New signs to prohibit left-hand turns from Everett and Hawthorne avenues onto busy Middlefield Road in Palo Alto's Downtown North neighborhood are supposed to help reduce accidents, but drivers seem to be ignoring the law in droves, according to residents who live along Middlefield.
The signs, which ban cars from turning left onto Middlefield and also from crossing it from 7 to 10 a.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. during weekdays were installed about two weeks ago. The Palo Alto police traffic team has issued about 100 warnings to violators during a break-in period, but scofflaws will soon have to shell out $200 or more in fines, police Lt. Zach Perron said.
But some residents said the turning restrictions won't be effective enough, and they want changes made to Middlefield.
Traffic backups and accidents along the heavily congested stretch of road have resulted in cars landing on residents' front lawns and careening onto sidewalks. The area is a hodgepodge of buses and trucks that are too wide, bicyclists zipping by and pedestrians trying to cross four lanes of traffic, residents said. Vehicles speed during non-peak times and crawl during rush hour. Amid all of that mess, cars from Everett and Hawthorne nose out onto Middlefield and risk being broadsided by northbound or southbound traffic.
From 2002 through 2014, there were 219 reported accidents on Middlefield, between University and Palo Alto avenues, according to California Highway Patrol data. One-third of the accidents occurred during commute hours.
"The stretch of Middlefield north from University to Menlo Park has really turned into a nightmare," said Tim Lindholm, a resident who has taken to biking to work because he cannot get out of his driveway due to the stopped cars. "In the morning it turns into a parking lot."
At other times, cars come blasting through from the side streets and sometimes seem to view the intersection at Middlefield as just another stop sign. Lindholm said he has seen many crashes on weekends when the turn restrictions are not in effect.
"We want to be very clear in our opinion. This is just duct tape," he said of the new turning restrictions.
Perron said that police plan on continuing enforcement in the area.
"At this point, many drivers are still regularly disregarding the (new) signs. Our hope is that as time goes on and drivers continue to see active enforcement in the area, their behavior will change and we will start to see more compliance with the law. There is always a break-in period with any new signage as drivers get used to them and change their driving habits accordingly," he wrote in an email.
Hal Prince, who lives on Middlefield, has stood on the corner at Everett during rush hour several times and noted the compliance with the new signs.
"It is pretty minimal, less than 50 percent. Perhaps this is because the signs are new, but I do wonder if the current wording is as clear as it could be. It has a right arrow, then the word 'only' below it, then some times below that. 'Only' is on the sign with the right arrow, and the times are on a separate sign, though the signs are abutting. If you have a few seconds to think about it, of course you arrive at the correct interpretation, but some distracted drivers may think, 'I don't want to turn right, so that sign doesn't apply to me,'" he said.
The signs might be more effective if they showed the usual red circle with a slash and then the restricted times, he said.
"This is the strategy used on the signs at the other end of Everett, at Alma. I am guessing that most people would find this sign clearer," he said.
Resident John Guislin has also monitored the cars. In a 15-minute period, he watched 19 drivers break the law and turn left into four lanes of traffic, he said.
Guislin and other residents have serious doubts about the effectiveness of the turning restrictions, and their fears could be borne out when considering similiar restrictions elsewhere.
Left-turn restrictions have been in place since 2004 at Alma Street and Hawthorne and Everett, as have right-turn restrictions from Middlefield as part of Downtown North traffic-calming measures.
On Thursday morning, two traffic officers pulled over one motorist after another as they made illegal turns from Middlefield onto Hawthorne. One officer said that some motorists continue to violate the turn restrictions from Alma and from Middlefield and then rocket down the residential streets, and that it is highly dangerous, despite other traffic-calming measures in place, such as traffic circles.
While police stopped the right-turning scofflaws, a block away on Everett it was business as usual for many of the left-turners, who ignored the new signs.
Guislin and Lindholm are calling for a reconfiguration of the traffic lanes on the section of Middlefield from University Avenue to Willow Road. Changing to three lanes could create better traffic flow, better sighting for turns and, potentially, room for dedicated bike lanes, they said. The three-lane alternative could have two southbound lanes and one going northbound, since the street already narrows into a single lane near the Menlo Park border. There also could be a center turn lane on Middlefield that would help move turning traffic through rather than backing up.
Driven by their doubts about the new signs' effectiveness, residents said they will continue to work on the city for road changes.
"I wonder how many accidents we will have before we decide to do something effective?" Prince said. "Do we have to wait for someone to get killed?"