The trick-or-treaters around the San Pablo Park neighborhood were making their way across Derby Street as the sun set on Halloween, about half an hour into their route, when people noticed the speeding car headed right at them.
About 20 costumed kids and parents raced to get out of the way. They didn’t all make it. The driver — who was going so fast people weren’t sure what color or model the car was, never mind its license plate — hit Shannon Mitchell’s 7-year-old son, breaking his femur, fracturing his pelvis and lacerating his head.
The driver sped off, leaving a chaotic scene that is all too common in a country where Halloween is by far the deadliest day of the year for child pedestrians.
“Everybody was screaming — there’s kids everywhere, parents are screaming, I’m screaming — it was the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Mitchell, a real-estate agent. One of her neighbors, a nurse dressed in a pirate costume, helped keep her calm while she tended to her son, who would later undergo a successful surgery and is expected to make a full recovery.
“It’s a miracle,” Mitchell said, “it’s an absolute miracle that he was not killed or hurt any further.”
In the days since then, as her son returned home and she thought about the near-collisions she sees practically every day at the intersection just outside her front door, Mitchell threw herself into advocating for traffic safety.
She wrote an online petition that has since gathered more than 15,000 signatures calling for measures to slow down drivers in her Southwest Berkeley neighborhood, and went to city meetings to demand officials move more swiftly to address the problem.
Mitchell joins a long line of street safety activists — many of whom similarly took up the cause after their loved ones were hurt or killed by drivers — who argue cities aren’t doing enough to realize their stated goal of eliminating serious traffic crashes.
“When it happens to you, you sort of channel all of that fear and anxiety and dread into something,” Mitchell said, asking herself, “How can we use this moment to benefit everybody?”
Residents call for changes, but city struggles to deliver them
Her petition calls for Berkeley to install speed bumps on every street between San Pablo Avenue and Sacramento Street in her neighborhood to slow down drivers who use those roads to get around traffic on arterial routes. She also wants to repaint crosswalks so they’re more visible, and install a stop sign at the intersection of Derby and Mabel streets, which the driver who hit her son had barreled through moments before the collision.
City spokesman Matthai Chakko wrote in an email that transportation staff plan to study Mitchell’s neighborhood over the next two weeks, but said the City Council would have to provide funding for extensive changes. The city and Alameda County already have plans for new traffic safety infrastructure in the area, including “speed tables” along parts of Mabel Street near the crash scene. However, those projects don’t go as far as the changes Mitchell is seeking.
To her and many street safety advocates, change is happening at an unacceptably slow pace. It can take years to fund, approve and build street safety infrastructure for just a handful of intersections; city and county projects near San Pablo Park aren’t expected to begin until late next year.
And the challenge is especially difficult these days in Berkeley, where the city’s Transportation Division has been rocked by upheaval and vacancies that have delayed traffic safety projects.
A third of the division’s positions were vacant as of this fall, and it was without a permanent leader for six months after longtime Transportation Manager Farid Javandel left his job last spring amid controversy over a proposed bike and pedestrian safety project in North Berkeley. Public Works Director Liam Garland, who oversaw the Transportation Division, followed Javandel out the door unexpectedly last week, adding to the uncertainty in the infrastructure office.
With limited funding and staff, Chakko said Berkeley has prioritized making improvements on the handful of especially dangerous major streets that account for a large share of serious traffic crashes, as well as in less-wealthy neighborhoods it defines as “equity priority areas.” The blocks around San Pablo Park, a formerly red-lined neighborhood that has been gentrifying for years, are one of those areas.
“The city will continue to move forward on implementing as many pedestrian safety improvements as possible,” Chakko wrote in a statement.
Councilmember Terry Taplin, who represents Mitchell’s neighborhood, said he supports the “common-sense” changes in her petition. Taplin’s office gets more requests for traffic-calming projects than any other city service, he said — but getting them built as Berkeley works to rebuild its Transportation Division won’t be easy.
“These are things that require us to have staff and resources,” Taplin said. “If I could just wave my magic wand, our roadscape would look very different.”
Traffic safety projects can also face opposition because they require changing people’s expectations about how streets work, Taplin said. Car owners and merchants often bristle about changes that make driving less convenient, take away parking spaces or create unfamiliar road designs that people find difficult to navigate.
“There’s always pushback for this stuff, and so it requires us to remain committed to our values and priorities,” Taplin said.
Desperate to make changes, with yard signs or a bucket of paint
Just before the crash, the driver who hit Mitchell’s son had steered around an attempt by another generation of Berkeley residents to make their streets safer: a traffic diverter meant to deter cut-through drivers.
The first barriers were installed in the 1960s, and despite fierce resistance from drivers there are dozens around the city today, including at the intersection of Derby and Mabel streets. Advocates have lauded the barrier program as a positive step, but say Berkeley needs to go much further.
“There [are] not enough structural barriers to slow cars down,” Mitchell said. The crash that hurt her son, she said, “highlights the fact that even the quiet streets, even the streets like Derby … are not safe.”
Itching to do something, Mitchell ordered bright yellow signs telling people to slow down and planted them around the neighborhood. She’s even considering going out and buying a bucket of paint in hopes that she can touch up the degraded and barely visible crosswalks and street markings around her home. Chakko said city transportation staff will look for opportunities to repaint faded street markings and signs as they inspect the neighborhood.
Police haven’t made any arrests in the case, and a spokesperson declined to share a description of the vehicle involved.
As she awaits changes in her neighborhood and takes note of other parts of Berkeley where speed bumps and brightly painted crosswalks make streets seem more friendly to pedestrians, Mitchell’s frustration is growing at what feels like a lack of urgency to make her neighborhood safer.
“I live in the real world — I understand budgets, and I understand the city has a lot of really important, pressing issues,” she said. “But this has to be a priority, too.”
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