After driver kills a teen on PCH, her father fights for highway safety

Written by Amy Ta and Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski

“We have to logically look at it and see, ‘How do we change this so that we don't lose people? So that nobody wakes up or walks in my shoes,’” says Michel Shane, whose 13-year-old daughter was killed on the Pacific Coast Highway. Credit: YouTube.

Four college students died last month in a violent collision on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. Prosecutors say the driver was traveling 104 miles per hour. The incident isn’t rare — 170 people have died or been seriously injured on this particular stretch of the highway since 2011, according to an LA Times analysis of California Highway Patrol data. 

Michel Shane, whose 13-year-old daughter Emily was killed on PCH on April 3, 2010, has been trying to make the road safer and raise awareness about its dangers. He’s produced a documentary called 21 Miles in Malibu, which is playing on the festival circuit.

“Every child is precious to their parent,” he tells KCRW. “Emily was unique … in that she had a very caring soul. She really didn't like seeing people in distress, and that would be homeless people. A student at the school who didn't have a place to go for lunch, she would invite them to join her and her friends. Someone who was lost or new to the school, she would befriend them until they found their group of friends.” 

On the night she died, she called her father to pick her up from a Spring Break sleepover. She was waiting on a corner of PCH. 

“As I was coming down the canyon where I live, I noticed a guy driving insane, for lack of a better term — cutting lanes, creating new lanes, going probably about 80 miles an hour. And I just shook my head to myself and said, ‘This is crazy. This is not going to end well.’”

He continues, “He was probably 30 seconds ahead of me. And she was walking … to cross the light to meet me. And he aimed his car at her, made such a noise with the screech. … She had a headset on … turned her head to see him. And he slammed into her. She died. He survived.”

Shane says the driver did this on purpose. “He left a note. He had lost his job. He was despondent. But like an angry child, ‘I'm going to kill myself, I'm running away from home.’ It was an act. … There's probably 1,000 places he could have gone off Topanga to kill himself and not hurt anybody else.”

So what is it about PCH — with houses and businesses lining the sides, where people are trying to cross (sometimes by jaywalking) to get to the beach, and cyclists (solo and in groups) are riding to reach the canyons? 

The problem is that the highway was created in the early 1900s, and the last upgrade was in the early 1950s, Shane explains. He says engineers must look at the road and the cars we have today, and figure out how to increase safety. 

Shane says those improvements could include narrowing the highway or transforming it into a boulevard. Even if locals push back, he asks, “How much is a human life worth? What would I trade today to have Emily beside me, and not doing this interview?”

He adds that pedestrians don’t think about PCH as a highway itself, but instead, an extension of nearby city streets. 

“One side, you have the ocean. And the other side, you have … a restaurant or homes or whatever. And people look at it, and they don't think they're walking across the 10 [freeway]. They think they're walking on Montana [Ave.], or they're walking on another street. And they don't take into account that they're running across the freeway.” 

The area is also teeming with activity.

“The other scary thing, which just blows my mind … is there's too much noise. There's biking, there's walking, there's deliveries, they go on and on and on. And then you have a guy parking to go to the beach, and he opens his door, he's six inches from the freeway. He's got a stroller, he's got a cooler, he's got a life raft, whatever. And he's walking along like, ‘I've gone to the beach, I didn't just step out onto the highway.’”

Within days of the recent college students’ fatalities, Shane started a petition that calls for short-term and long-term solutions to the dangers he says PCH poses. That includes reducing the speed limit within Malibu city limits to 21 miles per hour and increasing traffic enforcement in the area. It also asks CalTrans to create a new plan to “make all sections of PCH safer for drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists with an exact timeline for implementation, and a start date for construction that is no longer than 1 year from the date of this petition.” 

“We are in the years of AI. You're not telling me that there's not technology out there that can tell us how to do that? Change the laws. … I think we have to logically look at it and see, ‘How do we change this so that we don't lose people? So that nobody wakes up or walks in my shoes,’” Shane urges.

He continues, “That's why I wrote the petition – these four parents that are sitting at their dinner table, knowing that that seat will always be empty. I've lived with it, so I know what that is.”

Since Emily’s death, dangers on PCH have worsened, particularly due to the COVID pandemic, Shane points out. “I think because we were all locked up on our own, there's a mental breakdown in society. And I think that we all feel like we're self important, and the next guy beside us is just somebody else. There's no connection, right?”

Meanwhile, the driver who killed Emily remains behind bars. Gov. Gavin Newsom overturned his release. “So for me that made him forever my hero,” Shane shares.

Still, he says the governor must speak to his departments to fix the issue. “If this governor has aspirations to lead our country at some point in his career, how about making California the example for the future?” 



  • Michel Shane - producer of the documentary 21 Miles in Malibu