New safety campaign for deadly PCH strip urges drivers to 'slow the fast down'

MALIBU, CA - MAY 8, 2024 - The California State Transportation Agency, California Department of Transportation, California Highway Patrol, California Office of Traffic Safety and other state, local and public safety officials hold a news conference to announce the "Go Safely PCH" education campaign at the Ghost Tire Memorial along Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu on May 8, 2024. The campaign is to help inform the public about the need to slow down along the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH, State Route 1) through Malibu and share specific actions being taken at the state and local level to reduce deaths and serious injuries on PCH and make the corridor safer for pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists. Specific measures include millions of dollars prioritized for infrastructure safety upgrades, increased traffic safety enforcement, and educational outreach to promote safe driving behaviors when visiting the vital 21-mile corridor (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)
State agencies hold a news conference to announce the "Go Safely PCH" education campaign at the Ghost Tire Memorial along Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

State and local officials trying to reduce the lethality of the Pacific Coast Highway through Malibu launched a public education campaign this week to get drivers to "slow the fast down" — or get pulled over.

The message, which Gov. Gavin Newsom's office said will be delivered on billboards, lawn and beach signs, fliers, posters and social media, emphasizes the stepped-up enforcement by the California Highway Patrol in the 21-mile stretch that has claimed 60 lives since 2010. The plan is to educate residents and tourists about the dangers of reckless driving, what's happened on the highway as a result of it, what is being done to increase safety and how everyone can do their part.

State and local leaders convened Wednesday at Malibu's Ghost Tire Memorial, a tribute to dozens of lives lost on that stretch of PCH, to announce the campaign. Dubbed "Go Safely PCH," it's the latest in a series of initiatives to enhance safety, including changes to the highway's markings and signage.

So far, though, there's been no move to lower the speed limit on the deadly stretch — a change many residents have been asking for ever since the deaths of four Pepperdine seniors, who were struck by a driver last October.

Tina Segel, a 50-year resident of the city, asked the officials gathered at the memorial how hard it would be to reduce the speed limit. The four students were killed right outside of Segel's home.

Read more: After deaths of four Pepperdine students on Pacific Coast Highway, a memorial and a call to action

Lowering the speed limit on a state highway would mean looking into its design and reviewing the applicable state and federal laws, said Toks Omishakin, California Transportation Secretary. "It's not as straightforward as it may seem."

"But there's no doubt, no doubt, that we know the No. 1 issue here is speeding, distracted driving and driving under the influence," Omishakin said. All are factors that lead to crashes on this portion of PCH, he said.

The idea of lowering the speed limit isn't completely off the table, said Tony Tavares, director of the California Department of Transportation.

Six months after the four Pepperdine students' deaths, PCH has visibly changed, with enhanced striping in curves, optical speed bars (stripes spaced at gradually decreasing distances to make drivers aware of their speed), speed feedback signs, speed limit markings on the pavement and upgraded safety corridor signs.

All were short-term projects that were promised by a collaboration announced last December among the California State Transportation Agency, California Office of Traffic Safety, Los Angeles County Supervisor Lindsey P. Horvath, the city of Malibu and Caltrans District 7.

Another part of the promise was beefing up law enforcement along the 21-mile section of the highway. The CHP established a three-officer unit patrol and one sergeant in January, whose work comes on top of enforcement efforts by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

Read more: Driver sped at 104 mph in Malibu crash that killed 4 Pepperdine students, D.A. says

The new CHP unit has issued more than 1,200 citations; 1,000 of those citations were for speeding. Meanwhile, sheriff's deputies are writing more tickets too, Omishakin said; from January through March, the Sheriff Department's Malibu/Lost Hills station issued roughly 1,900 citations, up from 1,700 citations in the first quarter of 2023.

Perhaps not by chance, there were at least six traffic stops performed during the news conference on the highway nearby.

The additional police presence hasn't stopped dangerous driving on the roadway. On Jan. 11 the Sheriff's Department responded to a three-vehicle accident, the 10th wreck on PCH since the October tragedy.

In 2023 alone, there were 220 crashes on the stretch of PCH from the Ventura County line to the McClure Tunnel in Santa Monica. Officials say that the majority of incidents were related to speed.

Nevertheless, Douglas Young, assistant chief of the CHP's Southern Division, said the enforcement efforts are making a difference. Amid the increase in citations for speeding, distracted driving, unsafe turns, unsafe lane changes, and seat belt and equipment violations, there has been a 15% decline in crashes, Young said.

"The word 'decline' is something we're hoping to hear more and more over the next several weeks, months and years," he said.

Looking ahead, Caltrans will conduct three safety audits along the 21-mile stretch to identify issues that can be enhanced or retrofitted. The audits will be done by Caltrans staff riding or walking through the corridor, but the agency is imploring the community to participate in the audits and future meetings, Tavares said.

The audits and stakeholder meetings will result in a PCH master plan and report at the end of the year to identify improvements needed on the highway, based in part on the community's input.

Read more: Months after horrific crash, Malibu's PCH is set for safety fixes. Will it be enough?

The activist group Streets are for Everyone, which has been pushing for safety improvements alongside the city and a coalition of other advocates known as Fix PCH, criticized officials for not telling the coalition about the campaign and announcement until the last minute.

Interestingly, the announcement was made at the memorial site created by the organization and Fix PCH.

"There was no work to engage the local community on the details of the campaign or work out how it could best be rolled out in an effective manner, yet it’s those on the ground that would know how best to do this," the group said in a statement.

Caltrans, it said, "has yet to do the easiest thing it could do to reduce serious injuries and fatalities: reduce the speed limit through the deadliest 2 miles of PCH in the middle of Malibu."

"We aim not just for new mandates, but on this corridor, new mindsets," Omishakin said. "And in order to change mindsets and change behaviors, we must raise awareness."

Segel told The Times that she's happy to see these initiatives and the leaders coming into her community to force change, and she's starting to see results.

"That tragedy has just bonded our community together like I've never seen," she said. "As tragic as it is, I guess it's also a very, very sad silver lining."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.