It is a famous street that crosses famous neighborhoods filled with famous people. But a portion of Sunset Boulevard is becoming infamous as a road of horrors to area residents.
The curves are too sharp, the lanes too narrow, the car speeds much too high. Those ingredients form an often-fatal mix. Shortly before Christmas, two women were killed in a brutal head-on collision on Sunset near Bentley Avenue, the latest in a series of auto deaths along the roadway in recent years.
Some of the crashes have been so horrifying they've never been forgotten. In 1976, a speeding car spun out of control at a hairpin turn on Sunset and Evans Road, plowing into a carful of students from Palisades High School. Three of the students were killed.
Last year, a group of Pacific Palisades residents helped push through a number of city improvement projects aimed at taming the dangerous blind curves and turn lanes along the serpentine boulevard. And recently, a group of Bel-Air residents, who usually prefer to settle their community problems in-house, felt compelled to seek public assistance in their battle to make Sunset Boulevard, between the 405 Freeway and Veteran Avenue, safer.
"We want to see if there isn't something that can be done before it gets any worse," said resident Chris Stone. "Something that will protect our lives. Parts of that street have become ferocious."
Stone and other members of the Bel-Air Assn. will meet tonight with Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, traffic officials from the West Los Angeles police division and city traffic engineers to air their concerns. Residents say traffic in the area has gotten so bad that some of them have considered moving from the exclusive neighborhood just to get away from Sunset Boulevard.
"I'm terrified of this corner," said Bentley Avenue resident Barbara Bauer. "You can imagine crossing this intersection when you have two small children in the car. It's just an awful feeling."
A few moments at the corner of Bentley and Sunset on Tuesday showed why it has become a place where residents fear to tread. More than two dozen cars on Sunset, unable to negotiate the curve at high speed, veered briefly across the dividing line. Dozens of others were forced to hit their brakes to stay in their lane while descending the slope.
Bauer said she does not allow the person who drives her two children to and from school to turn left from Bentley Avenue to Sunset and asks the driver to take a circuitous route home to avoid the dangerous left-turn lane leading to the dead-end street. And residents say dinner party guests in the neighborhood are often warned of the driving dangers before and after soirees.
When the Pacific Palisades residents organized to get something done about the roadway, officials suggested adding more stoplights, modifying several roadway curves and widening lanes along several sections of the street.
Over the next several years, up to $10 million in improvements will be added along the eight-mile stretch of Sunset west of the San Diego Freeway. But Bel-Air residents maintain that similar projects must be approved for the section of Sunset that crosses their neighborhood.
"There have been cases the past 20 years where cars have ended up in people's swimming pools," said one Sunset Boulevard resident, who asked to remain anonymous. "I know neighbors who don't allow their kids to play on their front lawns anymore for fear that they might get hit by an out-of-control car."
Police acknowledge that Sunset Boulevard is fraught with traffic hazards and has been the scene of numerous fatalities. It also poses enforcement problems. Capt. Vance Proctor, head of the West Los Angeles Police Department traffic division, said the curving roadway makes it difficult for police to keep speeding drivers in sight, and the heavy congestion makes it difficult to apprehend lawbreakers. A double yellow line is all that separates east and westbound traffic, creating numerous opportunities for head-on collisions.
Adding to the problem is that each year brings with it more motorists driving faster cars at higher speeds, police say.
"Sunset has always been a dangerous stretch; we have had some very tragic accidents there," Proctor said. "It's an area where the speed limit has to be carefully adhered to because of the curves and such. But many drivers don't seem to realize that."
Proctor said that it's too early to say what safety measures are needed to correct the hazards. But he said that like most problem areas, the best way to address it is through "enforcement, education and engineering."
Residents say they'll be happy with any improvements--as long as they are done quickly.
"It's gotten to a point where people are scared to drive to and from their homes," said Stone, who organized tonight's meeting. "And that's no way to live."