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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on December 3rd, 2014, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 15, Issue 39 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 15, Issue 39

Santa Maria tackles pedestrian safety

By DAVID MINSKY

Leticia Hernandez-Sanchez was crossing the street with her 13-year-old brother, Lisandro, near the corner of Newlove and Miller on the night of June 29, 2013, when she was struck and killed by a car driven by Kelsi Sullivan.

At the time, Hernandez-Sanchez was only 15 years old; Sullivan was 21. The accident occurred around 9:30 p.m. It was dark, and there was no marked crosswalk. Sullivan faced a trial for a misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charge, but she was acquitted in October 2014. Sullivan wasn’t intoxicated, and evidence in the trial showed that Sullivan was traveling at or slower than the posted 40 mph speed limit. Evidence also showed that Sullivan wasn’t driving distracted when Hernandez-Sanchez was hit.


RIGHT OF WAY
Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino said pedestrian safety is one of the top priorities of her administration.
PHOTO BY DAVID MINSKY

The victim’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit shortly after the accident. The city of Santa Maria is one of the defendants in the case, along with Sullivan and the owner of the car she was driving.

Statistics and seemingly repetitive press releases from the Santa Maria Police Department about vehicle/pedestrian collisions show that Hernandez-Sanchez isn’t the first Santa Maria pedestrian who’s been hit by a vehicle. It’s dangerous to be a pedestrian, a bicyclist, or a motorist in Santa Maria, but the city is taking steps to try to rectify the situation.

On Dec. 10, the Santa Maria Police Department is staging a safety operation throughout the city. It’s one of many efforts by the city to increase awareness of pedestrian and bicyclist safety and prevent injuries or deaths.

The city ranks second overall in the state out of 56 cities of similar size for victims who either die or are injured in traffic-related collisions, according to 2012 statistics (the most recent) compiled by the California Office of Traffic Safety. Santa Maria is classified among cities that range in population size from 100,001 to 250,000 people. In 2012 alone, 622 people were killed or injured because of traffic collisions in the city.

For traffic collisions involving bicyclists aged 15 and younger, Santa Maria is the second-worst, and it’s the ninth-worst city for bicyclists aged 65 and older, with a combined total of 66 injuries or deaths. Pedestrians don’t have it any easier. The city is ranked fifth for pedestrians aged 15 and younger who are killed or injured in traffic collisions, and ranked 17th out of 56 for all pedestrians.

“That’s not good,” said Sgt. Mark Streker of the Santa Maria Police Department.

In 2013 alone, there were seven fatalities in traffic collisions, five of them pedestrians, Streker told the Sun, adding that three pedestrians have been killed in a similar manner so far in 2014.

To give a sense of how dangerous it can be in Santa Maria, a pedestrian near the corner of Enos and Broadway was recently injured by a flying piece of debris after a Ford Mustang slammed into a light pole at a high rate of speed. The driver eventually died, but the pedestrian is recovering.

But the real eye-opener for city officials was the death of Hernandez-Sanchez. For Mayor Alice Patino, the issue is a top priority in her administration. When it comes to pedestrian safety in the city, Patino said there is no such thing. The responsibility falls on everyone—not just drivers, she said.

“People aren’t paying attention,” Patino said. “It’s really important because it costs lives in Santa Maria.”

Sgt. Streker said he’s observed the same thing. He often notices people staring at their cell phones as they cross the street.

“We drive around as officers in our city and frequently see pedestrians walking across heavily traveled streets with head down, headphones in, and they are not paying attention,” Streker said.

Walking and texting seems to be a problem in the eyes of Streker and Patino. The city has not introduced any legislation to curb this behavior, but Patino and Streker both stressed to the Sun that distracted walking is a problem. Some cities throughout the country have instituted laws against such activity. In Fort Lee, N.J., a person can be ticketed and fined $85 for careless walking. The Utah Transit Authority implemented a $50 civil fine for distracted walking.

Patino said she’s encountered some near misses while driving around in Santa Maria. She said it can be hard to see people crossing the street in dimly lit areas, especially when they’re wearing dark clothing.

To improve pedestrian safety, Patino said she’s resorting to education. A few months ago she spoke with Streker and SMPD Police Chief Ralph Martin about what the city is doing to make the city safer. One of the solutions they came up with is making a series of 30-second public service announcements to inform television viewers about pedestrian and bicycle laws. Patino said the PSAs will air on KSBY, KCOY, and public access channel 23 in the coming weeks.

But pedestrians aren’t the only ones the city’s zeroing in on. Bicyclists are being targeted, too. Both Patino and Streker said that bicyclists have to follow the same rules as motorists when it comes to riding on the street.

The city is also trying to educate kids in local schools, Patino said, adding that many children and pedestrians pushing baby strollers are seen crossing the street in the area where Hernandez-Sanchez was killed.

“Kids need to be educated, especially when they are talking on their cell phones,” Patino said.

And then there’s the all-day safety operation on Dec. 10 that will be conducted by police, who will be posted at several intersections around the city to watch for pedestrians, as well as motorists and bicyclists, who violate right-of-way laws. Those who are caught will be issued a citation.

 One of the biggest problem areas, according to Streker, is between the 1300 and 1400 block of South Broadway, which has posted signs that say there’s no pedestrian crossing.

“We frequently see pedestrians literally standing right next to the sign, and they continue crossing the road,” Streker said.

Earlier this year, law enforcement agencies held an operation in Goleta, targeting motorists who didn’t follow pedestrian right-of-way laws. A deputy dressed in plain clothes was used as a decoy. More than 140 citations were issued.

The operation is being paid for with a $378,000 DUI Enforcement and Awareness Program grant given to the Santa Maria police by the California Office of Traffic Safety in October 2014. The grant gives local police the resources to hold DUI checkpoints throughout the city.

Drinking and driving appears to be a problem in Santa Maria, too. Statistics from the OTS show that the city is ranked fifth in alcohol-related collisions that result in injury or death. With the grant, the city should be able to fund at least one safety operation per month on average, according to Streker. The next scheduled DUI/driver’s license checkpoints are Dec. 7 and 19.

Patino wouldn’t comment on the wrongful death lawsuit, but she said the death of Hernandez-Sanchez raises awareness in everyone.

“I think it’s scary,” Patino said. “They see the crosswalk, and they think it’s safe, but it’s not safe. I think we have an obligation to educate people.”

 

Contact Staff Writer David Minsky at dminsky@santamariasun.com.




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