Van Ness Avenue Pedestrian Crashes See Fourfold Increase in 2009

3815887569_f16863696c.jpgThe mess on Van Ness at California, scene of three pedestrian crashes last year. Photo: Bryan Goebel
When the Examiner reported that a double-fine zone on part of Van Ness Avenue had not only failed to reduce crashes, but that crashes had actually increased by 40 percent there in the last year, it raised eyebrows. Now that SFPD has released detailed crash statistics for 2009, a closer look reveals an even more alarming figure: pedestrian crashes along Van Ness Avenue's double-fine zone quadrupled in 2009 compared to 2008.

The number of recorded pedestrian crashes leaped from four in 2008 to sixteen in 2009 on the stretch of Van Ness Avenue between Golden Gate and Lombard Avenues, where the double-fine zone is in effect. Crashes in which police deemed pedestrians at fault held steady at three, but the number of crashes where drivers were found at fault skyrocketed from one in 2008 to 13 in 2009.

Those stats have left pedestrian safety advocates wondering what's happening on Van Ness Avenue.

"It's hard to draw any conclusions after one year," said Manish Champsee, President of Walk SF. "I would call on the city and the state to really examine what's going on and look at all of the injuries, the situations, ... and try to formulate some conclusions and maybe start doing some enforcement on Van Ness."

Perhaps even more astonishingly, drivers fled the scene in five of the 16 pedestrian crashes last year. "I'm floored by that," said Champsee. None of the 2008 crashes were hit-and-runs.

On January 1st of last year, Van Ness Avenue from Golden Gate Street to Lombard Street and 19th Avenue in the Sunset were made double-fine zones. Van Ness is the baseline for the double-fine zone experiment, while 19th Avenue has received many additional safety enhancements, including increased police presence, streetscape upgrades, pedestrian countdown signals, and a reduced speed limit.

Those additional enhancements seem to have paid off on 19th Avenue: pedestrian crashes were down from 17 in 2008 to 14 in 2009, and all crashes were down by 13 percent, from 116 to 101.

But without stepped-up enforcement or other traffic calming measures on Van Ness Avenue, the double-fine zone failed to stem a major increase in recorded crashes.

"We need to look at each incident and see if there are any patterns or trends in the collisions," said MTA spokesperson Judson True.

"That's definitely a jump," said Pi Ra, pedestrian safety coordinator for the SF Senior Action Network.

Even if the number is a fluke, or the result of more-zealous record keeping by the SFPD, Ra said it's clear Van Ness Avenue should no longer be treated as the baseline in the double-fine zone experiment, deprived of further safety measures. "Enforcement has to be in there," said Ra. "Double-fine doesn't mean anything if you don't pull anybody over."

Van Ness Avenue is scheduled to get a major makeover when Bus Rapid Transit starts up in 2012 or 2013, but if 2010 is anything like 2009, the MTA and Caltrans will need to take a hard look much sooner at the troubling trajectory of the street's pedestrian safety.

Crashes Spread out Across Intersections, Time

There's no indication the crashes were due to any one event, as the 16 pedestrian crashes in 2009 were spread out over nine separate months, with only May, June and December crash-free. In the 13 crashes where the driver was found at fault, nine happened when the driver struck a pedestrian who had the right of way in a crosswalk. Two were attributed to speeding, one driver was under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and one ran a red light.

Pedestrians were found at fault just three times, according to the police reports: twice due to crossing mid-block and once due to crossing too suddenly at an unmarked intersection.

The 2009 pedestrian crashes were spread throughout the day, as well: 11 occurred after sunset, and five occurred in daylight.

Only one intersection on the 1.4-mile stretch accounted for more than two of the 2009 pedestrian crashes. Van Ness Avenue at California Street recorded three crashes. Two each were recorded at Bush, Eddy, Turk, and Union. Van Ness Avenue's intersections with Fern, Geary, Pacific, Pine and Sutter each recorded one crash.

One pedestrian was killed on Van Ness Avenue in 2009, near its intersection with Bush - prompting a column from C.W. Nevius that blamed pedestrians for crashes.

By contrast, a motorist was found at fault in just one of the four crashes recorded in 2008. In that crash, the driver struck a pedestrian in the crosswalk who had the right of way - a trend that grew mightily the following year, according to the SFPD statistics.

All four 2008 crashes occurred after dark, and they were spread across four months: January, February, August and December. None of the crashes were fatal.

The numbers are stark, but it's still not clear why drivers struck more pedestrians last year.