When someone is hit by a driver on the streets in San Francisco, cultural attitudes typically dictate that the person police determine to be at fault should shoulder the blame. But a new collaborative effort between SFPD and the SFMTA could help expand the scope of crash investigations.
Without taking into account environmental factors, crash investigators are missing the largest piece of the puzzle, says the Department of Public Health’s Rajiv Bhatia.
“When we do routine [crash] investigations, we’re really only looking at behavioral factors: whether the pedestrian or the motorist violated a rule,” he said. “But factors such as the number of cars, the number of people, the speed of the cars, and the ability of the victim are simply not recorded.”
San Francisco Police Department Captain Al Casciato said that since February, traffic engineers from the SF Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) have been training crash investigators to look for environmental factors when writing their narrative reports.
“What they’re asking for is to take a holistic view of the whole area,” said Casciato. “They’re looking at more specifics, like the curvature of the road or the tracks on the road. If the person was a senior citizen, was there a senior center there? Did you notice anything about the trees and vegetation covering the sign?”
Looking at street design, traffic volumes, and visibility is key in the city’s efforts to protect street users from vehicle crashes, says Bhatia. “If we’re not analyzing one of the causes of the problems, we’re unlikely to identify it…and unlikely to focus resources on the solutions,” he said.
Casciato said the education is already having a positive impact on the officers’ attitude toward vehicle crashes.
“One of my officers actually went out and did a comprehensive look at California and Hyde Street, and did a write-up and sent it over to the MTA,” he said. “Even though there wasn’t [a crash], he went and put his thoughts down because he thinks, in his mind, this is a hazardous intersection.”
Too many of San Francisco’s streets are recipes for disaster, with wide roads and intersections that encourage drivers to speed, crosswalks with poor visibility, dangerously placed bicycle lanes, and freeway ramps that spill rushed drivers into dense urban areas.
The new efforts will “hopefully provide more and better data about where we need to focus our street improvement,” said Dave Snyder, executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition. “That’s a positive thing, but it’s not as important as fixing the streets immediately with the data we currently have.”
In addition to using available crash data, Casciato said the SFPD is taking into account complaints from residents to focus on especially dangerous spots. They are also working to change the standard statewide reporting forms to include environmental fields by urging law enforcement lobbyists to push for change in Sacramento, he said.
While the behavioral responsibility of streets users falls most heavily on those permitted to operate multi-ton motor vehicles, the context in which people are hurt is crucial in digging San Francisco out of the hole of favoring motor traffic over public safety.
“We’ve designed the system for moving cars faster, which creates risk for pedestrians, but we’ve not identified that speed and that traffic flow as a cause of a hazard,” said Bhatia. “Culturally, we just haven’t considered this as an environmental health problem as I think we should.”