibu, Emily was a happy-go-lucky girl who liked to skateboard and dreamed of one day opening a dance studio. She was walking from a friend’s house to meet her father at the shopping center on Heathercliff Road — a route local kids take frequently, even though there is no sidewalk on that stretch of highway — when Sina Khankhanian, 27, of Winnetka allegedly drove off the road and hit her.

Khankhanian was charged with murder and pleaded not guilty three days after Emily’s death. Authorities say his erratic driving prompted several 911 calls before he ran off the road. Investigators said at the time that he may have deliberately crashed his vehicle but that they did not believe he meant to hit Emily.

Mayor Jefferson “Zuma Jay” Wagner, 57, said now he gets at least one call or e-mail a day — usually two or three — about traffic safety issues.

The city of has dipped into its reserves to pay $180,000 for an additional full-time motorcycle unit under its contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. The California Department of Transportation installed yellow plastic paddles along the traffic median to prevent illegal U-turns along some stretches of the road. And a $900,000 Caltrans grant will fund installation of a bicycle lane on the north end of town.

But community members say more needs to be done.

Proposed measures include bringing in California Highway Patrol units to supplement the sheriff’s patrol, which city officials say Malibu can’t afford; installing sensors, red light cameras and more paddles; and putting in barriers to separate the roadway from the shoulder.

Matthew Katz, 80, wants the state to give PCH to the city and build a freeway to bypass the town. Since he arrived in Malibu in 1955, Katz has watched it change from a tiny, isolated surfing community to a busy semi-resort town. The most recent Caltrans numbers put average daily traffic counts from 44,500 at Topanga Canyon Road on the south end to 13,800 at the northern city limit.

Despite the busy roads, law enforcement officials question the assertion that the highway is unusually deadly.

Traffic Sgt. Philip Brooks at the sheriff’s Malibu/Lost Hills Station, said PCH is no more statistically unsafe than similar roadways throughout the state.

Collision data from the Sheriff’s Department and the state show fatal crashes on the 21-mile stretch of PCH within Malibu city limits have averaged about 2.5 per year for the last decade.

State data show that the number of collisions in Malibu — including property damage, injury and fatal collisions — did not change significantly from 1997 to 2008. And on a per-mile basis, the fatal crash rate was considerably higher in the two-mile stretch of PCH running through West Los Angeles.

Brooks said the real problem is the way the city grew up around PCH.

“It’s the unfortunate logistics of the city. They have a highway as their main road,” he said.

That’s not much comfort for residents. Which is why the Malibu moms say that whatever the logistics, they will keep pushing for a safer PCH.