Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Chick-fil-A and its drive-thru scofflaws may have finally met their match: San Roque resident Ronda Hobbs, who has time on her hands and a bee in her bonnet. “Watch out for retired ladies,” she said.

Hobbs never liked Chick-fil-A. Not because of their fatty fast food ― she worked for many years as a dietician for the Department of Veteran Affairs ― but because of the national chain’s history of donating to anti-LGBTQ+ charities. “I really detested them for their social positions,” she told me. Though the company itself has reportedly cut back on such giving, its billionaire owner was recently outed as a major contributor to an effort to derail the Equality Act, pending legislation that would protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people from discrimination at a federal level.

What spurred Hobbs to local action, however, was watching the upper State Street restaurant’s overcrowded drive-thru line spill constantly and precariously into the road, a public safety issue that has persisted for the better part of the decade, unabated, with no apparent consequences for either the culprit drivers or their fried-chicken-flinging enablers. “The idea of a big company coming into our community and using the main street of our city as a private parking lot is not acceptable,” she said.

Over the years, city officials have provided conflicting information on exactly how many accidents the backup has caused. For a while, it was allegedly zero. Then last January, we were told there were three in the past 12 months alone. Yet this week, I was informed by traffic engineer Derrick Bailey that the city only recognizes two incidents as being directly related to the drive-thru ― one in 2018 and one in 2020 ― and then Sgt. Ethan Ragsdale told me a few days later he didn’t think the 2020 crash was part of the official count. No one could speak to any injuries.

Thanks to Hobbs, we finally have the data for making the case that the long line of cars stopped on our main uptown drag is more than an inconvenience. It’s an actual danger.

Information she obtained from the city’s transportation department through a public records request reveals that from 2013, when Chick-fil-A moved in, to today, there have been six rear-enders and side-swipes resulting in four injuries that were caused by vehicles “stopped in road” in the vicinity of the drive-thru.

Why officials don’t count all of these incidents toward the Chick-fil-A tally is unclear. Even Ragsdale pointed out that the city’s numbers “do not reflect information-exchange collisions where the police were never called or did not complete an online report. They also do not reflect individuals involved in collisions that only reported them directly to their insurance company.”

The fudgy figures remind me of not that long ago when, in 2017, the city decided it would be a good idea to regulate Santa Barbara’s growing fleet of food trucks into the ground. Officials cited supposed traffic safety incidents ― crowds in the street, blocked driveways, etc. ―  ​as the catalyst for the new rules. They claimed the file of documented food-truck violations was so large they didn’t have a practical way to publicly share it. But when finally pressed by food-truck owners and reporters to release this binder of evidence, they had to admit it didn’t exist.

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At the time, our incoming mayor, Randy Rowse, was a member of the City Council and the city’s ordinance committee, which drafted the new rules. He also happened to own Paradise Café, a brick-and-mortar restaurant that faced fresh competition from the mobile eateries. You do the math. The resulting ordinance was so restrictive it put the Burger Bus, Georgia’s Smokehouse, Heat Culinary, and others out of business.

If city officials can cook up fake safety concerns to fit an agenda, they can certainly downplay actual hazards to shield themselves from liability. Is that what’s happening with Chick-fil-A? And that of course begs the $64,000 question: Why is the city giving them a free pass? 

Is it because the former transportation manager who approved the drive-thru and looked the other way all these years held the same conservative religious beliefs as the company? Is it because the city, which recently lost a spate of expensive lawsuits, is skittish about getting sued again? Or are staff so overworked and bereft of leadership that they’re simply incapable of taking on such a formidable corporate adversary?

I think we can give up on Chick-fil-A customers doing the right thing and not queueing on the street. They clearly don’t give a damn about other people, or each other. Maybe there’s something in the secret sauce. In recent months, there have been three collisions on the property itself, during which a driver backing out of a parking spot slammed into a car waiting in the drive-thru line. All three were hit-and-runs, with the at-fault party simply speeding off.

Hobbs says she’s also lost faith in the city taking any meaningful action anytime soon. The best they’ve offered, she noted in a recent op-ed, is potentially approving a second drive-thru lane. She questioned the logic, pointing to the concept of induced traffic demand. The rationale is made all the sillier by the fact that Chick-fil-A is yet again openly flouting city authority by already operating a second lane. I personally checked last Thursday. They had two lanes going, and cars were still backed a dozen deep into State Street. 

Hobbs wondered if a lawsuit by an affected business ― like Rusty’s right next door, whose delivery drivers and customers are consistently blocked from entering and exiting its parking lot ― might be the answer. She pointed to a recent case in New Jersey in which a neighboring fast-food restaurant, the Pita Shack, successfully closed a disruptive Chick-fil-A drive-thru with a civil complaint. There are other examples, too, including a pending lawsuit in Ohio and another in Texas.

Whatever form it takes, there’s got to be an answer, Hobbs said. She’s determined to help Santa Barbara find one, and she’s confident we’ll prevail. “The bigger the chicken,” she said, “the harder they foul.”

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