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Putting a Stop to the Casualties : Safety: Picketing by teachers spurs city to plan traffic signal at crosswalk by Washington Middle School, where four children have been injured this year.

May 02, 1991|HOWARD BLUME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On April 23, a hit-and-run driver slammed his car into 8-year-old Calvin Williams III, who was in the crosswalk at 15th Street and Pacific Avenue. The impact snapped his left leg and broke a rib. Calvin flew 40 feet down the street, landing face down. The second-grader, who remains hospitalized, became the fourth child injured at the crossing this year.

That night most of the 40-member faculty at Washington Middle School descended on the Long Beach City Council meeting. They demanded immediate installation of a traffic light to end the accidents at an intersection that school administrators and teachers have considered unsafe for years. City officials told the teachers to wait five months while the request was processed.

Teachers picketed at the crosswalk before and after school for the rest of the week, waving signs and shouting at drivers to slow down.

This week, city staff members are putting together a plan to have a signal in place as soon as possible, in about three months, Deputy City Manager Henry Taboada said.

"It's not a straightforward intersection," Taboada said. "There is a rise in elevation from north to south. Traffic tends to gather speed on that length of street. You need (signs) to alert people they will be coming onto a signal. Because of the way the street is laid out, this is going to be a difficult project."

Teachers said that the summer break may not come soon enough to prevent more children from getting hurt.

Councilman Clarence Smith, who represents the Washington Middle School area, said he first asked the city engineer to look at the need for more traffic control at the crosswalk more than 18 months ago, but that staff reported back at the time that the volume of traffic did not justify a signal.

He dropped the request because he doubted that the council would approve the signal without staff support. There is a waiting list for traffic signals, he explained. And other council members do not want their own signal requests bumped down. "The rash of accidents and the demands of the public made it easier to move," he said.

A study just completed by the staff reversed its earlier conclusion about the intersection, Smith said. For the first time, Traffic Engineer Richard Backus included pedestrians and students in calculating the safety risks. The old study had only counted the number of cars, trucks and buses that rolled by, Smith said. The latest engineering report made it possible to get the Washington crosswalk signal on the fast track, he said.

In the meantime, the city has hired a crossing guard and the Police Department has stepped up law enforcement. In a two-hour period last week, two motorcycle officers wrote 41 citations for speeding or failing to yield for pedestrians.

"It was a shock to me that there were that many violations up there," Long Beach Security Officer Dorothy Buckles said.

Long Beach Unified School District officials said efforts to obtain a crossing guard or a signal go back many years. The intersection had a crossing guard until 1978, when voters passed Proposition 13, cutting local property taxes. The city eliminated all 88 crosswalk stations. About 65 have been restored. Since 1978, the district's enrollment has grown from 59,000 to 72,000 students.

The city turned down a district request to install a signal in 1983, after a car struck and critically injured Washington Vice Principal Victor Backstrom in the crosswalk, district spokesman Richard Van Der Laan said.

Washington Principal Shawn Ashley said that his predecessors also approached the city about the dangerous crossing--all to no avail.

Crossing guards were reserved exclusively for elementary schools until last year, when the district's 14 middle schools could apply on an individual basis. Washington did not get one until three students were hurt.

On the morning of Jan. 21, a car hit 11-year-old sixth-graders Suli Talia and Elesa Atulu. Suli escaped with scratches and bruises. Elesa suffered a broken shoulder.

On the afternoon of Feb. 27, a maroon sedan sent sixth-grader Sylvia McCrimmon flying as her grandmother watched from across the street. The impact broke Sylvia's left leg and badly bruised her right. She needed six stitches to close a gash in her right hand, and suffered headaches from hitting her head on the ground after she bounced off the car. The 12-year-old spent seven days in a hospital, and has not yet returned to school.

Parent Lew Fonseca's daughter narrowly escaped injury in the January accident. He lobbied the City Council for a crossing guard. After being told that the request would take time to process, he volunteered to ferry children across the street free of charge. The council accepted his offer. Fonseca ran the crosswalk station until a paid guard arrived April 9.

Fonseca said he has witnessed about 20 near-misses by motorists who pull around stopped cars and race through the crosswalk when children are crossing.

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