Commentary: Dangerous, Impatient Driving Is Reckless Driving

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It’s a common sight in downtown San Francisco: drivers line up on a bustling street, waiting to make a turn, and one or two impatient motorists can’t seem to believe that pedestrians are crossing in front of the queue.

When the queue moves, if that driver reaches the crosswalk and then runs over a pedestrian, should he or she be able to escape the consequences of committing what is effectively assault, so long as they claim not to have seen the victim?

In the case of the paratransit van driver who ran over a man at Eddy and Leavenworth Streets in the Tenderloin this Valentine’s Day, the “I didn’t see him excuse” worked like a charm. Surveillance footage and eyewitness accounts make it plain that the driver honked impatiently then ran down the victim in a marked crosswalk, yet the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office says no criminal charges can be brought against him because he stayed at the scene and “cooperated” with police, the victim didn’t die, and law enforcement determined that he was not driving “recklessly.”

Charges of reckless driving, according to DA spokesperson Omid Talai, only apply when the driver is “in willful and wanton disregard for the safety of other people.” In this case, the victim was hospitalized and will likely suffer life-long consequences, but without a reckless driving charge, the only consequence for the perpetrator will be a single traffic citation for failing to yield — and even that ticket probably wouldn’t have happened if not for a show of outrage from pedestrian safety advocates.

If San Francisco expects to have streets where people are safe to walk without suffering debilitating injuries, then the DA should consider this driver’s actions to be reckless. It’s clear that the driver was impatient and careless enough to barrel through the intersection as though no one were nearby, even though he was behind the wheel of a multi-ton motor vehicle in a crowded downtown neighborhood that sees as much or more pedestrian crashes as any other in the city.

The walk signal was on, the sun was out, the crosswalk was marked with an especially visible design, and the victim was crossing for several seconds before the driver accelerated. The fact that he didn’t see the victim is a result of his willful recklessness, not a test to determine whether recklessness occurred.

If someone can inflict serious injuries on another person by recklessly operating a lethal machine, and get right back behind the wheel without so much as a suspended driver’s license, then our legal system is broken.

  • Anonymous

    Related to this is the need to eliminate Right-Turn-on-Red from the books.

  • Jakewegmann

    Exactly right, Aaron. Well said. Don’t back off of your stance even an inch. If SF wants to call itself a “Transit First” city, it needs to hold itself to its own standard. This incident is so grotesque that it can serve as a call to action. It’s our local version of the Raquel Nelson incident in Georgia.

    I get incensed anytime I’m at an intersection on foot, and I see a car honking at the car in front of it because of an (unseen) pedestrian who is in the crosswalk.

    As far as I’m concerned, the car doing the honking is putting pressure on the car in front to maim or kill the person on foot who is trying to cross. The fact that the person is out of view is no excuse whatsoever. Only the narcissism that seems to befall so many people who lock themselves in metal boxes on wheels could allow someone to behave in such a reckless way. The phrase “wanton disregard for the well-being of others” comes to mind.

    If a person were on foot, screaming at the person ahead of them to step into an intersection and risk getting hit by an approaching car, the person doing the screaming would be set upon by a mob of bystanders, and rightfully so.

    This behavior is no different, except it’s being done by a person in a car.

    Any time that I see people behaving like that, and whenever I get the opportunity, I get in the face of the driver doing the honking and call them on their shit. The reactions vary — sometimes they are chastened and meekly say they’re sorry (who knows! maybe they learn something, and maybe they’ll think about not acting like that next time).

    Other times the culpable drivers yell at me. In these cases, they always do this as they step on the gas and drive away as soon as they can, because they don’t have the guts to look me in the eye and explain to me how they could risk endangering a person’s life in that manner. 

  • Anonymous

    100% agree. This concept only benefits motorists and jeopardizes the safety of pedestrians and cyclists. It must go.

  • The transportation system is broken. Time to get rid of the private auto. This is the cause of congestion. Impatience is simply people rebelling against having to pay the external costs of oil and auto profit.

  • Davistrain

    Get rid of the private auto?  That train left the station a long time ago.  I believe that many Americans have the “I will give up my car (or truck or SUV) when they pry my cold, dead hands from the steering wheel” attitude.  And remember that the vehicle in the incident under discussion was a “paratransit” bus, not a Yuppie SUV.  Not too long ago there was a fatal collision involving a pedestrian and a Muni bus.  So it isn’t just your sedan-driving suburbanites who can be hazardous to one’s health. 

  • Andy Chow

    This incident had nothing to do with right turn on red. Also without right turn on red, drivers would likely to try to beat the pedestrians when the light turns green (which is already the case anyway in some situations), which I think is more dangerous. I think it is safer to let drivers turn right on red when the cross traffic (both cars and peds) is light and that they have to stop and look each time. In some situations (when the other street has the left turn light only), right turn on red traffic isn’t impacted by anyone except by u-turn cars.

  • We view losing a drivers license as a death sentence and are thus afraid to take it away. That’s crap. If you aren’t capable of driving, you should lose your license and need to adjust. The death penalty is proven not to be a deterrent because the perpetrators are frequently not rational at all. Most people are rational – still revokation penalties will deter.

  • mikesonn

    “drivers would likely to try to beat the pedestrians when the light turns green (which is already the case anyway in some situations)”

    Drivers are already screwing it up so at least let them save 5 seconds.

  • Chris

    Are you suggesting they install right turn signals at every intersection?

  • Chris

    Dangerous, impatient travelling is reckless, this includes driving, cycling, and walking. Everyone needs to be a responsible road user, regardless of what mode of transportation they use. I frequent Streetsblog, and it’s frustrating to read comments that favor a single mode of transport without thinking about the impacts on an entire system. I agree, this paratransit driver should have had his license suspended, and been charged with something, as should anyone who recklessly endangers the lives of others.

  • Anonymous

    @014d815e337305dccb0b861fe6cdb3e3:disqus Didn’t say turning right on the red was the fault here (and @TAPman:disqus started the thread with “related to this ….”, the key word being “related”), but the more people that are turning at an intersection, the more dangerous it is. It’s much easier for all involved to know that *all* traffic in the opposing direction will always be stopped.

    Now, if driver’s are going to rush the pedestrians on the green, which as you said they already do, that is a separate issue. We would never have any laws if the criteria for one was that nobody would ever try to break it.

  • mikesonn

    “I frequent Streetsblog, and it’s frustrating to read comments that favor a single mode of transport without thinking about the impacts on an entire system.”

    [citation needed]

    Also, that’s just a BS statement even if you do pull some random quote out of context.

  • mikesonn

    If a driver can turn right on red, then they are more likely to be very impatient when they can’t immediately turn right on green.

    Example above.

  • Anonymous

    I completely agree!

    As a pedestrian crossing an intersection in this city your safety is being threatened with cars approaching from at least 3 directions, regardless of the which side has the red.

    My understanding is that right turn on red is not legal in NYC, so there’s already a precedent for it.

  • Sprague

    Thank you, Aaron, for covering  this story, specifically that of the pedestrian hit by a paratransit vehicle.  As the footage shows, anyone of us is equally vulnerable to becoming an accident victim.  The ongoing promotion of motorised vehicles at the expense of all other modes of travel is clearly detrimental to life and limb.  Thank you for continuing to cover the problems of our car is king culture.

  • Andy Chow

    If there are conditions that make right turn on red unsafe at certain intersections, then it is easy to prohibit right turn on red at those intersections. I think that prohibiting it altogether is counter-productive.

    I don’t think allowing right turn on red would make it more likely for a driver to try rush at a green light, because even if they miss it they could still turn before the next light cycle. Because of the way most traffic light cycles are designed, there is less green time overall for right turns (because they have to yield for pedestrians) than going straight. Allowing them to turn right on red essentially compensate for the loss of green time compared to straight traffic, and it acts as a de facto stop sign.

  • Washington, DC has done a nice job with right turn arrows at some intersections with large volumes of turns.  The signal starts with a green/walk/red-arrow combination and then at the end gives a green/don’t-walk/green-arrow combination for a few seconds, giving pedestrians priority but still allowing vehicles to make their turns.  The downside is that it needs a right turn lane for the vehicles to queue up in while they’re waiting for their turn.

  • Anonymous

    Anyone know the two countries on this planet that came up with “Right-Turn-on-Red”?

  • Anonymous

    The two countries that created the right-turn-on-red nonsense were the U.S. and East Germany.  Canada has been forced into accepting it, much like many things originating in the U.S. (see the switch in dates of Daylight Savings Time), Unified Germany decided to adopt RTOR after German Unification, but I am not sure how wide spread it is into the former West Germany

    RTOR endangers pedestrians for the reasons listed by others here.  Include with them the fact that they cause the right turning motorist to look left, which causes a lack of diligence over the traffic signal (and attached pedestrian signal) and any pedestrians waiting at the corner, or bicyclists approaching/waiting on the motorists right hand side. 

    My personal experience is that both times I have been hit as a pedestrian, I had the light, I started across (I live in a city that tickets pedestrians who start across after the red hand appears severely, and the period for the “white man” is very short) and was struck by a motorist who was completing a Right Turn on Red begun when the light was still red for them and for me;  But they never bothered to look back to the right after perpendicular traffic stopped, to see me or the fact that I had the light.

    We have all seen the RTOR performed without coming to a full stop; indeed towards their end of use in my city, that traffic violation is all the Red-Light Cameras were catching and ticketing.

    RTOR was developed in a different era, when cars were less efficient, and pedestrian numbers were dwindling, to save fuel.    Now is the time to repeal it.

  • In downtown Denver, many walking signals are always red when motorized traffic can move (regardless of the direction). Following, there is a generous pedestrian scramble where all auto traffic (including right turns) must stop. I kind of liked it.

  • Sanfordia113

    Sorry for posting 2 years late, but doesn’t it look like the pedestrian is walking with a cane (possibly even one-legged)? Incredible!

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