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: Parents and neighbors of Cragmont Elementary in the Berkeley Hills came together to share concerns with local officials this week in the wake of a crash on Marin Avenue earlier this month that killed two people.
Police have released no information about what may have caused the fatal crash and say the investigation is ongoing. Officers are currently waiting for medical information from the coroner, BPD said Thursday. No information has been available to date about what type of mechanical assessment might be possible of the car itself, which was an older model Toyota, police have said.
Many Cragmont families saw the collision, which happened on the afternoon of May 11 at Marin and Santa Barbara Road as children were getting out of class.
“This happened a block from our school and many of our parents and families witnessed the car careening down Marin and heard the impact down the hill,” Cragmont Principal Candyce Cannon said at Wednesday evening’s Zoom meeting. “I want us to acknowledge this tragedy and know that many of us have been traumatized by this event. But we are here this evening to be active, to move forward and to heal by working towards solutions to the traffic issues in our neighborhood.”
Approximately 80 people attended the meeting, which was a joint effort by the Cragmont PTA, Berkeley council members Susan Wengraf and Sophie Hahn, and staff members from both the Berkeley Unified School District and the city of Berkeley.
One night earlier, Wengraf and Hahn had put forward an urgent request asking the city to spend $150,000 on traffic safety improvements near Cragmont. (That item will now be considered in the city’s ongoing budget process.)
“Please rest assured that the safety of Berkeley families is our top priority,” Wengraf told meeting attendees Wednesday. “Now is the time for reflection, planning and action to protect our school children, families and all our neighbors who live, work and pass through the Marin corridor.”
According to the council budget proposal, “Marin Avenue in north Berkeley climbs straight up a hill with a 25% grade and is the steepest street in the entire San Francisco Bay area.” The neighborhood around Cragmont includes a number of streets the city has identified as “high injury.”
Officials have urged community members to be patient while police complete their work, noting that there may not have been any traffic-calming measures that could have stopped the fatal crash, depending on what actually led to it.
But, no matter what the cause, there seemed to be broad agreement Wednesday among meeting attendees that officials and parents alike could and should do more to make the streets around Cragmont safer.
Farid Javandel, who runs the city’s 40-person Transportation Division, told attendees that Berkeley averages about 1,600 crashes each year, and that 28 of them result in severe or fatal injuries.
“Those are the ones we’re most concerned about: Those are changing people’s lives permanently or ending them,” Javandel said. “That’s where our focus is going to be.”
The collision analysis came out of the city’s ongoing Vision Zero campaign to eliminate the most serious crashes in Berkeley by 2028. Javandel said the city uses data to identify the most dangerous streets and the most common causes of serious collisions to decide which areas to prioritize.
In the short term, Javandel said, the city has already replaced missing traffic signs warning motorists of the steep grade and truck weight limits on Marin, and is looking at whether it can install more 15 mph signs in the school zone around Cragmont.
The city had recently repainted most of the crosswalks near the school, Javandel said, but will now look at whether it’s possible to shift the crosswalk at Marin and Spruce Street to make it safer.
“We’re going to take a look at the data,” he said. The city also plans to look at what sort of grant funding might be available to boost traffic safety near schools and will be working with BUSD to figure out what other changes might help.
Read about the history of BUSD’s school bus program
Some of these changes will have to come from parents themselves, BUSD staff noted. School staff urged parents not to jaywalk across Marin, to be sure to stop for school buses and to stay out of the bus loading zone. Staff said drivers also need to listen carefully to school crossing guards and help keep them — and Berkeley students — safe by following the rules.
“I have seen motorists get irritated, horns honking,” said Sheila Collier, BUSD’s transportation manager. “The crossing guard has a job to do, and that’s to cross those students safely.”
Collier noted that drivers can be ticketed for school-zone violations, and that some of these tickets can be very expensive. The ticket fine for passing a stopped school bus with its red lights flashing is $490 for the first violation, she said, doubles for the section violation and continues to rise after that.
Collier said she has also had to remind parents not to block driveways on Marin Avenue or cross the street outside the crosswalks.
“When I tell them, ‘You can’t do that,’ I’m told they’re going to keep doing it anyway,” she said. “I don’t want to have to keep turning you in to the police to get a response. These are things that are illegal.”
Some wondered whether it might be possible for police to ticket unsafe motorists around Cragmont to drive home the message to prioritize safety.
“Is there a way to request additional enforcement, knowing that it’s controversial?” asked School Board Member Ana Vasudeo, who fielded questions from attendees throughout the evening and presented them to panelists.
Officer Stephanie Cole, from BPD’s traffic bureau, said BPD has tended to focus more on warnings than on tickets to try to encourage safer driving on Berkeley streets. Cole, who has worked in the traffic bureau for six years and also oversees the city’s crossing guard program, said her preferred approach is to choose a high-visibility spot to park so that her presence alone reminds drivers they need to follow the rules.
“That’s my favorite way to do things,” Cole said. She said that, before the COVID-19 pandemic, BPD parking enforcement officers would hand out warnings to community members about following traffic rules. But that effort has been suspended amid the pandemic.
And the broader community conversation has now shifted, Cole noted, as “everybody works together to come up with a new way of dealing with things” that don’t prioritize enforcement.
That said, Cole went on to add, anyone can call or email the traffic bureau to report problematic behavior so that BPD can consider setting up an enforcement or education operation. The traffic bureau has only three officers for the entire city, however, so resources are limited.
Collier, the BUSD transportation manager, said parents must take traffic safety seriously around Cragmont, particularly as there has been a history of violations, which has gotten Berkeley in trouble with the state. She said that, although school buses continue to be the safest form of transportation available, there have been three school bus collisions around Cragmont. (These “collisions” are broadly defined and could include someone jaywalking who is struck in the roadway near a bus if the bus created a visual barrier, or if someone struck a bus driver who got out of a school bus to help students cross the road.)
The California Highway Patrol has told the district it could face serious consequences if this keeps happening, Collier said. The CHP has the authority to restrict the district from using buses in a particular neighborhood if problems continue to crop up.
“That would be an issue for Berkeley students who live in that area who need transportation to get to school” from the La Loma Park neighborhood, she said, and also for students who live in the flatlands and take the bus to get up the hill to Cragmont.
Among many other questions they submitted for Wednesday’s meeting, parents wanted to know whether a traffic signal might be a good solution to slow traffic near Cragmont to make it safer to cross the road.
Javandel noted that it was possible, but cost prohibitive, with a price tag of $600,000 to $800,000 for a single signal. The city has tended toward using rapid flashing beacons and radar speed feedback signs as traffic-calming measures, he said, because they are effective and cost much less, at $20,000 to $50,000.
In response to community interest, Javandel said the city could also look into the possibility of restricting parking along the south side of a Marin Avenue adjacent to Cragmont by painting the curb red in an effort to limit jaywalking related to student drop-offs and pick-ups.
“That’s certainly something that can be done,” Javandel said, although he cautioned that more analysis and community conversations would need to happen before anything like that would take place. “It’s not something staff will do without more follow-up.”