California Assembly Hits, Kills Traffic Justice Bill

2123272545_ddbd4c95aa.jpgThe intersection of Market and Octavia — one of the most dangerous in San Francisco for cyclists. Flickr photo: sfbike

Safe streets advocates often ruefully say, "if you want to kill someone and get away with it, do it in a car." In fact, unless alcohol is involved, very few motorists who kill vulnerable road users — like pedestrians and cyclists — are charged with a crime, even when they break traffic laws in the process.

Even the word "accident" drives traffic justice advocates to distraction, since it implies a lack of agency, as though drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks and mow them down aren’t culpable for their actions.

Despite the fact that more people in America die from car crashes than
from handguns, few policy makers or law enforcement officials are willing to equate the danger of car death with gun death.

Now, that hesitance has stalled a bill that could make California’s streets safer.

In an attempt to deter dangerous driving, California Assembly Bill 1951, introduced by San Francisco
Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, would significantly bolster penalties for dangerous driving and would give district attorneys greater discretion in pursuing traffic justice cases. Currently, unsafe operation of a motor vehicle carries a fine of $70 if it results in bodily injury, and $95 for "great bodily injury."

Under Ammiano’s bill, DAs could charge unsafe driving as either an infraction or a misdemeanor for bodily or great bodily injury and could seek "imprisonment in a county jail for not less than 5 days and not more than 90 days, or by a fine of not less than $145 and not more than $1,000, or by both a fine and imprisonment."

But Ammiano couldn’t get the bill out of committee yesterday, where, perhaps ironically, the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) voiced its opposition. That gave committee members an easy out, said the bill’s supporters.

Ammiano’s spokesperson Quintin Mecke said opposition from the CDAA was disappointing, particularly because the bill doesn’t mandate penalties but would have given DAs more leverage in cases where they felt drivers were dangerous. He also contended that the CDAA’s position didn’t reflect the stance of many individual DAs, especially in cities, where there are proportionally more pedestrians and cyclists.

"I bet if we went around to county DAs, we’d find support from a lot of them," said Mecke. "The disconnect is with the lobbying arm."

Mecke said Ammiano’s office was committed to pushing forward and organizing support among lawmakers and law enforcement officials around the danger of unsafe driving. According to Mecke, committee members said they were hesitant to
criminalize driving, and one member of the committee said about collisions, "Well, isn’t
that why we have insurance?"

"We need to move beyond this notion that ‘accidents’ are a neutral value occurrence," said Mecke. "That is such an ingrained notion"

Bicycle groups had pushed hard for the legislation, arguing that other potentially dangerous activities tend to come with greater expectations of caution.

"When you put the key in the ignition, you accept a lot of responsibility to make sure this two-ton vehicle doesn’t hurt someone," said California Bicycle Coalition spokesperson Jim Brown. "If you’re picking up your registered, loaded handgun, you know that you have the responsibility to protect the public."

Corrinne Winter, Executive Director of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, said the bill would be a step in the right right direction for road safety. "Motor vehicle crashes kill more than 40,000 people and injure several million in the United States each year — this is a social problem of epidemic proportions," she said.

A study [PDF]
by the San Francisco Injury Center for Research and Prevention at SF
General Hospital found that injuries are costly, too. Between 2004 and
2008, pedestrian injuries in San Francisco cost a total of $74.3
million. Less than a quarter of that cost was covered by private
insurers; the rest fell on public funding and patients themselves. In one
case, an uninsured patient was billed $505,952.

Market and Octavia Stoplight Camera Bill May Have Brighter Prospects

Another road safety bill, California Assembly Bill 2729, which would allow San Francisco to install traffic enforcement cameras at the intersection of Market Street and Octavia Boulevard, appears to have stronger support in the Assembly.

Traffic enforcement cameras are generally restricted to red-light violations in California, but Ammiano introduced AB 2729 to create an exception for Market and Octavia, where illegal right turns from Market onto the US-101 on-ramp have created hazardous conditions for cyclists.

The bill made it through committee on a 10-2 vote with bipartisan support. That should bode well for its success in the full Assembly, said Mecke. "Given that [San Francisco Assemblymember Fiona] Ma is a co-sponsor, we think it will pass Assembly," he said.

As for the Senate, Mecke is confident in the bill’s chances. Senator Leland Yee, who previously opposed a similar bill, appears to be more open to the bill this time. "We’ve had conversations with Senator Yee and we think there is a good chance in the Senate," said Mecke.

While some state lawmakers have been hesitant to legislate about a specific intersection, Marc Caswell of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, said Market at Octavia is clearly a special case.

"The argument we made was that this intersection is extremely unique, an interstate on-ramp meeting with a city arterial," he said. "It’s not easy to make a right at this intersection. Those turning right here are doing so knowing that they are putting pedestrians and cyclists at risk."

  • Um, I know that we’re supposed to celebrate all demolition of all freeways as part of the religion and all, but the fact is we wouldn’t have a problem on Market and Octavia if we had done a better job connecting the freeway with the city, instead of just blowing up the ramp.

    You wouldn’t have the problems there for ANYONE if there had been more planning. Instead it was “ooh blowing up freeways is teh awesome!!!!!!ZOMG” and now you have a dangerous intersection that serves no one well.

  • Clutch J

    The testimony offered in the committee hearing by AB 1951’s supporters was compelling. However, it’s not clear that bicyclists are the best messengers for the cause of traffic justice. Perhaps more participation from the public health (eg, emergency room nurses) or academic communities would help. Identifying prosecutors or police officers willing to speak out wouldn’t hurt, either.

  • the greasybear

    Talk about ‘the religion’ anchoring our beliefs–yeah Greg, the injuries outlaw motorists cause to cyclists and pedestrians on Market at Octavia are the result of the City being, you know, *in the way* of our freeway…and not vice-versa…

  • hUcKiECA

    There is some truth to Greg’s point. That intersection was planned to be a major freeway entrance, efficiently serving a large amount of auto traffic. The design was changed at the last minute because the designers hadn’t really *thought* about or accounted for the bike lane traffic. This was clearly a failure in planning on multiple levels, and the resulting solution is not good for either cars or bicyclists.

    However, like it or not, the bike lobby successfully mobilized and got the intersection redesigned their way, banning right turns for autos. If you don’t like that, form a coalition of drivers lobby, and get it changed. The mayor of London got voted out after expanding the congestion pricing program, and there is talk of increases in the $4/gallon gas taxes in the UK being Gordon Brown’s eventual downfall. Until then, even if you think that in an ideal world, you should be allowed to turn right at Octavia & Market, it’s still illegal, and if the car-bike conflicts can be reduced by putting a camera system there, then we probably should try it.

  • Nick

    Is the illegal right turn at Market and Octavia still happening on a frequent basis? I haven’t seen any since they implemented the current design. Maybe it’s more of a problem later at night or in the early morning.
    Any data?

  • Jessica

    great points and ideas Clutch J – this seems like a key issue that should be picked up and reassessed on how to keep moving it fwd.

  • I bike through this intersection most mornings and I’ve actually never seen a car make that turn, even before the soft-hit posts and whatnot were put in, for whatever that anecdotal data is worth. I do live in constant fear of a driver suddenly cutting over to do it, so I try to take it slow and glower at the cars on my left as I go down the hill. I’ve actually had a lot more trouble with cars suddenly veering over to take a right onto Valencia at the bottom of that hill and almost killing me (I’m looking at you, powder-blue Prius). Sometimes I also take the lane down at the bottom there so I don’t have to run over those unfortunately-placed little metal plates in the street.

  • Ammiano’s other bill, AB 2729, to install a “green light” camera on this intersection, should also be quashed.

    The objective here is to stop the accidents (rather than writing a bunch of lucrative tickets but allowing the carnage to continue so the TV audience can be entertained with videos of bicyclists flying thru the air).

    To avoid another failure to fix the problem, before we write legislation and install cameras, someone needs to analyze the data from the accidents and from any tickets written by “live” officers at the corner, and see if the drivers are locals, or if they are from out of town. Because cameras will not stop visitors from making the turn – they won’t know the camera is there either because they are too busy navigating the busy street (and being lost) to read all the signs, or they cannot read English at all. (Remember what it was like the last time you drove in a big foreign city full of aggressive drivers?) The camera will only be effective against locals who have heard about the tickets from friends, or have gotten one themselves.

    Putting it another way, installing a camera where most of the violators are visitors is part of a good business plan and is used in many cities that want to make money – the camera will never run out of new visitors to photograph, a visitor is less likely to contest the ticket, and those visitors don’t vote in town so cannot make a political stir, either. But this situation is not part of a good SAFETY plan, because if the violations do not stop, neither will the accidents.

  • The real problem here was revealed in that one comment, “Well, isn’t that why we have insurance?”

    The mandatory liability coverage licensed drivers are required to carry insulates drivers from the consequences of their actions. Except in the most extreme cases, you can drive careless, injure or kill another person, and walk away with a slap on the wrist and no cost other than paying your deductible.

    The law has to be reformed to make all drivers responsible for operating their cars safely — and hold them accountable if they don’t — or our streets will never be safe for anyone.

    The CDAA should be ashamed of itself.

  • EL

    Greg and hUcKiECA – It’s actually the SFBC and the Board of Supervisors fault for prohibiting the right-turns in the first place. The on-ramp was designed to allow right-turns from its own right-turn lane. However, the (unrealistic) right-turn prohibition was established at the last minute, the right-turn lane was removed from the design, and ultimately lulled bicyclists into a false sense of security that 100% of motorists would comply with the restriction and instead detour to the on-ramp at 13th Street.

  • EL

    (I hit the ‘post’ button too quickly.)

    My point is that the concrete islands, lines on the ground, No Right Turn signs, and everything else that’s been thrown out there are just a band-aids to a wound that won’t stop bleeding. The camera is just another band-aid.

  • I think most of this skepticism isn’t really based on any evidence. But there is evidence we could look at from red-light cameras and how well they succeed.

    Henry, your argument that no one will know about the cameras is pretty much moot if there’s a sign posted saying that it is camera enforced, which I think is assumed. This is where the deterrence comes from.

  • OverTheHill

    Notify your State Assemblyman of your disappointment. It’s easy, start here: http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/yourleg.html

    My statement:

    Am disappointed that Assembly Bill 1951 has failed somehow. Can it be brought back somehow? A Driver’s License isn’t a license to injure cyclists and pedestrians. The existing penalty structure is gutless; that’s why we need AB 1951.

  • @EL: Interesting assertion, but quite wrong — the popular myth crediting the SF Bicycle Coalition with “mandating” the prohibition of a right turn off Market Street onto the Central Freeway at Octavia Boulevard is indeed bunk. In fact, the original plan for the Boulevard project called for such a ban; the prohibition of the right turn was unanimously agreed upon by City staff as the top safety priority in January 2001 following an interagency discussion and decision-making process to engage Caltrans on the freeway touchdown design in conjunction with the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development, Muni, DPT, DPW, SFCTA, and urban design and transportation consultants. In the following early months of 2001 Caltrans agreed to prohibit this movement and designed it out of the structure. Learn more about the history of the forbidden right turn onto the freeway from this June 2003 Planning Dept. memo:

    http://www.sfbike.org/download/actions/octavia/Freeway_Right_Turn_Planning_letter.pdf

    The Boulevard’s designer (and former Planning Director) Alan Jacobs supported the ban throughout the project’s life, as does the Market and Octavia Better Neighborhoods Plan, which was created through an extensive public outreach process. The Board of Supervisors reaffirmed the ban in its August 2004 resolution prohibiting eastbound vehicles traveling on Market Street from turning right onto the Central Freeway. We ~all~ decided a long time ago that Market Street wouldn’t be a freeway onramp, let’s see it through and bring efficient and effective enforcement to this critical intersection, for everyone’s safety.

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