Sebastopol crosswalk improvements enhance safety

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Work crews are putting the finishing touches on upgrades to a Sebastopol crosswalk where tragedy struck one year ago, resulting in the death of a local woman who was hit in her wheelchair while she crossed a busy road at the west edge of town.

The newly installed crosswalk warning system with flashing yellow beacons and signs is designed to alert drivers to the presence of pedestrians at the intersection of Bodega Avenue and Ragle Road. Its purpose is to prevent the kind of grief experienced by the community in the wake of the collision that took the life of 27-year-old Julie Reibel.

Neighbors said the new signage, though not energized or illuminated yet, already improves the crosswalk’s visibility. But ultimately, the safety of people in the crosswalk still depends on the attentiveness of both drivers and pedestrians, neighbors said.

“When the lights are activated, you won’t be able to miss it,” said Paul Menconi, who lives on the southeast corner of the intersection. “The question is whether drivers will treat this like a yellow light and say, ‘Oh, I’d better step on it and make it through,’ or slow down.”

The newly painted crosswalk and electronic alert system are part of a plan to improve crosswalk safety at five city intersections in the Bodega Avenue corridor extending west of Sebastopol into open country.

The first priority was identified as Nelson Way and Gold Ridge Farm, which, in part, serves the residents of Burbank Heights and Orchards senior housing.

Construction began there in February and will eventually feature a cross-arm hanging above the intersection with a flashing beacon that turns red, requiring motorists to stop, according to Sebastopol Engineering Manager Henry Mikus.

But the $250,000 project has been held up due to various delays, including the fact that the largest U.S. manufacturer of lighting equipment has stopped doing business, Mikus said. The work is now on track to be completed in September, he said.

The Ragle Road crosswalk was second in line and already was funded and being designed when Reibel was mortally injured at the intersection.

A resident of Gross Court, located about two blocks south of Bodega Avenue, Reibel was crossing the road north-to-south the morning of Aug. 24 when an oncoming, eastbound motorist struck her at full speed, throwing her about 75 feet, emergency personnel said. She died a week later.

A police investigation was closed without detectives determining whether Reibel or the unidentified, 79-year-old driver had the right-of-way. No charges were ever filed.

But neighbors rallied.

During a town meeting a few weeks later, “neighbor after neighbor talked about how many close calls there were there,” then-Mayor Una Glass said. “And of course there was the death there, but they said there were so many pedestrian close calls.”

Neighbors lobbied officials to reduce the 40 mph speed limit — which remains unchanged — and sought actions on crosswalk improvement that would go beyond a lone sign in each direction.

In addition to mounds of flowers left to honor Reibel’s life, neighbors put out traffic cones at each end of the intersection with orange flags that could be held high to gain the attention of passing motorists who might otherwise speed by.

The Ragle Road crosswalk is both the first one eastbound motorists encounter after leaving the town of Bodega nearly 9 miles away.

It’s also the last one those who are westbound come across after being freed from the incessant traffic closer to town, when “people are just ready to step on the gas and blow out of town,” Menconi said.

The newly painted crosswalk will now have poles on each end with flashing pedestrian signs and beacons.

It also includes a raised median halfway across Bodega Avenue to provide refuge to pedestrians who may need extra time to cross, Mikus said. The median also provides a third spot for flashing warnings to alert oncoming motorists.

“I tell you, they’re big and bold and jump out at you,” Mikus said. “It’s kind of amazing. The character of the place with those signs up is very different. You can’t bloody miss them now.”

Valley View Drive resident Cindy Craig said the new signs “are at a nice height, so you can see them even if they’re not flashing.”

“I’m really happy they installed it,” Craig said. “I’m sorry Julie’s death happened before it could happen.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249.

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