Walking Amok 

The stats say Berkeley is one profoundly unsafe place to walk. But the stats lie.

At the southwest corner of Shattuck and Hearst in Berkeley, friends of the late Jayne Ash have left flowers and personal notes attached to the light pole to honor her. A year ago, a cement truck traveling fifteen miles an hour fatally struck the 35-year-old health-care worker in the crosswalk as she returned to work from a coffee break. A witness said it seemed as if she didn't even see the truck coming. "Be safe," one scribbler advised on the memorial.

Shortly after Ash was killed, her friends pushed city officials to do more to protect pedestrians. Citing the city's high rate of pedestrian-injury collisions, one mourner told the city council, "If this were an infectious disease it would be a public-health emergency."

It's a view shared by members of the city's now-defunct Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Task Force, which two years ago issued an extensive report on the dangers of walking in Berkeley. The task force found that Berkeley suffered 694 pedestrian-injury accidents from 1994 through 1998 -- twice the statewide average and the highest rate among 44 cities of similar size in the state. According to California Highway Patrol data from 1995 to 1999, Berkeley's injury accident rate was 71 percent higher than Los Angeles, 59 percent higher than neighboring Oakland, and slightly higher than San Francisco. CHP data for 1999 and 2000 shows that the city's pedestrian-injury collision rate numbers have remained close to their annual average of the previous five years.

The numbers are both sobering and maddeningly counterintuitive. How can it be that car-hating Berkeley with its notorious "traffic calming" speed bumps and cement-block diverters is a more dangerous place to stroll than LaLa Land, where the car is king? How can a city where a main crosstown traffic artery -- Martin Luther King Jr. Way -- limits cars to 25 miles per hour pose a greater threat to pedestrians than San Francisco?

As the saying goes, "There are lies, there are damned lies, and there are statistics." And when it comes to pedestrian-safety data, including those used by the task force, the statistics for Berkeley and other cities are ambiguous at best and misleading at worst.

The problem is that using population numbers to arrive at accident rates doesn't tell the whole story. Highway Patrol stats don't measure pedestrian volume. And Berkeley has high-volume pedestrians.

For one thing, Berkeley is home to one of the largest universities in the state with more than 30,000 peripatetic students. Not coincidentally, eight of the fifteen intersections identified as the city's most injury-prone are within a few blocks of campus. The 1990 Census also shows that nearly seventeen percent of employed Berkeley residents walk to work -- the highest rate in the Bay Area. (Walk to work figures for the 2000 Census haven't been released yet.)

Compare that to the comparably sized East Bay cities of Richmond and Concord. For 1999 and 2000, Richmond and Concord each suffered fewer than half the pedestrian-injury collisions Berkeley suffered during the same period. And guess what? Only one-seventh as many working stiffs walk to their jobs in those two cities -- under 2.5 percent in each case.

The upshot is that if Berkeley's pedestrian volume were factored in, the city's rate of pedestrian collisions would plummet. Even the task force conceded in its report that the available accident data left something to be desired.

Nonetheless, it's difficult to argue -- whatever the stats say or don't say -- that there's not a right-of-way war in Berkeley.

Catercorner from the makeshift memorial for Jayne Ash on a recent weekday morning, a pedestrian stepped incautiously into the crosswalk heading south even though the red hand had been flashing for some time. As he neared the halfway point, a car turned left from Shattuck onto Hearst, trying to beat an imminent red light. Nearing the crosswalk, the driver suddenly slammed on his brakes to avoid hitting the pedestrian. The walker glared briefly at the driver and then moved on to the other side of the road. Another potentially fatal collision had been narrowly averted.

The episode underscored not only the dangers of Berkeley roads, but also the ongoing friction between pedestrians and motorists.

For years, bicycle enthusiasts as well as disabled and senior advocates -- the interests that dominated the Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Task Force -- have griped about police not ticketing rogue drivers who barrel through crosswalks at high speeds. Indeed, Police Chief Dash Butler not too long ago told the City Council he didn't have enough cops to target car-driving scofflaws. "The problem is we've thrown in the towel on requiring motorists to behave themselves," wheelchair user Ann Sieck complained in the Berkeley Daily Planet last year. "We're trying to manage traffic on the honor system, and it isn't working."

Meanwhile, frustrated drivers complain about Berkeley pedestrians using their right-of-way privileges to justify their own unsafe behavior. One such driver recently e-mailed Councilwoman Polly Armstrong: "I have lived here for seven years and it took me quite a while and many close calls before I got used to the fact that people in Berkeley commonly walk in front of a moving vehicle even when they see them, and get angry at the driver for almost hitting them. I was struck by the arrogance of these people as they confidently stepped off the curb in front of me while I desperately tried not to hit them. It seems these pedestrians take some kind of perverse pleasure doing this."

Transportation planners and traffic cops generally agree that careless drivers and careless pedestrians are to blame for accidents. Berkeley's Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Task Force, however, concluded that drivers were primarily to blame. In the five-year period studied by the task force, drivers were found to be at fault for collisions 62 percent of the time. Still, pedestrians weren't totally innocent -- they were found at fault in one-fourth of the accidents. With those numbers in mind, the task force recommended several measures to make walking in Berkeley safer, such as beefing up traffic enforcement -- especially near schools -- and increasing fines for motorists who don't obey pedestrian right-of-ways. "If we want to encourage people to walk and have a walkable city, we have to make it safe," task force chair Nancy Holland said.

Unfortunately, Holland and others say Berkeley has been dragging its feet on implementing the task force's recommendations from two years ago. City officials blame heavy turnover among its transportation personnel.

But the issue of pedestrian safety in Berkeley has been in the news again recently as city officials have debated imposing 20 mph speed limits on residential streets and launched a curious program where pedestrians carry orange flags in crosswalks to make themselves more visible to motorists. At a handful of intersections -- including the corner where Jayne Ash was killed -- the city left bright orange flags for pedestrians to use when crossing the road underneath a sign advising, "Look left and right before crossing the street. For added visibility, carry a flag with you."

Two days later, a woman driving a Jeep at the corner of Claremont and Russell hit a flag-carrying pedestrian. The driver said she didn't see the pedestrian, who fortunately escaped serious injury.

So did Berkeley's dubious reputation as a walkers' nightmare.

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