Hansen: No green light for pedestrians

The green light says go, but in Laguna Beach, the signal to go could be green, yellow or red, depending on the mood of the driver.

After studying the last four-year history of 90 accidents involving pedestrians, one thing is certain: Never assume anything.

For example, most Laguna residents probably believe that pedestrian accidents happen outside of signalized intersections, such as those fancy flashing crosswalks or the old-fashioned crosswalks with no lights. Not so.

The fact is half of all victims are hit crossing at a signal, believing all is good because they are in a safe zone. Perhaps not surprisingly, half of all pedestrian accidents in Laguna happen somewhere along Coast Highway.

City Councilman Kelly Boyd, who works downtown and watches the parade of cars every day, is no stranger to pedestrian issues.

"Being downtown, I see people and how stupid they are," he said. "It's just amazing more people aren't hit."

There are very specific intersections and areas in Laguna that are more dangerous than others:

•The half-mile stretch from Thalia Street to Calliope Street on Coast Highway. The intersections at Thalia and Mountain Road have each had three accidents.

•On Glenneyre Street from Thalia to downtown has had more than one accident on nearly every corner.

•Downtown is dotted with accidents, but they don't usually involve injuries because the cars typically are not moving as fast.

There were two fatalities last year. A local homeless man, allegedly inebriated, walked into traffic and was killed on Laguna Canyon Road by a mom ferrying a carload of kids. The second was also unfortunate: a woman crossing early in the morning — in heavy rain — at Coast Highway and Thalia. No charges were filed in either case.

According to police records, there is no clear pattern to the overall number of accidents during the last four years, despite attempts to educate the public about pedestrian rights. Last year, for example, using a special grant, Laguna police dressed in costumes to perform a decoy operation where they crossed at various intersections around town to see if drivers stopped. They issued 20 tickets and gave four warnings.

But that was just one three-hour operation.

In the last half of 2007 (which is when Laguna's electronic reporting started), there were 11 accidents. In 2008: 23; in 2009: 17; in 2010: 24; and so far this year, 15.

These seesaw results give no real insight, but there are interesting tidbits if you analyze other details.

For example, you may be wondering about the tourist impact. In other words, are there more accidents during the two tourist seasons, summer and winter? Yes, absolutely.

April shows the fewest accidents, but then they trend up over the summer. Same thing happens in the winter, with December actually being the most dangerous pedestrian month in Laguna, followed by July.

The most dangerous day? Wednesday, by far. We don't know why.

Most accidents occur in the afternoon or early evening.

And the fewest happen (only five, total) in those old-fashioned crosswalks — no signal, flashing lights or fancy buzzers.

Sometimes, there is no reason to these things. That's why they are called accidents, I suppose.

But there are lessons and lifelong impacts.

It was May of last year when my youngest son, then 8, got hit by a car in front of me. It was not in Laguna, and he escaped with minor injuries, but to this day he is skittish about Coast Highway.

He sometimes grabs my hand as we walk through busy parking lots. He jumps if a car appears unexpectedly.

I vividly remember it: He was flying in slow motion through the air, and I could not reach out fast enough to catch him. As a father, I felt helpless and inadequate.

Even now, when he and his older brothers say they are walking down to the beach (and crossing Coast Highway at Pearl Street — a flashing lighted crosswalk), I cringe and say, "Be careful. Wait for the cars to stop. Watch that far lane."

"We know dad," they say.

And I watch them run away, hoping the rules apply to them and green means green and red means red.

Because the colors of life should mean something.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at davidhansen@yahoo.com.

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