A tragic death in Berkeley spurs funds for traffic beacons

Joseph Luft. Courtesy: Luft family
Joseph Luft, who was killed while crossing the street in Berkeley in April 2014. Photo courtesy: Luft family

Nine months after a 98-year-old pedestrian was killed by a motorist while crossing Sacramento Street in a crosswalk in the middle of the day, the city is taking steps to install a flashing beacon pedestrian alert at the intersection where the accident occurred.

Joseph Luft, a Berkeley resident, psychologist and former San Francisco State University professor, was out for one of his regular strolls around lunchtime April 5 when he was hit by a car while crossing Sacramento at Bancroft Way. He died that evening at the hospital.

The driver, Robert Gilchrist, was charged with felony vehicular manslaughter and is being held in Santa Rita jail, with a pre-trial hearing scheduled for Dec. 31. Gilchrist didn’t have a valid driver’s license at the time of the accident and told police he was legally blind.

In the wake of Luft’s death, a number of residents complained to city officials about safety at the Sacramento-Bancroft intersection, which is the site of an assisted living facility, and near Washington Elementary School. Cars barreling down Sacramento, a thoroughfare, often don’t see or stop for pedestrians, even when they’re in the crosswalk, residents said.


Joseph Luft was struck by a car while crossing the intersection of Bancroft Way and Sacramento Street in Berkeley. Image: Google Maps
Joseph Luft was struck by a car while crossing the intersection of Bancroft Way and Sacramento Street in Berkeley. Image: Google Maps

The city council at most recent meeting approved $50,000 in the city’s next budget cycle to install beacon lights at the Sacramento crosswalks at Bancroft. The pedestrian-activated lights, which are mounted on poles at driver level, flash yellow when someone is crossing.

The item was sponsored by council members Darryl Moore and Jesse Arreguín.

“The research shows an 80-85% increase in drivers yielding to pedestrians where the rapid flagging beacons are installed,” said Farid Javandel, the city’s transportation manager.

Two things seem to make them effective, he said: their location at a driver’s eye-level, and their rapid flash. “They’re like a strobe. They go very quickly, and it’s a pattern that’s very noticeable,” Javandel said.

It’s unclear if beacons could have prevented Luft’s death, given the vision problems of the driver who hit him. But his death certainly “raised the profile” of the intersection, Javandel said.


The city’s next two-year budget cycle is slated for approval in June, after which beacon installation could begin, unless for some reason the item is pulled or changed in pending budget discussions, said city spokesperson Matthai Chakko.

Berkeley is home to numerous beacon crosswalk lights, which the city’s transportation experts find are more helpful at protecting pedestrians than lights embedded in the roadway, Chakko said. “Drivers noticed these more than the inroad lights.”

Other locations include:

  • Ashby Avenue and Ellis Street
  • Ashby Avenue at Piedmont Avenue
  • Adeline Street in front of the Ed Roberts campus
  • Shattuck Avenue at Virginia Street
  • Shattuck Avenue between Cedar Street and Vine Street
  • Adeline Street at Harmon Street

But the city is careful not to oversaturate neighborhoods with the lights, Chakko said. “There has been some concern that if they’re overused they’re less effective. The city has been somewhat selective in putting them in.”

Even with beacons, pedestrians need to be careful, Chakko said. “People obviously still need to be safe when walking; you still need to be aware of drivers. It’s an additional tool.”


Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out All the News.