The premature death of 15-year-old San Marcos High School student Sergio Romero, who was struck by a truck and killed while crossing Milpas Street on Friday night, has sparked a larger conversation about pedestrian safety on the thoroughfare, which has long been a precarious place for pedestrians.
A grim reminder of the tragedy is emblazoned on the roadway at Ortega and Milpas streets, with skid marks from the truck that hit Romero spanning nearly 100 feet from the crosswalk where he was hit about 9:15 p.m. Friday after leaving band practice at a nearby studio.
The Santa Barbara Police Department is still investigating the fatal crash and has found video footage of the collision, according to traffic investigator Mark Hunt.
The driver has been identified as 19-year-old Manuel Flores Jr., but he has not been charged. The filing of any charges will be up to the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office after police finish their investigation.
In the meantime, traffic problems in the Milpas corridor are evident.
“It’s really bad at that intersection,” said Alan Bleecker, owner of Capitol Hardware at 711 N. Milpas St., which looks out over the junction.
In the past 25 years, Bleecker said he has seen collisions there, and many more close calls. When the city painted a red zone in front of his shop, he lost some street parking but said that it has improved visibility for pedestrians.
Bleecker is president of the Milpas Community Association, which has been mulling over how to improve safety in the area. A flashing light for pedestrians is one idea, or even a full set of streetlights at the intersection.
Bleecker said he also sees people looking for La Super Rica Taqueria do U-turns right in the middle of the Ortega intersection. The famous restaurant has almost no signage, so people realize too late they’ve missed it and try to turn as soon as possible.
Ironically, another hit almost occurred as Bleecker talked with a traffic investigator from the Police Department. As the pair watched another officer try to cross the street, he was almost struck by a motorist who didn’t see him.
“I looked at him and said, ‘This is the kind of thing we see all the time,’” Bleecker said.
The intersection is a busy hub for pedestrians, especially students coming to and from Santa Barbara junior and high schools.
Santa Barbara High School Principal John Becchio said that while intersections on the south end of Milpas Street haven’t been an issue, there also are lights to govern through traffic in the area, allowing high-schoolers to cross Milpas safety.
But closer to Santa Barbara Junior High, where Becchio formerly worked, it’s a different story.
“Crossing the street there is tough,” he said. “(Ortega and Milpas) is the one intersection that does not have any kind of crossing light there.”
Mayor Helene Schneider has asked city transportation staff for a collision report of the intersection and a review of safety crossing measures.
“I’ve been told from transportation staff that previously a stop light had not been warranted there, although I think it may be worth checking that again,” she told Noozhawk in an email.
Residents have suggested flashing lights that pedestrians can turn on before crossing the street, but similar lights in Old Town Goleta don’t always catch the attention of passing motorists, according to Schneider. They could give pedestrians a false sense of security, she said, adding that she wants to know more about their effectiveness.
Alternative transportation groups also expressed concern about the incident. Eva Inbar, of the Coalition for Sustainable Transportation, said her group felt “shock and grief” when they learned of Romero’s death.
“It makes me angry because this didn’t have to happen,” Inbar said. The group has long advocated for safety improvements at the intersection, as well as at Yanonali and Milpas. A pedestrian was killed there in 2002 while crossing Milpas to go to mass at our Lady of Guadalupe Church, Inbar said.
COAST will be holding a community meeting at the Franklin Center on Nov. 16 at 6:30 p.m. to discuss improvements for the intersection, and the public is invited to attend.
“It’s not easy to get a traffic signal installed,” Inbar said, but said she’s hopeful that working together with the neighborhoods could make that happen.
“We really want the neighborhood to participate in this,” she said.
— Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.