A driver and his passenger died Tuesday, May 11, 2021, after crashing into another vehicle and a power pole on Marin Avenue in Berkeley. Credit: Rocky Offner

Update, Feb. 24, 2022: The investigation report remains incomplete pending analyses from outside agencies, but the cause of the fatal crash on Marin Avenue in May 2021 appears to have been mechanical due to brake failure, BPD has told Berkeleyside.

Original story: Along with an outpouring of sympathy for a man and woman who were killed Tuesday afternoon in a crash on Marin Avenue, Berkeley Hills residents have shared concerns this week about the state of traffic safety in the neighborhood.

Authorities have not determined the cause of the May 11 collision that killed Anthony Rollins, 64, and his passenger Ruby Edwards, 57, at Marin and Santa Barbara Road, but say they hope to have an update in the coming days. Rollins struck another driver — a Kensington mother who had her 3-year-old daughter in the car — and a PG&E pole while hurtling down the hill at high speed. The Kensington woman spent the night in the hospital but is now home recovering, her husband told Berkeleyside on Wednesday. Their daughter, who was in a carseat, was unharmed, police said.

Officer Byron White, Berkeley police spokesperson, said an autopsy of Rollins will be conducted this week to seek more information about what may have caused the crash.

Marin Avenue is dangerous, neighbors say

Marin Avenue, particularly from Spruce Street up to Grizzly Peak, is an extremely steep stretch of road, which has resulted in a number of collisions and close calls over the years. These problems have been exacerbated in the past decade, neighbors say, as Google Maps and ride-sharing apps have brought in a new wave of drivers who are unfamiliar with the treacherous conditions.

“It’s just sad that this occasion has made this come to people’s attention, but it is a dangerous street,” a woman who lives on Marin Avenue told Berkeleyside on Thursday. Neighbors who spoke to Berkeleyside said they preferred not to be identified due to the nature of the crash and the questions that remain unanswered.

Six years ago, the woman said, a driver whose electrical system failed struck another vehicle, causing a pile-up in her yard and also totaling her car, which had been parked in the driveway. The crash took out her front yard shrubbery and a decades-old jade plant.

The woman said she could recall at least five serious crashes and several smaller ones on Marin Avenue over the past 14 years. A few years ago, a driver elected to crash into a tree when all systems failed in her minivan; she had serious injuries but survived.

The resident also recalled the time a PG&E truck lost control of its brakes on Marin about six years back. The woman was putting her daughter in a carseat when the truck went racing by.

“Thankfully, I was not pulling out of my driveway,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh that’s going to be ugly.'”

The truck nearly hit the historic fountain in the center of Marin Circle but instead crushed banisters nearby.

Numerous Marin Avenue neighbors shared similar stories of front-yard property damage from out-of-control drivers in a NextDoor thread that, as of Thursday, had more than 340 comments.

And the problems date back decades. A community group called Friends of the Fountain described one such crash.

“On 17 October 1957, shortly after 4pm, a run-away truck demolished the fountain. The truck belonged to the Elliott and Elliott Roofing Company, and was full of roofing debris. The brakes failed about 2½ blocks up Marin, and the truck reached 60 miles per hour, as reported in an article by the Oakland Tribune on 18 October (from the SF Public Library newspaper archives). The Berkeley Daily Gazette also ran an article on 18 October 1957 about the crash with vivid details and spectacular photos of the destroyed fountain, the truck and the curious crowd. There was another crash (fatal) in an article in the SF Chronicle on 16 July 1957 (also from the SF Public Library newspaper archives), but the fountain was spared.”

‘A thing you don’t forget’

This week, community members have also recalled with sadness the fatal crash at Marin and Spruce Street in the 1970s that claimed the life of one local girl and severely wounded another.

Councilmember Sophie Hahn was in high school when that tragedy struck. She knew both girls. They were slightly older, she told Berkeleyside, but one of them was a friend of hers. Hahn happened to be at a sleepover at a home at Marin and Spruce at the time of the crash.

In that instance, the young driver had run out of gas at the top of Marin and thought it would be possible to coast down the hill with the ignition off. She realized too late that the brakes would not function with the engine off. The car ultimately flipped over at Spruce Street and ended up in the yard of Cragmont Elementary School.

Hahn said she and her friend heard the crash and ran outside to see what happened.

“At that time we didn’t know that it was friends of ours,” Hahn said. “It was just a horrible, life-shattering thing that you don’t forget.”

When Hahn was elected to the Berkeley City Council in 2016, she said her first community initiative was to get input from Marin Avenue residents — up to her district border at Spruce Street — to hear their concerns about traffic safety.

At that time, she also called on the city’s traffic engineer to review any collisions in the area. Those efforts, Hahn said, ultimately resulted in several improvements, including better signage and the repainting of some crosswalks. The city also installed mirrors to help with visibility.

Hahn said that, while there is more that can be done, Marin Avenue had not been the subject in recent years of complaints from her constituents.

But this week’s crash had brought the focus back, she said.

“I’m not sure that there are any traffic improvements that would have stopped this,” Hahn said. “We don’t know why it happened. But obviously, when you have a tragedy of this magnitude, no matter what the cause was, you’re always going to want to go back and reevaluate.”

Farid Javandel, who runs the city’s Transportation Division, said the city will review information from police — when it is available — to understand the primary cause of this week’s collision. Staff will also look at other crashes in the area to get a better understanding of the dynamics and trends.

“If they’re all speed related, that’s one thing. If there are sightline problems, it’s another,” he said. “We need to find out what’s the leading cause of the crashes and what’s the action we can take that’s most likely to reduce future crashes.”

He continued: “We should always take a look and see if there’s something we can do.”

Safety meeting for Cragmont families is in the works

A driver and his passenger died Tuesday, May 11, 2021, after crashing into an Audi, pictured here, and a power pole on Marin Avenue in Berkeley. Credit: Robert L. Mathews

Councilmember Susan Wengraf, whose Berkeley Hills district shares the Spruce Street border with Hahn, said she is planning to convene a meeting in the coming weeks with Cragmont Elementary parents to see what more might be done to improve safety around the school and in the broader neighborhood.

“If people are going to use Marin, they need to use it with extreme caution,” Wengraf said. “If they don’t feel comfortable using it, they should take alternate routes.”

Some residents have suggested that the city convert Marin into a one-way street — uphill only — as one possible solution. Wengraf said she is open to all ideas and would like the city to conduct a traffic study to see what might be best.

The city has already installed more stop signs on Marin Avenue and recently repainted some crosswalks, but Wengraf said more options are needed. Somewhat fortuitously, the next council agenda, she noted, already includes a proposal from her office to double the amount of money available — to $200,000 — for neighborhood “traffic calming” efforts.

Wengraf too raised the issue of Google Maps and how it has increasingly directed people through the neighborhood as an alternate route to get over the hill. City officials sent a letter to Google and other app companies asking them to stop. Google sent back a form letter, Wengraf said.

“It’s frustrating,” she said. “Right now, our first effort should be to make that school crossing as safe as possible. Because that involves children. And pedestrians. That’s where I want to focus my energy first.”

Witness: “Like something out of a movie”

Some of those children witnessed Tuesday’s fatal crash, which took place at about 1:40 p.m., when classes for some students were getting out. Quite a few local residents were on Marin Avenue when the collision happened and could only look on in horror as it took place.

A driver struck this PG&E pole Tuesday, May 11, 2021, killing him and his passenger. Credit: Rocky Offner

One woman told Berkeleyside she had just parked on Marin and was getting ready to cross the street when she saw a car approaching on her right. There was another vehicle just behind it that appeared to be tailgating.

Her initial thought was irritation at the second motorist and she wondered why they couldn’t wait their turn. Then the second driver swerved onto the wrong side of the road and overtook the first car while seeming to pick up speed.

Everything was moving incredibly fast, she said, too fast to see any of the people inside the vehicles or what they might have been doing.

She turned her head to the left and saw the speeding driver clip a vehicle in the roadway, then soar high into the air, turning upside down. The woman said she didn’t see the car hit the ground, because her view was obscured by a hill, but she heard the crash.

Days after the collision, the memory still shook her.

“I just keep seeing the car going up in the air and flipping. It looked like something out of a movie,” she said. “I never want to see anything like that again.”

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...