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‘Enraged’: PCH crash is focus of emotional Malibu council meeting, where speakers demand change

Article from Los Angeles Times:

Karen Russell, whose son was killed in a car accident on Mulholland Highway in 2022, speaks at Monday’s Malibu City Council meeting, seeking action on traffic safety. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

As the Malibu City Council met Monday night, the small meeting room was full of people determined to make their voices heard — but first came silence.

As the meeting got underway, council members and others paused to remember the Pepperdine seniors who were killed the night of Oct. 17 on Pacific Coast Highway. A driver slammed into three parked cars and struck the four women — Niamh Rolston, Peyton Stewart, Asha Weir and Deslyn Williams. He was arrested on suspicion of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence.

By night’s end, the City Council would unanimously vote to ask staff for a report and to consider a motion to declare an emergency, which would free up resources, within its jurisdiction, to make PCH safer. But before those actions, nearly 30 people stood up to express their grief and anger about the deadly danger posed by the stretch of road where the young women were killed. One speaker said she was “enraged.”

Oct. 20, 2023

For the record:

1:33 p.m. Oct. 24, 2023 An earlier version of this article said two of the crash victims were students of Pepperdine lecturer Becky Hartung-Morrow. They were friends of her students. It also said Hartung-Morrow was a new mother; she was covering for another faculty member on maternity leave.

Two of Becky Hartung-Morrow’s former students had to eulogize their friends and sorority sisters. The Pepperdine lecturer had just come back to campus to cover for another professor on maternity leave that day, she told the City Council on Monday night. Hartung-Morrow was tense about the commute along Pacific Coast Highway to her 6 p.m. class, a route she knew could be treacherous. She found out later that she’d driven through the area of the crash just 15 minutes before it happened.

Now she’s grieving for the victims and worried about other young people visiting the crash site to pay their respects. She asked that law enforcement do more to keep them safe.

Jennifer Seetoo, captain of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s Malibu/Lost Hills station, recalled speaking with three of the victims’ families in the immediate aftermath of the crash.

“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do as a police officer,” Seetoo said, and a task she hoped never to have to repeat. She said there needed to be “substantive change” to make the 21 miles of PCH in Malibu safer.

Damian Kevitt, a cyclist and traffic safety advocate, speaks Monday before Malibu council members. He said PCH in the coastal area is a well-known “death trap.” (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Michel Shane is a film producer and father of Emily, who was killed at age 13 by a speeding driver while she was walking on that section of highway in 2010. Shane made a documentary around the incident and told The Times prior to the start of the meeting that he was on hand to push for the California Department of Transportation to make changes to improve safety.

A petition Shane created Oct. 20 as a call to action has garnered more than 1,000 signatures.

Residents and business owners in the area where the accident occurred have said speeding is a chronic problem. They blame Caltrans District 7 for a lack of change.

One of Seetoo’s sergeants reported that, of 6,183 citations issued along the Malibu roadway in the last four years, more than 3,000 were for speeding.

The sergeant said that at 1:23 a.m. Sunday, an 18-year-old driver without a license was arrested on suspicion of reckless driving, at a speed of 109 mph.

Among the crowd were officials who expressed their commitment to identifying and implementing solutions in partnership with the city and state agencies, including L.A. County Supervisor Lindsey P. Horvath, state Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) and a spokesperson for Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin (D-Thousand Oaks).

L.A. County Supervisor Lindsey Horvath, left, hugs L.A. County sheriff’s Capt. Jennifer Seetoo at the Malibu City Council meeting on Monday. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Horvath noted legislation was recently signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to permit speed cameras. Although Malibu is not yet among the cities where the cameras will be placed, Horvath said she had been in communication with Newsom to ask that the pilot program “be considered for expansion to include Malibu immediately.”

“We will not let the boundaries of government bureaucracy be the reason we do not take action,” she said.

Over the last 10 years, Caltrans has counted more than 4,000 collisions along PCH in Malibu, with the primary causes being speeding and improper turns, the city says. After the Oct. 17 crash, Malibu outlined traffic safety improvements it already had made, including pedestrian crosswalk improvements and traffic signal synchronization.

But those who spoke at Monday’s meeting were demanding that more be done: speed cameras added, the speed limit reduced, and more sheriff’s deputies and California Highway Patrol officers policing the highway.

A 12-year-old resident, Elsa Conrad, addressed the City Council, saying she wanted to attend Pepperdine for college. She said her older brother is 14 and would have his license in a couple of years: “I want to make sure the road is safe — which it isn’t.”

Damian Kevitt lost part of his leg while riding his bicycle. He was hit by a van and dragged for 600 feet under the vehicle, which took off.

The middle schooler said she was scared for her family and friends, and it felt like there was an accident “almost every day.”

Damian Kevitt, a cyclist and founder of nonprofit Streets Are for Everyone, which advocates for bicycling safety, pointed at Caltrans when saying improvements were crucial. Kevitt lost his leg when he was dragged by a car in Griffith Park in 2013.

“I don’t think there’s a single person here,” he said, “that fails to own or acknowledge that PCH is a death trap.”

The City Council thanked those who spoke and expressed gratitude for the partnership that the supervisor and others were promising, saying their community and this issue had never had this type of representation.

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