The 21-mile stretch of road known as Malibu that many call home is also considered one of the most dangerous highways in the country. But what makes this road so dangerous and what, if anything, can be done to fix it?
While Malibu is only a city of about 13,000 residents, Pacific Coast Highway is the only means of travel from Malibu to Santa Monica. PCH is the main road that Malibu has been built around. “PCH is a state highway that also happens to be our main street,” says Mayor Laura Rosenthal. The culture of Malibu seems to surround PCH in more than just physical ways. It is the hub of the city, which poses great dangers for the residents and tourists.
According to Malibu City Council Candidate Hans Laetz, the last major safety improvements on PCH were in 1964, when the left turn lanes were added. Laetz says that Caltrans built roads to move a lot of traffic as quickly as possible. “We have, in 21 years of cityhood, made only tiny changes to the road, while a major overhaul is required,” says Laetz. Residents are demanding changes and they are telling the city that the time is now.
While PCH safety has long been a topic of conversation for the people of Malibu, there seems to be a renewed sense of urgency about the state of the road. This new interest can be attributed to recent deaths related to PCH. Residents are shaken and upset about the deaths that occur on the stretch of highway, especially the 2010 deaths, including that of Emily Shane who was only thirteen.
Activists, including the members and leaders of the local organization, A.S.P.C.H or A Safer Pacific Coast Highway, demand that the city make changes and create a safer environment for motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists. With a community as small as Malibu, every death becomes personal and in the case of Emily Shane, it sparked a movement toward improving Malibu’s stretch of Pacific Coast Highway.
What Makes the Highway So Dangerous?
Highways are all over the United States and many question why PCH is considered such a dangerous stretch. “People drive very fast, especially on the western side where the speed limit is 50 mph,” says Rosenthal. According to the mayor, the majority of the accidents in Malibu are in the Civic Center area and in eastern Malibu where the road is narrower and traffic is denser. Also, visitors tend to be distracted by the view of the ocean and often to not pay attention to dangers on the road. Rosenthal says that the combination of distracted residents and visitors, high volumes of vehicles, many bicyclists, garbage trucks, sunsets and sunrises in driver’s eyes is a “recipe for danger.”
Laetz views the biggest danger area as between Santa Monica and Duke’s at Las Flores Road in the very beginning stretch of Malibu’s PCH. “That is where there are treacherous curves, no place for pedestrians or bikes, and the most crashes,” says Laetz. Both Rosenthal and Laetz reiterate the fact that the stretch of highway is not owned by the city of Malibu but rather by Caltrans. “We need a multiagency solution, and we needed it 21 years ago,” Laetz says.
Studying the problem
The city of Malibu has been awarded a Caltrans grant amounting to $300,000 for the Malibu Pacific Coast Highway Safety Study Project. The study will “examine the current conditions and analyze and identify potential strategies to promote improved safety.” While Rosenthal states that she is in full support of the study and thinks it help improve our knowledge of PCH significantly, Laetz is a little more skeptical. “It does not go far enough. It is just the start of the process, when we should be miles down that road. Being in support of that plan is like agreeing to call the fire department when the second floor of the burning building just collapsed.” Follow this link to the agenda proposal: http://www.malibucity.org/download/index.cfm/fuseaction/download/cid/17441/
What Has Been Done?
Much has already been done to improve the safety of Pacific Coast Highway. According to current Mayor Laura Rosenthal, the major improvements that have been made are an increase in yellow paddles to stop illegal u-turns up and down PCH, an increase in the number of sheriff deputies on duty and more traffic lights. She also states that California Highway Patrol are now giving tickets up and down PCH and medians have been planted between the two lanes of highway which in turn calms traffic on both sides of the road. In benefit of pedestrians, many crosswalks have been repainted to make crossing more visible. “More must be done though,” says Rosenthal.
Again Laetz is demanding more from the city. “Malibu’s answer to the growing number of bikes on the road, and the constant level of bad traffic and poor engineering, has been to stick two fingers in the ears, close the eyes and go “mee-mee-mee.”
What Needs to Be Done?
While residents may differ on their views of how Malibu as dealt with PCH, most can agree that changes need to be made. Many residents are asking for more sensors, paddles, dividers, red light cameras and especially more patrolling by sheriffs and California Highway Patrols. Laetz is asking for some precise solutions to the problems, including a two-way, separate bike path east of Las Flores Canyon Road, to be constructed on the north side of the highway, without narrowing lanes and preserving as much parking as possible. He also requests to narrow the five traffic lanes by a foot on each side between Las Flores and Malibu Canyon roads to preserve parking and give bikes a place to ride without the pressure of heavy traffic.
Are the Dangers Unique to PCH?
While PCH is often deemed an unsafe highway, it is hard to argue that it is worse than any other roads. Data from the Lost Hills Sheriff’s Department traffic office show fatal crashes on PCH within Malibu city limits have averaged about 2.5 per year for the ten years. Many sources argue that real problems lie within a two-mile stretch of PCH running through West Los Angeles where the fatal crash numbers are higher than that of Malibu. “PCH is not a magic street where the laws of physics, traffic laws and traffic safety mysteriously vanish. Modern traffic engineering tricks like narrowing lanes, lowering speed limits and giving room for bikes have proven effective at lowering crash rates on roads all over the US,” says Laetz. With firm conviction he believes that if we put PCH on a “road diet” many of our problems would be solved.
The Future of PCH
As accidents continue to happen and fatalities continue to occur, the people of Malibu are still demanding change. “They want lower speed limits, more enforcement, education and fewer accidents and we are working on it,” says Rosenthal. With the implementation of the grant and study of PCH, the residents of Malibu may be one step closer to improving the already picturesque state of the city.