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Can We Make the Arroyo Seco Parkway Safer?

Leiana Ramirez's mother did all the right things in attempting to drive safely on the dangerous parkway. Is there anything that can be done to prevent another accident like it?

The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) paints a bucolic picture of life on the Arroyo Seco Parkway:

"Dedicated on December 30, 1940, and built in three major stages, the 8.2-mile Parkway was conceived in the parkway tradition, with gentle curves and lush landscaping - envisioned both as a scenic pleasure road and a vital traffic artery linking the growing cities of Pasadena and Los Angeles."

Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

But those of us who rely on the Parkway on a daily basis know that traveling along it can be harrowing experience.

The three-lane highway, which winds its way from Pasadena to Chinatown, is flanked by onramps that allow little time for merging and are separated from the main road by low, insignificant bumps of concrete.

Traveling the freeway can be just as hair-raising. Its 55-mile-per-hour speed limit is really just an impotent suggestion, as every day thousand of distracted drivers blaze through the Parkway at speeds it simply was not designed for.

And yet, neither of those factors seemed to have played a role in the accident that took the life of 2-year-old Leiana Ramirez. Ramirez burned to death inside a vehicle that was rear-ended on the Parkway as nearby residents attempted save her life with garden hoses and buckets of water.

Calling Ramirez’s death a tragedy suggests that there was anything that could have been done to prevent what happened to her. Reports from the scene indicated neighbors acted with a courage and urgency that those who weren’t there have little place to question.

Ramirez’s mother wasn’t speeding—in fact she had pulled over due to a front passenger side flat tire to her 2002 Nissan. Some suggest that the mother should have exited the freeway despite the flat tire, but those comments seem to discount the kind of panic that can set in while a driver attempts to negotiate an antiquated Parkway in a violently shaking vehicle.

Leiana's mom also made sure to buckle her in, a decision that millions of responsible parents make every day.

As for the driver of the 1999 GMC truck that rear-ended the Ramirez vehicle, the California Highway Patrol reports that neither drugs nor alcohol played a role in the accident.  Nowhere in the report are excessive speeds mentioned, either.

By all accounts, last Friday’s accident was a case of every day people acting as responsibly and courageously as possible, and yet still finding themselves overtaken by the universe’s sometimes cruel nature.

Could anything have been done to prevent Friday’s accident?

Numerous on our previous story suggested that this all could have been avoided if Ramirez’s mother had access to a breakdown lane. As it stands, the Parkway does not have any.

Maria Raptis, a spokesperson for Caltrans, said that its unlikely breakdown lanes would ever be installed.

“There’s no way to widen that road, the geography doesn’t allow for it,” Raptis said. “You’ve got the river on one side and hills on the other.”

Raptis added that the Parkway is already overloaded from a traffic capacity, which would make converting one travel lane into a breakdown lane a “nightmare.”

“That would be hard to say if there were conversations about making it into a two lane, with the one lane shoulder. Operationally it would be … a nightmare really,” Raptis said. “It would cut the capacity, which is already high, by one-third. Our numbers show that 6,600 cars an pass through the Parkway’s traffic counters.”

Raptis makes a compelling point. Motorists already brazenly disregard the speed limit on the Parkway, who is to say that they would not continue to speed along it if it were converted to a two lane highway? Imagine how tempting that breakdown lane would look to motorists during especially high traffic hours.

Would a breakdown lane offer anything more than a false sense of security?

As Raptis said, “If it was easy, it would have been done by now.”

We believe that a conversation about safety improvements on the Arroyo Seco Parkway is a valuable one, but not if it is directly informed by an accident which appears to have been caused by a confluence of nearly unavoidable factors.

Instead, we hope Patch can serve as a forum to share our grief over the loss of Leiana Ramirez, and when the time is a right, a place to respectfully and intelligently discuss what can be done to make our Parkway safer.

TheTruth323 August 31, 2011 at 08:05 PM
First off my sincere condolences to the family that lost their child, I can't even imagine the pain and suffering. I travel the 110 everyday and have done so for the last six years and have seen countless accidents and near accidents in my "home stretch" from downtown LA until I exit at Avenue 52. I just wish people would take extra care, slow down and really pay attention to their surroundings. Because of the crazy on and off ramps and congestion one could expect to go from freeway speed to almost a dead stop in the blink of an eye. Slow down, pay attention, turn off your damn cell phones and maybe save a life. Peace.
ia2643 August 31, 2011 at 09:22 PM
PLEASE SLOW DOWN! It is the single most important thing we can all do to stay safe on the 110 and everywhere. Let us take the time to realize that our vehicles are machines that can be dangerous when not used properly. We must stop being selfish on the road and show more courtesy to one another. It can very well save a life - yours or someone else's.
db September 01, 2011 at 03:43 PM
I don't think the question is 'can we make it safer' but instead, what do YOU need to do to make it safer. It's simple. Understand that choosing to drive a car entails driving SAFELY with respect to everyone around you. If you want to drive fast, take it to the track. If you want to eat your lunch while watching TV and talking on the phone, do it at home and not in your car !! 1. Cars are for driving. 2. Driving is dangerous. 3. Dangerous means real potential for bodily harm or death. Drivers need to understand that the danger should be minimized and not increased.
Alberto September 01, 2011 at 04:28 PM
Although this piece ends suggesting that a later time might be right for discussing how to make the Arroyo safer, it seems, by the title and most of the rest of the article, that the time for discussion has been proposed for now. Questions: 1. The stretch of frwy at York exit is pretty straight so we can't blame a blind section for accident, right? But neither speed and/or distraction "seemed to have played a role in the accident" either - so what 'caused the accident? If we're discussing safety changes to Arroyo and/or driving that's kinda important. (*I'll come back to "speed" later.) 2. Why did a 2002 Nissan "catch on fire"? I guess it really is as simple as this: http://anse.rs/rsFcTz - 'cause sometimes they just catch fire. As for suggestions: 1. People won't slow down. Why? a. Commercials promote speed and safety features - not consideration or safe practices. So, we buy a car and want to go fast and believe our car will protect us in a sea of other fast cars. b. Cops can't patrol the Arroyo Seco. You basically have to scare people to change group behavior and that's often accomplished with a cop on the side of the road - best if s/he's pulled someone over. Neither of these is possible or safe. The accident was one of those freak things that happens in life - especially in our go-fast, invincible, culture mixed with ill-fitting Preserve the Old In Spite of Safety Concerns world. (Old freeway + modern living/technology = greater potential for trouble.)
Alberto September 01, 2011 at 05:00 PM
So, what might work to make our historic parkway safer? I see two options: 1. Match "Historic Parkway" design with Historic Speed Limits. "Speed did not play a factor" is really "excessive speed" did not play a factor. We need to reexamine "excessive speed" and "safe speed" in the context of this special, out-dated-but-loved, stretch of parkway. a. Consider slowing our stretch (HLP) of the 110 down to a posted, um, 40?-35mph? ...say (northbound) from the Fig exit after the tunnels to the where the parkway crosses the actual Arroyo river. b. Accomplish compliance with a period of heavy presence of police driving the new posted reduced speed to control flow, raise awareness, and change behavior. Large notices of reduced speeds at the "Historic Arroyo Seco" signs (http://bit.ly/polgNk) would also help. OR: 2. Kill the Arroyo Seco Pkwy as it exists and run in through the parks in more of a straight line (and it would cross the river more often. Of course, this would be a HUGE expense, destroy this piece of history, and disrupt very many people. So, bring the Parkway to code or the people to code. I say, since people will easily drive 20 mph over the posted limited and cops can't catch 'em all, lower the limit for our HISTORIC stretch of parkway. If we want to keep the Parkway then let's obey it's design restrictions. I understand that even with all of this the accident still might have occurred; I'm just speaking to the question in the title.
Ray Cruz September 01, 2011 at 05:39 PM
I agree with Alberto and others that the Pkwy can be straightened out and expanded by extending over parts of the adjacent river. It doesn't have to look ugly. I also think there should be a "no passing on the right lane" law applied to this pkwy. Too many vehicles use the right lane for passing, which is especially dangerous on this pkwy. The right lane could also have a slower speed limit than the other 2 lanes, such as 45 mph, for example.
Gma September 01, 2011 at 08:12 PM
If you ever have a flat tire on a freeway put on your emergency flashers and just keep driving and get off the freeway, it might ruin your rim but it can save your life. People don't know this but it's better than waiting to get rear ended.
Alberto September 01, 2011 at 09:53 PM
For the record: by no means do I like the idea of tearing up the ASP and replacing it with something straight. I think it's not in our interests as an historical neighborhood and would be waaaay too expensive anyway. I do believe though that, given that our stretch of the Parkway is near the end of the freeway and is, at its most dangerous section, relatively short, it would be possible to lower the speed limit for that section alone, preserve the Parkway as is, actually better preserve the exit ramps (which are stressed by cars exiting too fast), and increase safety. It would also allow people to truly appreciate our historical stretch of road for what it is rather than treat it like any other freeway. I truly believe this would not adversely affect commute times. (But I have no background in this to actually know) For reference of a like-situation, check out the famous* 1/4 mi crooked section of San Francisco's Lombard street: the street itself is actually an artery for the U.S. 101 and has a normal speed limit but that short section is 5 mph. Do people still drive it at 15 or 20mph? I'm sure they do - but it's got a posted limit of 5mph. (*Is ours not the crookedest parkway/freeway?)
Gma September 01, 2011 at 10:22 PM
they should post the speed at 55 like it used to be, the freeway was made for model t cars.
Charles Inman September 04, 2011 at 09:31 PM
Google the autobahn. They have speeds of 100MPH but they also have laws that you can't pass in the right lane at high speeds relative to the car you are passing. Do we have such a law here?
Rocky A September 06, 2011 at 06:05 PM
I agree with all who suggested to lower the speed limit; at least to 45 mph, followed by heavy police patrol. No, they won't catch everyone exceeding the speed limit, but this will slow down the majority of drivers. I'm certain there are those that are unfamiliar with this highway, it's sharp turns and short on/off ramps; and thus, may continue to drive 65+ mph like on most LA highways.
M. Axelrod September 06, 2011 at 06:48 PM
Yes, lower the speed limit, and enforce it. Also post signs advising drivers to use the right lane only for exiting. The right lane IS the entrance/exit ramp on this Parkway. And the breakdown lane, in an emergency. Signs are not an expensive fix.
Gma September 06, 2011 at 07:20 PM
The South Pasadena Fair Oaks exit is done correctly, they have the right lane closed off to thru traffic so when you enter you are directly on the freeway and do not have to merge and the other drivers stay in their own lanes so your in the clear. Same should be done for all the exits and entrances along the Parkway. It would make it extra safe for all. The exit lanes should be exits only or move over to keep on the freeway, same goes for the entrances. Marked with those yellow pop up stick markers. And another thing for safety reasons the lights on the freeway are on during the day which is wasting energy and off when it gets dark. I have called Cal trans but they don't correct the problem and I've called for years now. So I guess I'm not important enough to listen to so maybe someone from Highland Park in the city council could get some action by calling and hopefully they would listen to them. I've been told people are stealing the copper wires but the working light are on during the day so there is no excuse for wasting energy during the DAY and then telling us to conserve our lights and then not having adequate lighting for the drivers on the freeway.
Lili September 07, 2011 at 01:02 AM
I think it IS at 55 mph.
Bob Bailey December 15, 2011 at 05:47 PM
While I agree with most if not all the comments. I don't believe you can slow it down everyone is in a hurry. When the C.H.P. writes a ticket they take you off the ASP so now no one sees you getting the ticket. I've lived here all my life and it has not changed. Rush rush. Prior to the oil embargo of the 70's when they lowed the speed limit to 55 it raised the speed limit from 45 to 55. We are all guilty of speeding on the road. Anyone that says different is not being honest with themselves. So what else is there put stop light in even if was only a 30 second light traffic would back up. Then someone would be in a hurry and start honking their horn.

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