The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has partially blamed the City of Santa Monica for last year’s fatal farmers market crash that killed ten and injured 63.
The federal board issued a report last week determining that the city traffic control barricades were based on 1986 plans that did not adequately prevent a vehicle from entering the pedestrian zone.
NTSB officials said at a meeting in Washington, D.C. Tuesday, August 3rd, that the “accident” was primarily due to “unintended acceleration by the driver” and a subsequent “failure to maintain control of the vehicle.”
George Weller — 86 years old at the time of the incident July 16th last year — hit a stopped Mercedes-Benz with his Buick Le Sabre at the intersection of Arizona Avenue and Fourth Street, and continued to drive west on Arizona Avenue into the crowded farmers market.
Weller’s vehicle, which was estimated by California Highway Patrol to be traveling more than 60 miles per hour, struck pedestrians and vendor displays.
“There are more than 3,000 farmers markets throughout the country, many resulting in temporary road closures,” said Ellen Conners, NTSB chair.
“It is imperative that cities understand the hazards associated with road closures and apply countermeasures that will prevent the intrusion of vehicles into pedestrian areas,” she said.
A preliminary NTSB investigation report faulted Santa Monica for using temporary traffic control plans that were developed in 1981 and last updated in 1986.
Federal officials said A-frame Type I barricades used at the farmers market site did not meet the city’s own guidelines or state and federal guidelines.
However, the NTSB said other types of barricades would have been futile in this particular incident.
“Additional signs and Type III barricades would not have prevented the accident,” the investigation report states. “Separating pedestrians from vehicular traffic is key. A rigid but removable barrier system is possible.”
The NTSB recommended that Santa Monica update its temporary traffic control plans and review those plans annually.
The NTSB will provide a complete investigation report of the incident sometime in September.
CITY RESPONDS — Santa Monica city attorney Marsha Moutrie said in a written response to the NTSB findings that “the report appears to include significant inconsistencies and speculation.”
Moutrie said the city has used Type I barricades for 22 years without any problems and she took issue with the NTSB for recommending a Type III barricade when the board also said this type of barricade would not have prevented the incident.
She also said that city, state and federal guidelines for temporary traffic control cited by the NTSB as not being followed “apply at the moment only to roadwork, not to community events [such as a farmers market].”
Recent wrongful death lawsuits against the city have been dismissed by the city and courts on grounds that the incident could not have been prevented and permanent barriers similar to those the Third Street Promenade has are not feasible for the farmers market site because police and fire department access would be hindered.
“Rigid barriers suggested by the NTSB for the future cannot be readily removed for emergency access, nor have they been tested to prove that they work to stop moving vehicles,” Moutrie said.
City officials have long contended that the Third Street Promenade is designed to be a pedestrian zone.
Arizona Avenue and other streets around the farmers market site are major roadways.
WELLER IN COURT — Weller is facing charges of vehicular manslaughter and gross negligence.
He is scheduled to appear in a Los Angeles County court for a preliminary hearing Wednesday, January 5th.
Christopher Julias, a staff attorney for the NTSB Office of General Counsel, asked the Los Angeles County district attorney to “express any concerns” about the NTSB investigation report.
District attorney Steve Cooley said the report has no effect on his case against Weller.
“While I recognize that the focus of the NTSB is not an analysis of criminal liability, I do note that the report is incomplete in that it omits material witness statements which conflict with the report’s conclusion,” Cooley said.
“Also, it [the NTSB report] does not reflect evidence which directly refutes the driver’s version of events,” he said.
In the report, NTSB officials said they did not have an “in-depth interview with the driver.”
The NTSB acknowledged the fact that Weller is a “long-term resident of the area, familiar with the farmers market and owned the vehicle for over ten years.”
Since the farmers market crash, California politicians have raised the issue of placing restrictions on elderly drivers.
The NTSB could not conclusively find that Weller’s age was a factor in the incident, although the board referred to his age and health in the investigation report.