When an automobile strikes a pedestrian or bicyclist, the impact often extends far beyond the parties directly involved. For anyone who witnesses a crash, or stumbles upon the aftermath, the effect is deeply jarring. It can be hard to pass by the same intersection again without reliving the event. Worse yet, injury crashes are so common in San Francisco, most never receive much press attention, and it can be tough to determine whether a crash victim will fully recover, or even survive.
Last February, I witnessed a horrific crash at Market and 5th Street, in which a pedestrian was struck by an F-line streetcar and sent flying ten feet by the impact. So did perhaps 100 other people, since this is one of the busiest points in the city. I’m sure everyone who saw or heard the crash was deeply unsettled, as I was. It was a temporary breakdown in the order of the city, and a human tragedy.
Crashes only stay fresh in the media as long as they’re the most recent, and it’s as if each new crash erases their memory of the last one. SFPD also rarely follows up with press releases about the conditions of victims, or the results of crash investigations. Perhaps that’s the result of a fear of litigation, or perhaps it’s simply not a priority, though 32 pedestrians were killed by motor vehicles in 2007.
By contrast, crashes leave an indelible mark on witnesses. I wonder every time I pass by that intersection whether the victim survived. I imagine most people who’ve witnessed such an incident wonder the same thing when they pass by the scene, which often is part of their daily routine.
Crashes are a burden for witnesses, too. In San Francisco, most crashes occur in areas with high pedestrian volumes, and that means there are likely to be witnesses, perhaps many witnesses. The benefits of this are that police have witnesses to talk to and more people are aware of the severity of San Francisco’s pedestrian safety hazards. Harm should not be out of sight and out of mind, and the illusion of safety is not helpful. And while these events are jarring, witness statements are critical to catching suspects, and solving the case if it’s a crime. But the lesson is that every crash has a human toll beyond the victim, for whom it’s worst, and beyond the driver, regardless of who’s at fault.
"I’d really like to know how she’s doing. I can’t get her out of my mind," wrote a witness to a recent crash in which a vehicle struck a pedestrian. As we fight for streets that are both more livable and safer, it’s important to remember that we are not just fighting for pedestrian and bicycle safety. We’re also fighting to defend the sanity, dignity, and civility of our public spaces for everyone who uses them. As renowned Danish planner Jan Gehl told San Franciscans when he visited last October, San Francisco must be sweet to its pedestrians and cyclists. Nothing could be bitterer than witnessing another person horribly injured as a result of streets that were not designed for people.