It took a show of public outrage, but the SFPD has reversed course and decided to issue a traffic citation to the paratransit van driver who was videotaped running over a man who had the right of way at Leavenworth and Eddy Streets last week. The driver will be cited for failing to yield to a pedestrian; no criminal charges will be filed as of yet.
An SFPD spokesperson had initially said police wouldn’t cite the driver in the “unfortunate” crash because he cooperated with authorities, but the department apparently changed its mind after Walk SF rallied members to call on the SFPD and city leaders to “defend everyone’s right to walk safely.”
“What a shame that no action is being taken against the driver of the van who was obviously negligent,” wrote one member in a message to the mayor, the District Attorney, the SFMTA and the SFPD last week. “The message this sends to San Francisco drivers is that it’s okay to run over people that are obeying rules when crossing a street. Our streets are unsafe and we need to do something about it!”
The SFPD’s citation is the bare minimum that could be applied in this case, according to Shaana Rahman, an attorney who defends pedestrian victims in civil court. “The gross negligence of this driver is absolutely clear,” she said. “Not only does the video show that the victim had the right of way, it also shows that the pedestrian was in the crosswalk for several seconds and was clearly visible to the driver, had the driver been paying attention.”
Denis O’Leary, head of the SFPD Traffic Company, said the driver wasn’t initially cited at the scene because “he was not feeling well and ended up in the hospital.” O’Leary said he ordered officers to cite the driver for failing to yield to a pedestrian after the crash was evaluated by a state-certified investigator. However, Rahman pointed out that the driver violated at least one other law — California Vehicle Code 22107, which prohibits moving “right or left upon a roadway until such movement can be made with reasonable safety.”
In the surveillance footage, the driver can be seen running the victim over in a highly-visible crosswalk while he had the walk signal. The man, who walked with a cane, was pinned under the van for 20 minutes and sent to the hospital with several broken bones.
While some would like to see criminal charges brought against the driver, the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office says there aren’t sufficient grounds without having more information. SF District Attorney George Gascón has prosecuted four drivers for killing pedestrians in recent months, but DA spokesperson Omid Talai said last week’s case is different because the victim is expected to survive.
“There’s no law on the books that we can point to to charge an individual who, without intent, negligently and accidentally injures a pedestrian, or bicyclist, or individual in their car,” said Talai.
However, the DA can file charges for reckless driving, which Talai said is defined “as any person driving any vehicle on a highway who is in willful and wanton disregard for the safety of other people and property. Often times, that’s when someone is under the influence, on their cell phone, or has a cast on their leg.”
Did the van driver’s actions in this case constitute “willful and wanton disregard for the safety of other people”? The DA’s office says they would need more evidence to decide. “If we’re presented with more information [by the SFPD], we would definitely take a hard look at the surrounding circumstances, and then make an informed decision,” said Talai.
Walk SF Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe said, “Gascón’s concern about dangerous behavior on the streets is commendable, but this kind of obvious endemic injustice needs action,” and that the organization “is eager to work with the District Attorney to develop the tools needed to prosecute these crimes.”
Talai could not say whether Gascón would consider lobbying to change state law to give prosecutors more leeway to press charges for dangerous driving.
“We do not relish having to prosecute people for these incidents. We’d all be better off if these accidents never occured,” he added. “Among California cities, San Francisco historically has the highest per capita vehicle-pedestrian collision injury rate. While [that has] declined over the last decade, we can and should do better to make our streets even more welcoming for pedestrians and bicyclists.”