Mayor Ben Cantu sees what to him looks like “almost a mile long raceway” on Moffat Boulevard and can’t understand why the City Council can’t arbitrarily address concerns of parents and place stop signs on the street where it intersects with Garfield Avenue to improve the safety of students crossing Moffat to reach Manteca High.
Councilman Gary Singh believes common sense dictates stop signs are needed on Airport Way at Atherton Drive now that the gap on Atherton between Union Road and Airport Way is in place. Not only is there now more traffic on Atherton trying to turn on to busy and fairly high speed Airport Way but there has already been a collision at the intersection. It doesn’t make sense to him that stop signs can’t be put in place before someone gets seriously hurt or even killed.
Actually, the council can go ahead and direct stop signs at those two locations.
But if they do so without first having trained staff or a traffic consultant to determine if warrants exist to justify stop signs and other traffic control devices such as traffic signals the city would lose what is referred to as a “design immunity defense” if they are sued as the result of an accident.
Lawyers in various articles — included one in the Western City magazine — have laid out a road map of court decisions that verify the advice Manteca City Attorney John Brinton has repeatedly given frustrated council members for more than 30 years whenever they are advised by staff that traffic warrants are needed before stop signs and such are placed at intersections.
Two court cases that made it to the state appellate level illustrate what cities such as Manteca are up against in terms of financial liability exposure if elected officials opt to sidestep the process of determining if conditions warrant the installation of traffic control devices.
The first involves a situation much like Cantu alluded to on Moffat Boulevard where it would seem to make sense to install stop signs or other measures to make it safer for students to cross a street with fairly high speeds — and one that is not currently marked with signs that indicate that drivers are in a school zone and must lower their speed when children are present. In the case of Castro versus the City of Thousand Oaks the plaintiffs were struck in a crosswalk. A short time before the accident occurred, Thousand Oaks had installed a flashing beacon that is activated by pedestrians pushing a button to alert motorists that someone is in — or is about to enter — the crosswalk. Even though the beacon was added by the city with the intent to increase safety, the appellate court found that the flashing beacon was not part of the approved design for the intersection. Even though it was added years later to enhance safety, there was never a study to determine if warrants justified its installation. As a result the city lost their design immunity defense.
The second involves involved the death of a pedestrian at an intersection in the case of Gonzales versus the City of Atwater. The trial court found that the plaintiff established the intersection had dangerous conditions. The court determined the driver wasn’t responsible and that the city was liable for $3.2 million in damages.
The appellate court reversed the trial court based on the fact Atwater qualified for the design immunity defense because a registered civil and traffic engineer had prepared the plans for the intersection that the council approved and authorized the call for bids to construct the intersection.
Previous Manteca councils have ignored staff’s advice to have an expert determine whether conditions warrant the placement of stop signs.
Cantu said one such case was the creation of the four-way stop at Center Street and Maple Avenue in the 1980s after the council listened to Mayor Jack Snyder instead of the city attorney’s advice and went ahead and ordered the stop signs put in place without determining if they were justified based on traffic warrants.
“They (the stop signs) are still working fine today,” Cantu said during Tuesday’s council meeting.
Two decades later when Wille Weatherford was mayor, he convinced the council to convert Maple Avenue into a one-way street to ease downtown congestion issues without first having a traffic engineer determine it was warranted.
In many cases when the city had a traffic engineer, that staff person — working with citizens — could determine if requests for stop signs in neighborhood streets is warranted.
Brinton on Tuesday cautioned that the Maple/Center example of the council going ahead without establishing whether warrants justified stop signs is different than Moffat Boulevard or Airport Way. That’s because traffic on Center Street moves much slower than on Moffat or Airport Way greatly reducing the chances of serious accidents and therefore presents a lower level of liability exposure.
What are traffic warrants?
A number of cities such as Turlock and Pleasant Hill post on their city website what conditions need to exist before stop signs are warranted for installation.
In Turlock’s case the following issues are addressed:
Has there been five or more reported collisions within a 12-month period that would be susceptible to correction by a multi-way stop?
The volume of vehicles and their speeds must be examined. There are minimal volume thresholds that have to be met such as 210 vehicles/pedestrians/bicyclists per hour on major approaches to the intersection and 140 on minor approaches.
Whether other conditions or concerns such as the need to control conflicts involving left turns or vehicle/pedestrian interactions at locations that generate high pedestrian volumes.
Whether a multi-way stop sign would improve traffic operational characteristics of the intersection.
Are conditions such if a driver comes to a stop an as existing stop sign that due to visual impairments they are not able to negotiate the intersection unless cross traffic is also required to stop.
City Manager Tim Ogden said staff will be examining Atherton Drive and Airport Way to see if conditions warrant turning it into a four-way stop.
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