San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr is promising to implement new enforcement measures to help curb a disturbing rise in pedestrian deaths in the city.
At a four-hour joint hearing of the San Francisco Police Commission and the Board of Supervisors Neighborhood Services and Safety Committee Thursday night, Suhr said the department plans to target drivers at the city’s most dangerous intersections.
Officers will prioritize citations for the five primary causes of collisions that injure pedestrians and bicyclists: speeding, red light violations, failure to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk, failure to yield while making a left or U-turn and failure to stop at the limit line. (Limit lines are the broad white lines painted at major intersections to stop cars from encroaching in crosswalks.)
“We are committed to a new normal in San Francisco, where as our staffing bumps up, so will the tickets,” Suhr said. The department plans to beef up staffing levels in its traffic company over the next year.
Last year, 21 pedestrians were killed by drivers on San Francisco streets. Six of those fatal collisions happened in December, putting the total number of pedestrian deaths at a six-year high.
“We will work collaboratively toward a goal of zero fatalities,” Suhr said, referring to a resolution introduced by Supervisors Jane Kim, John Avalos and Norman Yee that calls on Mayor Ed Lee and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to adopt a “Vision Zero” policy to cut traffic deaths over the next ten years.
The City Hall hearing, which drew a crowd of more than 200 people, was the second to look into how the department investigates collisions involving pedestrians and bicyclists.
The hearings were called following the bungled investigation into the death of 24-year-old Amelie Le Moullac, a bike rider killed by a truck driver in SoMa last August. Biking and walking advocates said the Police Department has a history of not properly investigating these types of collisions.
“We are concerned that there is a bias among some in the Police Department against people who walk and bike,” said Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bike Coalition. “We’ve been hearing stories of people not getting reports taken, being denied and people told they’re not hurt badly enough.”
In what Suhr described later as a “seismic change” in policy, officers will now issue citations or arrest motorists at the scene of serious collisions involving pedestrians and bicyclists if the drivers are found to be at fault. The previous policy was to refer cases to the district attorney without making an arrest.
The department has also stopped referring to these types of crashes as accidents because they are preventable, said Suhr. Instead, the department officially calls them collisions. “Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time there can be a determination as to who’s at fault,” Suhr said.
During the hearing, a number of people, including some who have been hit by drivers, urged the city to take stronger action to prevent pedestrian deaths and injuries.
“Only 20 percent of the trips in San Francisco are made by foot,” said Natalie Burdick of Walk San Francisco. “Yet 50 percent of the traffic deaths are pedestrians. That’s an injustice.”
She played a documentary that tells the story of Jikaiah Stevens, who was hit by a driver in a crosswalk last year. The driver was not charged or ticketed and Stevens, who is still recovering, has medical bills totaling more than $141,000.
Biking and walking advocates are pushing for a “Vision Zero” policy in San Francisco, a street-safety initiative that originated in Sweden and which has already been adopted by cities like New York and Chicago.
While Mayor Ed Lee has not taken a public position on Vision Zero and the policies it calls for, SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin said the agency is likely to support it.
“I think this is the direction that we need to go. We shouldn’t have people dying on our streets just trying to get around the city,” Reiskin said.
He added: “While I think there’s a lot of good work that’s been happening, both in education and enforcement and the work that we’re trying to do to redesign the rights of way, I think we all need to step up the effort.”