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Vehicle 'dragnets' planned for Santa Monica Farmers' Market

April 30, 2011 | 12:14 pm

Vehicle_net
Nearly eight years after an 86-year-old driver sped through the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, killing 10 and injuring dozens, the city is poised to install new signs, highway-style barricades and “dragnets” capable of stopping errant vehicles.

The system, three years in the planning, is slated to be in place by the end of May at entrances to the weekly downtown markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

The key new safety feature will be nets, resembling those on tennis courts, with heavy-duty cables running across the top and bottom. Patterned after the arresting gear used to snare jets landing on aircraft carriers, the dragnets are designed to catch and stop vehicles — even those traveling at high speeds — without serious injury to the driver.

“We created what we felt would be the most effective and non-lethal way to stop a car from entering the market,” said Laura Avery, farmers market supervisor.

George Russell Weller was 86 on July 16, 2003, when he crashed his Buick LeSabre through a wooden-and-plastic barricade and plowed through pedestrians at the popular open-air market. Investigators determined that Weller mistook his gas pedal for the brake and accelerated for about 20 seconds down 2-1/2 blocks of Arizona Avenue between 4th Street and Ocean Avenue. He was convicted in 2007 of 10 counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and was sentenced to five years’ probation.

A year after the calamity, federal transportation safety officials found that the city’s 18-year-old plan for keeping traffic off that portion of Arizona was inadequate, with warning signs that were too small and posted too close to the market. Contributing to the severity of the accident was the absence of a rigid protective barrier system, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded.

Ultimately, the city of Santa Monica and other defendants agreed to pay $21 million to settle dozens of civil lawsuits arising from the crash.

Soon after the tragedy, Santa Monica stationed police officers and vehicles at the entrances. The city decided against installing bollards like those on the Third Street Promenade, saying they could harm motorists and prevent access by emergency vehicles.

The Dragnet Vehicle Arresting Barrier selected by Santa Monica has been used for years in New York and Michigan to seal off highway construction zones. In Wyoming, Hawaii and Massachusetts, the system is used to stop runaway trucks. “We’ve caught everything from motorcycles to school buses and tractor-trailers in the nets,” said Michael Kempen with Impact Absorption, the New York company that sells the technology for civilian use.

Although the city had hoped to launch the new $219,000 safety system Saturday, officials decided that workers needed more training in how to put up and take down the two nets that will run across each entrance. Avery said the city was also in the process of designing and building carts to help ferry the equipment to market entrances.

“It’s been three years in the design, manufacturing and implementation,” said Kate Vernez, assistant to the Santa Monica city manager. “This could be a model, and we need to get it right.”

-- Martha Groves

Photo: Vehicle "dragnets" may become a permanent feature of the Santa Monica Farmers' Market. Credit: City of Santa Monica

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