by Zusha Ellinson, The Bay Citizen
As San Francisco implements new measures to improve pedestrian safety, the number of pedestrians killed this year is on pace to surpass the death toll from each of the two previous years.
Since 2008, San Francisco has averaged 17 pedestrian deaths a year. For the past two years, there have been more than 800 pedestrian collisions a year.
One elderly pedestrian died this year after a bicyclist ran into him. Chris Bucchere, 36, was charged with vehicular manslaughter for killing Sutchi Hui, 71, in the Castro on March 29. Bucchere is accused of running a red light before hitting Hui.
Most of this year’s fatalities resulted from collisions between pedestrians and vehicles. Sena Putra, 47, an accountant at the Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute, was hit and killed by a gasoline tanker while reportedly walking in a crosswalk at Folsom and 13th streets at lunchtime on May 17. Putra emigrated from Indonesia a decade ago and had become a U.S. citizen a month before he died, according to his employer.
A 34-year-old skateboarder, Justin Stone, considered a pedestrian under state law, died in a collision with a car after rolling through a red light in the Tenderloin, according to police. Another man who died after throwing himself under the wheels of a Muni bus is not included in the count because police have concluded his death was a suicide.
Complete data about who is to blame in this year’s fatalities is not available yet. But in last year’s fatal collisions, the police department determined that nine drivers, six pedestrians, and one cyclist were at fault.
Two years ago, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order setting goals for reducing deaths and serious injuries and creating the Pedestrian Safety Task Force. But pedestrian advocates say the renewed attention has not resulted in enough action.
“Over the last couple years we’ve seen a lot of attention to the issue, but I don’t know that we’ve seen much action,” said Elizabeth Stampe, executive director of WalkSF, a pedestrian advocacy organization “The message is so often that ‘it’s getting better,’ but the number of pedestrian collisions has stayed at about 800 collisions for years, and we also see the fatalities are not going down.”
The city recently lowered speed limits in some parts of the city in an effort to protect pedestrians. The risk of a pedestrian fatality is six times greater if cars are traveling 30 mph compared with 20 mph, according to the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
In May, the city reduced speed limits to 15 mph near 181 public and private schools in San Francisco at the urging of WalkSF. Then in June, the speed limits on four South of Market streets – Howard, Folsom, Harrison and Bryant – were lowered from 30 to 25 mph. The wide one-way streets have been a hot spot for pedestrian accidents for years.
“It’s an issue of frustration for the city that we haven’t been able to get pedestrian fatalities to go continually down,” said Ricardo Olea, a traffic engineer with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. “We are trying to do everything we can do on our side, and we hope some of the changes we are making will improve certain intersections and bring down the numbers.”
Megan Weir, a department of health epidemiologist who sits on the city’s pedestrian safety task force, said that impact of the changes yet to be seen, because “a lot of coordinated city efforts really started at the beginning 2011.”
Weir said that injuries to pedestrians account for a quarter of the trauma injuries treated at San Francisco General Hospital, costing the public $15 million.
“This is a real public health issue,” said Weir. “We see higher numbers of pedestrian injuries and deaths in San Francisco, and I think it’s because we have higher concentrations of people walking, and also a lot of areas such as downtown and SOMA we also have higher concentrations of traffic and traffic speeds.”
The San Francisco metropolitan area, which includes Fremont and Oakland, had a higher pedestrian fatality rate than 24 other major metro regions, including Chicago, Seattle and Boston, according to a report by the policy group Transportation for America. There were 1.6 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 residents every year from 2000 to 2009 in the Bay Area, the report found. Still, San Francisco was ranked in the report as 12th safest region for pedestrians among the nation’s 52 metro areas with more than 1 million residents.
Stampe said that while progress has been made, more needs to be done in San Francisco. Speeders should be ticketed more regularly, she said, and traffic lights need to be set to keep the flow of traffic at the new lower speeds.
View San Francisco pedestrian deaths in 2012 in a larger map
This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.