Julie Eamer was shocked when a friend's child was killed by a drunk driver on the Malibu stretch of Pacific Coast Highway 13 years ago. When another friend's child was killed by a tourist pulling an illegal U-turn six years ago, the Malibu mother of three couldn't believe it. When a third friend's teenager, pretty, dark-eyed Emily Shane, was killed by an out-of-control driver last year, Eamer finally was jolted into action.
“I just couldn't watch another girlfriend go through this nightmare,” Eamer tells L.A. Weekly.
So she co-founded A Safer PCH, a group tired of watching the dead bodies — seven in 2010 alone — pile up on the 27-mile stretch of the highway from Topanga Canyon Road to the Ventura County line.
But after 18 months of working with Caltrans, which owns and operates the famed coastal road, and the L.A. Sheriff's Department, which patrols it, A Safer PCH has run into so many bureaucratic roadblocks that many of the “mothers with mouths” are asking the public to demand change.
Malibu resident Joseph Annocki was killed on his motorcycle in March when an Oklahoma tourist illegally turned left into traffic while leaving posh Geoffrey's Restaurant. Annocki, zipping toward the tourist at 60 mph, swerved — but tragically died.
“If it was up to me, I would just sue them all until they got their act together and started really saving lives,” says Cindy Vandor, a former NBC correspondent and 25-year Malibu resident. “No one is held accountable because no one is ultimately responsible for what happens there.”
Emily Shane's parents filed suit last year against the state and the Sheriff's Department. But her father, Michel Shane, executive producer of films Catch Me If You Can and I, Robot, tells the Weekly he dropped the suit because such cases are nearly impossible to win. So he's making a documentary about the history of PCH's dangers.
A Safer PCH says 75 percent of crashes occur in the Malibu commercial district, where the speed limit is 45. “I see at least one crash a week,” says Councilman Jefferson Wagner, who runs a surf shop. “We've asked Caltrans to lower the limit several times to 35 to 40. But so far they won't do it.”
Wagner alleges that Caltrans — which is run by Malcolm Dougherty, a lifelong Caltrans employee who has spent his career in Northern California — has ignored them.
Wagner alleges that because Caltrans' allocation to maintain PCH is “based on the number of cars that pass through — currently an average of 45,000 a day — they think that lowering the limit will push some cars onto Topanga [Canyon Boulevard].”
Jim Riley, a transportation engineer for the Caltrans Traffic Investigations Unit, denies that Caltrans is keeping the speed limit high to attract commuters and thus fatten its budget.
A Safer PCH has asked repeatedly that parking on the inland side of PCH be banned in order to reduce the number of beachgoers who sprint across to the beach, causing humans and cars to tangle in sometimes harrowing ways.
Sgt. Phil Brooks of the L.A. County Sheriff's Lost Hills station agrees. An inland parking ban on PCH — which likely would draw howls of protest from surfers and others — is Brooks' top recommendation.
But the Coastal Commission will never allow that, he says, noting, “Their mandate is to increase beach access.”
But apparently, the Coastal Commission's mandate says nothing about saving lives.
Jack Ainsworth, deputy director for the South Coast office, says, “Our mandate is to maximize access to the coast and of course balance that with safety issues. … We think Caltrans and the city should look at alternatives like crosswalks and flashing lights.”
The mothers want a K-rail — a knee-high concrete barrier that deflects errant cars and prevents head-on crashes. But Caltrans won't install them, saying K-rails would inhibit emergency vehicles from responding quickly to Malibu's mud slides and fires.
“It's been a real education in how government works,” Eamer says. “It's pretty dysfunctional.”
Emily Shane, just 13, was walking to meet her dad to get a ride home when she was run down at PCH and Heathercliff Road by a speeding and reckless driver.
Her death was a transformative moment for Malibu's 13,000 residents.
The driver, Sina Khankhanian, 27, of Winnetka, claimed he was trying to commit suicide. He has been charged with murder and faces trial later this year.
Emily's death sparked communitywide meetings in Malibu, at which residents suggested ways to fix festering problems caused by having a dangerous highway double as Main Street.
The factors that make PCH so dangerous are well documented. Thousands of so-called “Z commuters” travel between the San Fernando Valley and the Westside on Malibu, Topanga and Kanan-Dume canyon roads through the Santa Monica Mountains. Fearless bicyclists fight for a share of the too-narrow roads. Speeders go 65 mph or more — including the Swedish Ferrari driver who crashed going 162 mph six years ago.
Drunken big-name partiers like Nick Nolte and Mel Gibson come and go from 27 establishments that serve alcohol. Tourists pull illegal U-turns. Tourists and surfers park and illegally sprint across the road. Metro adds to the danger, with what the Malibu mothers call “sitting duck” bus stops, such as one at Westward Beach in the middle of bisecting roads.
In the half-hour before Emily Shane was run down, four 911 calls were made warning that a crazy driver — Khankhanian — was speeding erratically on PCH.
Eighteen months later, A Safer PCH has scored small victories. “We got Caltrans to repaint every crosswalk,” Eamer says. A traffic signal was installed where Corral Canyon intersects PCH, and yellow paddles — “candlesticks” — now divide northbound traffic from southbound near Zuma Beach.
Brooks recently completed a 110-page PCH traffic safety study. Caltrans and Malibu are spending $375,000 on their own safety study, which is expected to make recommendations — in two years.
Meanwhile, a federal grant of $900,000 has been awarded to create a five-mile bike route from Trancas Canyon Road to the Ventura County line. But curiously, current plans do not call for road widening — just signs and a white line on the shoulder.
The talk of more studies draws derision from critics.
“We don't need another study that wastes taxpayer dollars when we already know what the problems are,” Vandor says. “We need to … lower the speed limit and start painting pedestrian sidewalks that people can actually see, and build bus stops that are actually off the road and build bike paths that actually separate bikes from cars.”
Emily's father says simply, “Nobody knows what to do to make it better.”
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