Have you ever driven through a crosswalk with a pedestrian still walking through it? And then exhaled deeply in relief when you didn’t see flashing red and blue lights in your rear view mirror — or much worse, hit someone?
Well, I had a chance to see it from the other side, courtesy of the Alhambra Police Department, and accompanied them on a pedestrian enforcement operation, otherwise known as, “You’ll get a ticket if you drive through a crosswalk when a plainclothes police officer is walking in it.”
At 7 a.m. on a Thursday morning, I headed to the Alhambra Police Department where I met Sgt. Gabriel Ponce, the Traffic Section supervisor. He gave me a ride in the mobile-home sized Command Center trailer to the corner of Valley Boulevard and Date Avenue.
Already there were eight motorcycle officers — an impressive if not intimidating sight — and department support staff was standing by. Two plainclothes officers crossed the street while police from Alhambra and nearby cities ensured that drivers followed California law, which states that a vehicle must yield to a pedestrian at a crosswalk or an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection.
Pedestrian safety operations enforce traffic laws where there had been previous accidents or complaints by residents, schools, or other community members about pedestrian safety, Ponce explained. Alhambra, which has one of the highest rates in the state for car collisions involving elderly pedestrians, conducts the enforcement operations about every other month.
Three of the motorcycle officers on Thursday were from Alhambra while the others were from Monterey Park, San Gabriel, San Marino, and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (Temple City). The sharing of resources between agencies enables each to undertake enforcement operations it could not accomplish by itself.
The crosswalk spanning Valley Boulevard at Date Avenue is well marked with bright green neon signs clearly mounted on light poles adjacent to the crosswalk, as well as similar signs half a block prior to the crosswalk that warn motorists a crosswalk is ahead. So I did not anticipate seeing a lot of motorists being pulled over during the next few hours.
I could not have been more wrong.
Ponce and I stood at the southeast corner, clearly visible to traffic. This should have been the first clue to drivers, but Ponce said it would not make a difference. He was right. As we watched the plainclothes officers walk back and forth across the street within the crosswalk, car after car sped through, some passing so close that I uttered an involuntary “Whoa”.
Alfred Garcia, the owner of Ventie’s Barber Shop — which has been at the intersection of Valley and Date for more than 20 years — told me the crosswalk posed a hazard to pedestrians. “The cars aren’t going 35 mile per hour [the posted speed limit], they’re doing 45-50,” Garcia said. “You look both ways, you think you’re clear, and before you know it, because they’re driving so fast, they’re on top of you. For an elderly person crossing this street, it’s no good.”
In one instance during the decoy operation, a hapless driver passed within 20 feet of the decoy officer, then suddenly stopped in his traffic lane about 10 feet past the crosswalk. While this could have been a nervous reaction to the law enforcement presence, it could also have been due to a lack of understanding of traffic laws. The Police Department has made efforts to inform the public. “We sent out information to schools that explain what all the colored curbs mean, such as the red zone and white curbs, and the schools can distribute this information to the students. It’s part of the education process,” Ponce said. He added that the department's goal is to provide traffic related information in other languages to educate the City’s immigrant population.
Another surprise was the sheer volume of obvious violations, which are videotaped in case they are contested. When I first saw the eight motorcycle officers lined up on Date, I thought that there might not be enough traffic violations to keep them busy. After the first 15 minutes, I realized they could have had twice the amount of officers and still not have had enough to stop every vehicle that could have been issued a citation. Not everyone was happy with the enforcement operation. Hellen Wang, who has worked in Alhambra for three years, was cited by officers and didn’t feel she deserved it. “[The decoy pedestrian] had only walked two steps from the south curb when I got to the intersection,” said Wang. “I thought he walked too quickly and I was too close to the crosswalk to stop.”
By 11:30 a.m., the final tally was 71 citations and 12 verbal warnings, on par with totals from previous pedestrian enforcement efforts, and there could have justifiably been many more. So count yourself as lucky if you were on Valley during morning rush hour last week and you didn’t receive a ticket. Count yourself as doubly lucky if you are a pedestrian that crosses Valley at Date. Thanks to the pedestrian enforcement operation, you’ll be safer, at least for a little while.