LCAD wants signal sooner rather than later

At the request of Laguna College of Art + Design's president, Caltrans and the city are looking at ways to speed up installation of a traffic signal along state-owned Laguna Canyon Road.

LCAD President Jonathan Burke's request comes after 22-year-old Nina Fitzpatrick, a fine-arts student, died after she was hit by a car in the crosswalk at 8:45 p.m. April 3 in front of the main campus, at 2222 Laguna Canyon Road.

Police said an 83-year-old Minnesota woman driving a Honda sedan struck Fitzpatrick, who lived in Costa Mesa. The driver was not cited or arrested by police.

Caltrans is scheduled to install a traffic signal in front of the main campus in 2015, but Burke would like the pedestrian-activated signal ready by fall.

The proposed HAWK pedestrian crossing system would use yellow and red lights and lighted displays of a person walking as well as a hand to guide drivers and pedestrians.

"Everyone knows a red light means stop, not caution, not slowing down," Burke said. "A red light would be an improvement."

Caltrans is doing everything it can to accelerate the process, spokesman David Richardson said, acknowledging that the state agency has rules to follow.

Engineers are working on design plans for the signal before bids are sought.

The signal will cost Caltrans about $75,000, Richardson said.

Burke also wants the speed limit reduced from 45 to 35 mph along that stretch of Laguna Canyon Road. But Richardson says that won't be so easy.

"Speed limits on California freeways are set by the state Legislature," Richardson wrote in a follow-up email. "Speed limits, known as prima facie speed limits, on all other state routes are set by an engineering and speed zone survey process in compliance with the California Vehicle Code."

For example, surveyors log the speed of 100 vehicles at a certain location. The speed of at least 85% of drivers is then rounded up or down 5 mph, with engineers taking into account such factors as accident history, he said.

The last speed survey in front of LCAD's main campus was done in January 2011.

"We're here to serve," Richardson said. "Safety is our No. 1 concern. But we have to do what we do in a legal, compliant way."

Flashing warning lights currently warn drivers approaching the college from both directions on Laguna Canyon Road. Blinking lights embedded in the street also flash when a pedestrian pushes a button to cross the road.

Nine pedestrians have died in Laguna Beach in accidents involving cars or trucks from Jan. 1, 2009, through April 11 of this year, police Capt. Jason Kravetz wrote in an email.

In that time, Laguna has seen 102 collisions involving cars and pedestrians, including 47 people in crosswalks. The number of such accidents has decreased in the past few years, though, from 24 in 2010 to 13 last year, Kravetz said. This year, through April 11, police have recorded eight.

The pedestrian was at fault in 21 of the 102 incidents, said Kravetz, adding that this usually means the person was jaywalking or had stepped into traffic before it was safe.

Two of the 11 collisions on Laguna Canyon Road occurred in the past two months near the college's main campus, where Fitzpatrick was hit.

In February, a homeless man was hit while walking along Laguna Canyon Road. The driver fled and has not been identified, Kravetz said. The transient survived and is being treated at a long-term care facility.

Alex Maxwell, 22, a game art student at LCAD, suggested better lighting and stronger enforcement.

"So many times I've almost been hit in a crosswalk," Maxwell said. "The canyon has always been a dangerous place."

Delivery trucks also barrel down the canyon road, said Susan Gamez, the mother of an LCAD student.

"The trucks coming into Laguna go 60 mph," Gamez said. "They're going so fast in the morning when the kids come in."

Caltrans and the city, including a subcommittee of Mayor Pro Tem Bob Whalen and Councilwoman Toni Iseman, are working with Orange County Parks and a consultant on possible changes to Laguna Canyon Road, keeping in mind pedestrian and bicyclist safety.

The city is also working with county officials on a design for a pedestrian path that would link LCAD's main campus to the Act V parking lot, City Manager John Pietig said.

Construction is expected to begin in the fall or winter of 2015.

Concern for pedestrian safety isn't limited to Laguna Canyon Road. Coast Highway, which Caltrans also owns, has its share of crosswalks.

"I always hear people scream at cars," said Zach LeBon, who for five years has worked at Laguna Surf & Sport, at Oak Street and Coast Highway. "I hear people kicking cars. People drive too fast. They are in such a hurry."

LeBon gazed out the store window on a recent afternoon and saw a driver talking on her cellphone while approaching the crosswalk, as a surfer carrying his board walked past, looking both ways to make sure the path was clear.

Because Coast Highway is two lanes in both directions at that location, LeBon said, a driver in the far lane could have trouble seeing a pedestrian in the process of crossing.

LeBon said he would like to see something that flashes red and will catch drivers' attention.

To improve pedestrian safety, Laguna Beach police have conducted several citywide crosswalk enforcement campaigns, including one Wednesday.

Police issued 40 citations for crosswalk right-of-way violations and for passing cars stopped for pedestrians, according to a news release.

Irvine police assisted Laguna officers at numerous crosswalks from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on North and South Coast Highway and Glenneyre Street. Officers also issued one written and four verbal warnings.

Police remind drivers to come to a complete stop until pedestrians have safely passed in a crosswalk and note that passing a vehicle that has stopped in an adjacent lane for a pedestrian violates state law.

Burke said he and Caltrans officials have discussed the possibility of a pedestrian bridge over Laguna Canyon Road, but no formal proposals have been made.

A pedestrian bridge would involve acquiring land, ensuring compliance with Americans With Disabilities Act, conducting an environmental review and holding public hearings, Richardson said.

"It comes down to the cost," Gamez said. "What is the cost of a life?"

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