In SF, Victims of Traffic Violence Don’t Have Equal Protection

A pedestrian injured by two drivers at 19th and Valencia Streets last month, one of the more than 800 hit every year in San Francisco -- the vast majority by drivers. Photo: ##http://missionlocal.org/2012/05/pedestrian-hit-by-vehicle-on-19th-st-near-valencia/##Mission Local##

SF District Attorney George Gascón is set to bring felony vehicular manslaughter charges against Chris Bucchere later today for biking into 71-year-old Sutchi Hui in a crosswalk at Castro and Market Streets, killing him. Any traffic death on our streets deserves a thorough investigation with appropriate charges filed against the responsible party. But this high-profile case raises the question of why so few other perpetrators of traffic violence face similar repercussions.

So far, six other pedestrians are known to have been killed in San Francisco this year. SFPD and the DA have not drawn nearly the same level of public scrutiny to those cases as they have to the Bucchere/Hui case. The media, meanwhile, is captivated. The most visible difference setting Bucchere’s case apart, of course, is that he was riding a bike when he killed Hui, while the people who killed the six other victims were driving motor vehicles.

SFPD Chief Greg Suhr (right) and SF District Attorney George Gascón. Photo: ##http://abcnews.go.com/meta/search/imageDetail?format=plain&source=http://abcnews.go.com/images/US/8192e48f8ee04637bd83cce4deba09b9##ABC News##

All pedestrians who are injured on SF streets (876 in 2011) and the survivors of those who are killed (17 victims last year) deserve thorough investigations and appropriate actions from law enforcement agencies to deter dangerous behavior, regardless of the mode of travel of the perpetrator. But the DA and SFPD don’t display the same zeal for prosecuting drivers who kill (save those who are drunk or flee the scene) as they have for Bucchere.

Gascón and the SFPD have improved their record in recent months by charging a few such drivers in 2011 cases — but with misdemeanors, not felonies. Spokesperson Stephanie Ong Stillman argues that the DA’s office has given fair attention to cases that the SFPD has brought before it.

However, the SFPD apparently doesn’t treat all traffic fatalities equally, even in cases where police investigators determine the driver to be at fault. So far, there has been no action against the drivers responsible for the deaths of 47-year-old Sena Putra and 22-year-old Robert Yegge — both of whom were killed within the last month by truck drivers whom the SFPD says failed to yield. The evidence that the drivers who killed Putra and Yegge violated the law seems comparable, if not stronger, than the evidence in the Bucchere case, yet there is no word that the department will seek charges. (Streetsblog has requested a list of pedestrian fatalities presented by the SFPD to the DA’s office for investigation this year. DA staff said it is compiling the list, but we have not received it as we go to press.)

To build a legally defensible case against Bucchere, prosecutors went to great lengths to gather evidence, as is appropriate for any traffic death. They collected GPS data and surveillance footage, and spent weeks tracking down witnesses to make the case that Bucchere’s illegal behavior caused the crash (he apparently entered the intersection on a yellow light, which isn’t illegal). Sources said the DA ran into hurdles in building the case, which led to a delay in Gascón’s announcement of the widely-anticipated charges. According to a statement from the DA’s office, Gascón will try to prove recklessness by focusing on Bucchere’s pattern of behavior leading up to the crash, during which he allegedly sped and ran stop signs — a case which the SF Bay Guardian said rests on questionable grounds.

Soon after the crash that killed Hui, Gascón indicated that he was “definitely” going to press charges against Bucchere by proving “reckless negligence.” When Gascón announced the charges, his office put out a statement saying “we can do better as a city to avoid these tragic consequences,” and that “everyone has to follow the rules of the road.” And sensitive information on the investigation, like the results from GPS data from Bucchere’s speed tracker, was leaked to media outlets by the SFPD. The DA denied leaking that background on the investigation and says its policy is not to share such information until charges are announced.

The story has reached media outlets across the country, including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, which have sensationalized the incident by tying it to broader issues of bike lanes and general conflicts between street users.

Meanwhile, the six other pedestrian fatalities in 2012, and most of those before them, have not elicited the same response from the media, the SFPD, or the DA’s office. The same week Hui was injured, a woman was also hospitalized by a driver at the same intersection, yet the case was virtually ignored by the media. No statement was issued by the DA about the necessity of avoiding traffic crashes and following the rules of the road.

The pattern in such cases is that drivers typically face no legal consequences unless they were drunk or fled the scene. In another case in February, surveillance footage and witness accounts clearly showed an impatient shuttle driver seriously injuring a man with a cane who had the right of way in a crosswalk. Yet the SFPD only issued the driver a traffic citation after an outcry from pedestrian advocates. At the time, the DA’s office claimed it could not file charges in a pedestrian crash unless the victim dies or the driver displayed “willful and wanton disregard for the safety of other people.” This crash apparently did not meet the standard. There were no charges.

Making San Francisco’s streets safer means seeking justice in all cases of traffic violence — not just the ones that are most sensational to the public.

  • Wham

     @jd_x, I apologize for the sharp post.  Of course, you make clear that
    you don’t condone pedestrians acting like fools and walking straight
    into traffic.  It just beggars imagining to me that anyone would find
    this controversial, or worthy of any rationalization, as mikesonn and
    murphstahoe seemed to.

    Your long post was certainly thoughtful, and I’d love to see innovations
    in city design that would make for fewer accidents.  I find San
    Francisco’s new green bike lanes go some way in that regard, but I don’t
    think cars need to go 20 mph or less (35 mph has always been fine for
    avoiding both pedestrians and bicycles–if pedestrians, bicyclists, AND
    cars are obeying the rules of the road or just exercising basic common
    sense and self-awareness instead of blithely blowing off everyone else’s
    existence).

  • Gneiss

    Wham,
     
    There’s the rub.  You expect a world where everyone is a reasonable actor and avoid the 3,000 metal machines hurtling along at 35 mph in a dense, urban, space.  But we’re human, so we all make mistakes and act irrationally.  Particularly when we are young. 

    When speed limits were lower and motorist didn’t race down city streets, children used to play in them.  Now we clutch our childrens’ hands and fear for their lives each time we cross one.  It doesn’t seem to matter if we are in a marked crosswalk,  ‘jaywalking’ or let along playing near them, we are expected to watch out for cars and accept death if we make a mistake or a car driver makes a mistake.  I don’t know about you, but I hate living in fear.
     
    The rate of death from accidents goes up dramatically for pedestrian/cyclists accidents above 20 mph.  That’s why the Dutch lowered speed limits in areas where people were likely to be walking and biking, which are most urban spaces in their country.  They knew people should be given a chance to survive a mistake, and live in a world where a culture of fear wouldn’t dominate their lives.

  • Wham

     Thanks Gneiss,

    Well I would only protest that I’m certainly not “expecting” anything like that–I’m expecting people to keep on going like they’re going, until we’ve seen several of those “two or three bicyclists all ran a four-way stop at the same time and smashed into each other” scenes that I mention below.  I’m expecting Americans to get more and more stupid, careless and negligent, even when lives are at stake, until… we go through whatever downfall awaits such a people.

    A 20-mph speed limit wouldn’t solve that, but if it has had the result of lowering casualties, I wouldn’t stand in your way, and might even help you campaign.  However, if bicyclists and pedestrians continued to be negligent (which, by the way, I don’t find that they are in Europe, in the same way they are here), then we would continue to have problems.  A guy killed by a bicyclist running a stop sign at 20 mph is as dead as he would be if it were a car going 35.

  • Guest

    Ever hear of Mary Smith?  She’s the El Cerrito pedestrian who died earlier this month.  I don’t recall seeing the name of the cyclist who knocked her over.  You?

  •  @Guest – The cyclist’s name was in the SF Chronicle, SF Examiner, Berkeley Daily Planet, and El Cerrito “Patch” on the day of the fatality.  Bay Area News Group papers printed his name one day (not six months) later.

  • Joe R.

    @ad25937faa588827a4525c53bd37b31d:disqus Sad to say, I see a good number of pedestrians in NYC who do indeed think they’re entitled to space out or just randomly wander into the streets. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the same thing exists in SF. Whenever you try to tell one of these people that they’re wrong, you usually get the line “pedestrians always have the right-of-way”. The problem with this line of thought is some time ago we decided as a society that it’s necessary to keep people on foot away from certain places in order to expedite movement of goods, services, and people traveling on motorized conveyances. If we were to allow pedestrians to randomly enter the mix of traffic on the roads without dire consequences, we would probably need to limit all traffic to walking speed, or at most, jogging speed. Obviously society as it exists today couldn’t function if that were the case, so we made rules about when and where pedestrians can cross public roads. These rules aren’t ironclad or overly restrictive if you obey the spirit, rather than the letter, of the law. Simply put, look both ways before crossing a public road, and yield to any traffic unless you’re crossing at a crosswalk protected by either a stop sign, yield sign, or red light. Even then, it’s a good idea to look before crossing because motorists sometimes make mistakes, even if no malice is intended. The concept that a pedestrian always has the right-of-way is idiotic at best, deadly at worst, and totally unworkable in practice given the way our transportation system functions. When you’re going even at 20 mph, never mind at higher speeds, you simply can’t reliably stop in time to avoid random pedestrians wandering onto the street.
    The problem as I see isn’t one of not following rules, but one where all road users (that includes pedestrians) are simply unwilling to put their full attention to the task at hand. We’ve all seen pedestrians crossing the street while texting. Drivers and even some cyclists do the same thing. It’s the casual way we act when we’re on the road which causes problems. No amount of laws or enforcement will solve that. We need a sea change in attitude. Basically, people need to wake up and realize when they’re in a shared public space, the need to watch out for others takes precedence over their “need” to text, talk on the phone, read, or space out. If someone wants to do those things, go somewhere where they won’t be putting themselves or others in danger.

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  • I was hit by a car and went through the windshield–police at the scene sited me at fault just by speaking to the driver and I had to pay my own medical bills, which made me have to file bankruptcy

  • mikesonn

    Who is this “Wham”, my goodness!

    I don’t have the time nor the patience to reply to you. But pretty much, I think it’s clear to most (sadly not you) what I meant by my original comments. @002ec2dcc5273303fbfd34e45385ab64:disqus summed it up pretty well.

  • Anonymous

    Wham – you are making Aaron’s point.

    Cyclist who do whatever are arrogant p***ks who don’t give a f**k.

    Why isn’t the same level of vitriol used by you regarding texting drivers, who are statistically the same as drunk drivers?

  • wham

     @mikesonn:twitter , thanks for nothing, then.  Bye-bye. 

    Anyway, Gneiss said NOTHING that seemed to excuse pedestrians from responsibility, or to excuse behavior such as walking straight into the path of a moving vehicle.  If anyone agrees with that, then we have no argument; if they DISagree with that, then it’s no wonder they’re unwilling to back up their weak argument with anything other than a one-liner and a followup to say “I just stopped in to say that I won’t be saying anything.” 

    I am, after all, being patient enough to follow up repeatedly, even with those with poor reading skills, such as:

    @murphstahoe:disqus, 1) again, I believe I repeatedly referred to such drivers as “stupid” and “negligent,” below, and I gladly say so again here; 2) the reason I focused more on cyclists is because some cyclists seemed to disagree with assigning cyclists or pedestrians any responsibility; and 3) such vitriol IS directed routinely at drivers; right here.

    Finally, cyclists who are heedless of other people’s safety ARE arrogant p***ks who don’t give a f**k.  So are pedestrians who are, or drivers who are.  There–fixed?

  • wham

     @2555783a6f62598b6aadd2d882a4830f:disqus , bravo and well said.  Couldn’t agree more: we need a sea change in public attitudes, so that EVERYONE sharing the roads is more conscious of other people, and less self-absorbed.  I voiced pessimism about it below, but perhaps I shouldn’t have.  It is something that needs to happen, after all.

  • mikesonn

    Alright fine,  .

    I made the reference to the origin of “jaywalking” because our streets use to be for people. I am, in no way whatsoever, excusing someone from just walking out in front of a vehicle (automobile or bicycle). However, jaywalking is an issue because we allow vehicles to travel at such high speeds (20 is plenty http://www.20splentyforus.org.uk/ ) in dense urban environments. People have been regulated to the sidewalks and made to cross only a designated spots at designated times to allow vehicles (mainly cars, but you could argue bikes as well) to travel unimpeded at higher than needed speeds.

    I never once lobbied for the removal of food (or any goods) delivery by truck. That is ridiculous and a straw man argument, hence my reluctance to respond to you (that and I was out last night). Just reread what you wrote here. I never once said any of those things.

  • wham

     @mikesonn:disqus  Good deal.  Thanks for responding.  And I’m sorry that you found my comments obnoxious.  As you can see, your clarification was needed, and that is the best way to demolish a straw man argument, which I can now see it was.  It wasn’t clear before.

    The reason for my impatience was that I began merely by saying that negligent people are to be found among drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians alike, and they are equally a minority among each, and are just as dangerous, given that a pedestrian who doesn’t look is just as dead from a bike going 20 mph (skull fractures can happen at that speed, too, I believe) as a car going 35 mph.  I found this a pretty bland statement, and I assumed, when I got push-back, that you were disagreeing with this.

    I disagree with none of your last post, except that I believe that jaywalking WOULD be just as much an issue even with a 20 mph speed limit, if people don’t make the change Joe R is talking about, and become more conscious.

  • Mmdiazin

    I was hit by a car while on my bike last year.  There was a fire truck, cops, and I was taken away in an ambulance.  The guy who hit me stopped, and while I was being examined by the EMT, I saw that the cop was talking to him, but for some reason, the cop didn’t even file a police report.  I had to make multiple trips to the court house trying to get a police report that wasn’t even there, and having people question me as to whether or not the incident even happened.  Stuck with the bills to fix body and bike, and lost wages from work, all because the cop didn’t file a police report on a driver who was at fault.

  • 1) again, I believe I repeatedly referred to such drivers as “stupid”
    and “negligent,” below, and I gladly say so again here;

    You also had an explicit post where only the cyclists were called out. No matter what, Aaron’s point holds, that as a general case, negligent drivers are not subject to the same scrutiny as negligent cyclists or pedestrians. Frequently people go to great lengths to point out that pedestrians could have contributory negligence in collisions with motorists. The general sentiment in the Bucchere case has been that Bucchere was 100% responsible, and any rumor, innuendo, wild speculation as to Bucchere’s negligence has been trumpeted as fact. If you polled SF residents, well over 80% would say “He ran a red light” despite an official statement from the SFPD that he entered on yellow. Why is that?

    2) the reason I
    focused more on cyclists is because some cyclists seemed to disagree
    with assigning cyclists or pedestrians any responsibility;

    This is completely bogus. The whole point of this article is that pedestrians, and especially cyclists, are assigned responsibility disproportionate to actual responsibility. If you actually read (you’re a big fan or reading, correct?) the comments coming from the noisiest authors on this topic, the call is for factual analysis of responsibility, and for vigorous analysis of all cases, where clearly cases like the Bucchere case have sucked up 1000’s of hours of SFPD/DA time and the Yegge case is probably not even going to be prosecuted.

    3) such
    vitriol IS directed routinely at drivers; right here.

    “right here” represents a tiny fraction of media views. I feel it is important for the primary media outlets to cover these sorts of cases properly – TV, Chron, etc…

  • wham

     @twitter-14678929:disqus , incorrect.  The posts below will clearly show that I began, and ended, by saying that an equal proportion, a minority, of drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians were negligent, and that each were exactly as wrong as the others.  The ONLY reason I moved from there to focusing–in fact–more on PEDESTRIANS than either of the other two groups is in RESPONSE to posts that seemed to be excusing those pedestrians. 

    So that is the ONLY reason that I switched from focusing equally on all three, to focusing more on the pedestrians (though, again, I’ve repeatedly called out all three).  You want it to be true that cyclists or pedestrians get treated worse, but in fact, that is not what I’ve been doing.  I see that you want to force it to be true, but I will simply repeat–for at least the fourth post–that pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers each contain a minority that are negligent, that bear responsibility for accidents, and that should stop.

  • wham

     Shorter: if you read my posts, below, the ONLY ones which took a sharper tone against pedestrians’ or bicyclists’ misbehavior than drivers were those in response TO bicyclists who seemed intent on excusing pedestrians.  I began assigning equal blame, and equal vitriol (“stupid” and “negligent” were my exact words, to drivers as well as the others, so I’m afraid you can’t pretend I didn’t say that), and ended with it. 

    @murphstahoe:disqus
    If your own posts then insist on one side being much more deserving of blame, then of COURSE people are going to focus more on one side’s blame.  What a crock to then say “aha!  You’re bigoted!”

  • Thanks for this needed article. I am a pedestrian first, a driver second and a bike rider third. Having lived in NYC most of my life and then living in SF, I can say that I think New York is a safer place for pedestrians for a few reasons. First of all, cars in SF can turn right on red and very often drivers don’t stop first and look. In fact, very often they are otherwise distracted with phones, texting, etc. And although the DPT is one of the few SF agencies that actually works well, you have to be a sitting duck (in other words, parked) and they will ticket you. But moving violations (speeding, making a right without stopping first, etc.) are rarely ticketed. 

  • Anonymous

    @facebook-735029893:disqus 100% that we absolutely need to ban turning right on red. It is entirely an anachronistic idea from the automobile-heady days of the past when the almighty traffic was required to flow regardless of all else. In the wider context of considering all road users, especially the most vulnerable (pedestrians and cyclists), it is a ridiculous idea.

  • Joe R.

    @jd_x:disqus Agreed that banning right on red for motor vehicles in urban areas makes sense but we should still allow bicycles to do so (with the caveat that they yield to any pedestrians in their path while turning). A bicycle turning right on red, and staying to the far right, doesn’t even interfere with cross traffic.

  • wham

    @google-9ed3368a6439fa92efd353af4436290d:disqus
    In this case, though, how would that work, if you were applying that thought to the bicyclist who killed someone?  I mean, I’m assuming you’re “(much) less harmful forms of transportation” isn’t intended for Mr. Hui’s family? 

    You want drivers to “bear more responsibility” and “be held to a higher standards,” but what does that mean you want done about the killing of Mr. Hui?

  • wham

     *your*

  • mikesonn

    Wham, stop poking and prodding for something that isn’t there.

  • wham

     @mikesonn:disqus no, I’m so sorry–a guy was killed.  That’s a fact.  He was killed by a bicyclist.  That’s being met here by a claim that the bicycle is a (much) less harmful form of transportation.  I don’t think that mentioning that is wrong, since we’re talking about a human life here.  People need to remember that.  A guy was killed by what might have been a reckless bicyclist.  And he isn’t the only one who has been.  If you want fairness, as in the point of the article above, then that’s fine.  I have no argument against that.  But if you’re embarrassed to admit that people are being killed by negligent bicyclists too, and want people to sweep that under the rug, then I think that stinks.  Don’t tell me I have to be a party to that.

    Nor is it “poking and prodding” for a guy to explain exactly what he means, and what it should translate to in practical terms, when he himself was the one who volunteered saying he had ideas about higher standards and more responsibility.

  • Anonymous

    As a born and raised San Franciscan who uses all modes to get around, it saddens me the SFPD does not handle crashes with bicyclists and pedestrians (unless they’re hit by a cyclist) very seriously or fairly. I know of one incident recently where a friend was treated like dirt by a SFPD officer even though she was a victim of getting hit by a driver and acted very courteously throughout the investigative process. It’s shameful, SFPD. Getting hit by a car should be treated like getting hit by a bullet. Similar results.

  • mikesonn

    You frame your arguments very interestingly, to say the least. Not worth the exchange, chasing windwills.

  • Wham

    Um–whatever, mikesonn.  You certainly do too.  And a very odd tendency to say “I’m going to be part of this conversation with Wham!” and then instantly to proclaim “I’m not going to be part of this conversation with Wham!” on the very first response.

    But as long as you or Miles Bader don’t blow off stop signs on your bike, in a way that endangers other people by doing so, though, or apologize for others who do, we have no major quarrel.  You’ve been clear in saying that you don’t intend to say that clearly, though, so I wish you well, whatever it is you’re trying to do.  I am satisfied that I haven’t rationalized negligence on the part of drivers, bicyclists, OR pedestrians, so I think that I, at least, have been clear.  Be well and treat others well.

  • Anonymous

    Entitled cyclist scum posts a shitty article about how bicyclists can do no wrong and car drivers are EVIL!

  • Anonymous

    Discriminating against entitled cyclist scum is a public good.

  • Anonymous

    Incorrect. We need to ban cyclists.

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