The City of Berkeley has taken a step toward improving pedestrian safety at a deadly intersection, but continues to mishandle its broader approach to street safety.

Last April, Joseph Luft was killed while crossing Sacramento Street at Bancroft Way. Luft, a 98 year old Berkeley resident, was a WWII veteran and former psychology professor at San Francisco State University. For the past 50 years, he had taken a daily walk around his Berkeley neighborhood. He was killed by Robert Gilchrist, a legally blind, unlicensed driver who failed to yield. Gilchrist was charged with vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, a felony.

Sacramento Street at Bancroft. (Source: Google Streetview)

Sacramento Street at Bancroft. (Source: Google Streetview)

We covered Luft’s death in May when examining Berkeley’s pedestrian and bicycle safety epidemic. Berkeley is the most dangerous city of its size in California for people walking and biking. While the city is generally walkable and bike-friendly, it is plagued by collisions on a few dangerous automobile-oriented, high-speed corridors like Sacramento Street. Sacramento Street has a dangerously fast speed limit of 30 mph and is plagued by unsignalized crosswalks that induce multiple threat crashes. Drivers often don’t see or stop for pedestrians, even when people are walking in the crosswalk. This case was particularly extreme given Gilchrist’s horribly reckless actions, but in other instances, a reasonably good driver could cause a similar outcome as a result of the street’s antiquated design.

Multiple threat crashes occur when one car yields to a pedestrian at an unsignalized crosswalk, but a second car does not due to a visual obstruction caused by the first car. (Source: FHWA)

Multiple threat crashes occur when one car yields to a pedestrian at an unsignalized crosswalk, but a second car does not due to a visual obstruction caused by the first car. (Source: FHWA)

In response to the fatality, the City of Berkeley has approved the installation of a Rectangular Rapid-Flash Beacon at the intersection of Sacramento and Bancroft (presumably accompanied with an advance-stop bar). Following Luft’s death, residents were up in arms about the unsafe conditions of the intersection, which is adjacent to an assisted living facility and elementary school. Rectangular Rapid-Flash Beacons have been shown to increase yielding rates substantially – from 18 percent to 81 percent. These beacons, which cost about $50,000 each, are already present at multiple intersections within the City. Installation at the Sacramento/Bancroft intersection can begin after the city’s next two-year budget cycle is approved in June.

Rectangular Rapid-Flash Beacon. (Source: FHWA)

Rectangular Rapid-Flash Beacon.
(Source: FHWA)

While it’s encouraging to see Berkeley take a step toward improving pedestrian safety at this intersection, more could certainly be done. The entire Sacramento Street corridor faces issues due to speeding, multiple threat crashes, and line-of-sight constraints; however, installing the beacons at every intersection is not feasible. According to Matthai Chakko, the city’s spokesperson, the City has been “selective” in installing beacons because “there has been some concern that if they’re overused they’re less effective.” Yet, a partial fix at one intersection only tackles a fraction of the corridor and doesn’t address the broader underlying issues of Sacramento Street’s pseudo-expressway design. A more holistic approach to safety is warranted.

Why hasn’t Berkeley taken a proactive approach to addressing corridor-wide safety needs on Sacramento and other unsafe corridors? The sad answer appears to be that Berkeley still hasn’t accepted that it has a street safety problem. While its progressive peers like San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles have embraced the goals of Vision Zero to eliminate all traffic deaths, Berkeley’s discourse on its street safety epidemic lags behind. Consider Chakko’s advice to pedestrians in the Berkeleyside article regarding the beacon installation:

“People obviously still need to be safe when walking; you still need to be aware of drivers. It’s an additional tool.”

According to Chakko, it’s a pedestrian’s responsibility to behave safely when crossing the street, even if speeding drivers fail to yield to a pedestrian’s right of way. While fine advice, it’s lamentable that he makes no mention of a driver’s responsibility to behave safely, or the need to reassess the unsafe design of Sacramento Street that results in countless collisions. By Chakko’s logic, if Luft had been safer and more aware when crossing the street, he wouldn’t have been hit. That victim-blaming perspective is fundamentally wrong.

What Chakko should have said is that all roadway users need to be safe and aware, and drivers have a special responsibility to act with care because a single mistake can cost a life. Chakko and the City should have recognized that enough is enough, and that safety should be prioritized over speed. They should have used Luft’s death as an opportunity to adopt Vision Zero and address the unsafe design flaws of Sacramento Street – pursuing a road diet, improving sight lines, reducing the speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph, and stepping up enforcement for speeding and failing to yield.

Instead, Chakko recited the same old myopic declarations that pedestrians need to watch out for their own safety, ostensibly because the City will not. It’s a sad declaration for a city that was once a leader for progressive policies to be reduced to an oblivious defender of a deadly status quo.


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Andy Gillin

Andy Gillin received his Bachelor’s Degree from the University of California at Berkeley and his law degree from the University of Chicago. He is the managing partner of GJEL Accident Attorneys and has written and lectured in the field of plaintiffs’ personal injury law for numerous organizations. Andy is a highly recognized wrongful death lawyer in California.