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.

  • Prinzrob

    Thanks for your nuanced take on this case, Aaron. I have heard from some folks who say that the felony charge is appropriate since Bucchere displayed willful disregard for others’ safety both before and during the incident, whereas the drivers in some of the similar collisions did not. However, I would counter by arguing that just because it is easier to kill someone with a car doesn’t mean the repercussions should be lighter when they do. Perhaps the city needs to establish some minimum charge/sentencing guidelines for traffic fatalities where the vehicle operator is found at fault, instead of leaving it up to the media to decide which cases merit the most attention.

  • Speaking of which, what’s the status of Josh Calder?

  • There’s rumors that a plea bargain is being negotiated. The trial never started.

  • Joe R.

    So his GPS has him going 10 mph over the limit? And I’ll bet it wasn’t for very long. That’s standard operating procedure for motorists in NYC. It’s not speeding in the sense of being reckless. This seems to be a case where the DA is grasping at straws trying to charge the cyclist with something, perhaps in an attempt to appease the public. I’ll bet good money a motorist who hit a person under the exact same circumstances (i.e. apparently trying to “make the light”) wouldn’t face any charges. Remember that if the light was yellow when the cyclist entered the intersection, then this means the person he hit was crossing against the light. You can’t have a double standard where you say everyone has to follow the rules of the road, but you press charges against someone who hit a pedestrian who clearly wasn’t following those same rules. Sure, I cross on red myself. However, I look before crossing. If one day I should screw up and get hit, I sure as heck won’t be looking to press charges against whoever hit me when I was the one technically breaking the law. 

    As for the nonsense about running stop signs, if anyone actually bothers to analyze things, most cars roll through stop signs without stopping at roughly the same speed bikes do. The thing is bicycles are much smaller, so a bike rolling through a stop sign at only 10 mph might look like it’s recklessly flying through, whereas a car won’t. Sure, stop in theory should mean stop, but the problem is many places use stop signs where yield signs would be more appropriate (and traffic lights where stop signs would work just as well). Maybe if these traffic controls weren’t so overused, they would garner more respect from both cyclists and motorists.

  • mikesonn

    Thank you, Aaron!

    Don’t forget the elderly woman who was hit by a drunk driver on Polk, thankfully she didn’t die but the driver is only going to be charged with a misdemeanor.

  • Gneiss

    When the police don’t see a traffic incident themselves, they often can only use witness testimony from bystanders (unlikely) and the people involved in the crash.  In motorist on pedestrian or motorist on cyclist crashes, often the injured party is immediately taken to a hospital, which means the motorist has ample time to shape the investigation.  That’s not to say that motorists are dishonest, but they can provide testimony which puts them in the best possible light ahead of whatever the injured party can say.  Not to mention, police are often biased to believe motorist testimony over others.  After all, they see all sorts of crazy stuff done by non-motorists every day.  I just wish they’d disoverer their inner Joe Friday.  http://www.copenhagenize.com/2012/06/big-hit-run-killer.html

  • Guest

    “The most visible difference setting Bucchere’s case apart, of course, is that he was riding a bike when he killed Hui”

    The most visible difference is that Bucchere appeared to be more concerned about the welfare of his helmet than the the victim.  And in all the other caes, how many can say that the driver was trying to beast their own speed record?

  • Guest

    And in regard to media coverage, there wasn’t much outrage raised by the media when the elderly woman was killed by the cyclist in El Cerrito.  Note that in that case, there was no blog post or mention of speed records.

  • mikesonn

    Best own speed record vs beating a light, difference is negligible. Also, I’d posit that delivery drivers have unstated (and in some cases stated) delivery quotas which means that they are also working against a clock (i.e. trying to best their own/boss’s speed record).

  •  One would hope that SF follows the example of Los Gatos and doesn’t soft peddle a plea, they offered Robert Schiro a tough sentence and he gambled with a trial, and he ended up with a longer sentence.

  • Joe R.

    If indeed Bucchere said he was trying to best his own speed record, why the f_ing hell was he doing it during the daytime on crowded streets? There’s nothing wrong with riding fast. I do all the time, but only when it’s appropriate. No way am I going fast in places full of pedestrians. Too many things can go wrong. That said, the DA’s case primarily relies on eyewitness accounts to set a prior pattern of reckless behavior before the crash happened. I doubt it will hold up in court. You can find any number of bike haters who will testify that they saw a cyclist run red lights or stop signs even if that wasn’t the case.

  • Ever hear of of Wallace Richardson? This man, who already had a record of bad driving, drove a UCSF minivan at high speed down a hill and (unlike Bucchere) ran a red light, crashed, and killed someone.  This incident is not national news and his name is not a household word in San Francisco.  Indeed, I didn’t see his name in the news until six months later, when he was charged not with a felony but a misdemeanor.

  • My provisional opinion is that Bucchere was going too fast, simply because he couldn’t slow down as needed.  I really wish people would stop taking the 35mph number as gospel, though, since it is allegedly from a device that varies widely in its accuracy.  No doubt the relevant speed can be calculated from the video.

  • The damn-all-bicyclists lynch mob was already forming before that email message came to light.  Also, the “personal record” meme is nothing but speculation at this point.

  • Anonymous

    “My provisional opinion is that Bucchere was going too fast, simply because he couldn’t slow down as needed.”  Are you suggesting this excuses or exonerates Bucchere’s actions? 

  • Anonymous

     I’m not sure where you are getting this information. This article mentions nothing about what Bucchere’s “concerns” were. Be that as it may, it doesn’t matter. The appearance of callousness by itself is not a crime. If he was going through on a yellow and if there was no indication that the cyclist was going over the speed limit then there should not be a case. I don’t know what the terrain was like at the location of the accident, but unless there was a significant hill it’s unlikely that he would have been going much over the speed limit if that. A car “trying to best their own speed record” could be doing 60.

  • Anonymous

    Both of the pedestrians who were killed by bicyclists were in the crosswalk.  Several of the pedestrians who were killed by motorists were jaywalkers who darted out into traffic from between parked cars.  In such cases the driver really cannot be held at fault, nor are such fatalties considered newsworthy, regrettable though they may be.

  • wham

     You’re exactly right.  In San Francisco, especially downtown (where traffic, unfortunately, is also busiest), one CONSTANTLY sees pedestrians simply jerk straight out and cross the street, wherever they are, and whatever might be speeding toward them, everything be damned.  It’s insane.

    Many bicyclists also constantly run stop signs, blithely staring as they almost mow down (and in some cases, DO mow down) any pedestrians in their path.  (I await the day when I’ll be horrified to see TWO such bicyclists run stop signs at the same time and bash into one another; it’s only a matter of time.)  And finally, many drivers are just as negligent, texting and driving, or speeding on streets designed for 35 mph driving.

    I believe that it’s a minority–though one far too significant in size–among pedestrians, bicyclists, OR car drivers, that behave this way.  But I would definitely scrutinize the question of jaywalking in any case like this.  Neither knee-jerk blaming of pedestrians, of bicyclists, or car drivers, is right.

  • Joe R.

    @wkgreen:disqus I agree he probably wan’t going much over the limit, if at all, unless there was a significant hill. I should note though that “besting one’s own speed record” can mean many different things. It could be an absolute maximum speed record, as you say. Or it could mean the best times riding between any two given points. Putting aside for the moment that the “personal record” stuff may well be speculation, I think in this case it may well have been the latter.

  • Jym’s statement is the polar opposite of an excuse. “Bucchere was going too fast”. You’re not supposed to go “too” fast, n’est pas?

  • mikesonn

    “jaywalking” was created by the auto industry in the early 1900’s to wrench control of streets space from pedestrians.

  • pchazzz – let’s take it to the next level. If a pedestrian is killed by a motorist going across Market Street on Castro on the green light, at 25 MPH (the posted speed limit), and a pedestrian darts out into the crosswalk in front of the car. Can the driver be held at fault?

  • VCS

    OK, most San Franciscans are aware of the “significant hill” on Castro @ Market. Where are you guys from?

  • @pchazzz – I am suggesting no such thing, and find that a bizarre response to my words.

  •  Jim Herd posted a capture from the google cache that showed Bucchere’s speed record on the stretch from the top of the hill on Castro to 18th at 17 MPH average, 8 MPH below the posted speed limit, and slow for a flat stretch of road let alone a downhill.

    But we know, the average isn’t what gets you, it’s the max.

  • Anonymous

    I have been hit by a car two times; both times I was in a crosswalk, which gave me an unwarranted sense of security.  I jaywalk constantly, but when I do, I am always acutely aware of the traffic flow and carefully judge my entry into the traffic stream.  And actually, crossing in mid block is safer because you don’t need to watch for turninng vehicles.  Both of the cars that hit me were turning.

    Murph – If the ped darted into traffic, I don’t think the motorist should necessarily be at fault, since he or she had the green light and may not have had enough time to react.

  •  So @pchazzz, it doesn’t really matter if the peds were in the crosswalk or not, does it… the only thing that matters is legal right of way.

  • Anonymous

    The second phrase of Jym’s sentence starting “simply because… ” sounded to me like it was being offered as an reason/excuse.  Thank you for clarifying. 

  • I jaywalk constantly, but when I do, I am always acutely aware of the
    traffic flow and carefully judge my entry into the traffic stream.  And
    actually, crossing in mid block is safer because you don’t need to watch
    for turninng vehicles.  Both of the cars that hit me were turning.

    You know what you sound like @pchazzz:disqus  ???

    Someone who would say….

    I roll through stop signs constantly, but when I do, I am aware of the traffic because on a bike I have better vision and carefully judge the traffic stream, and don’t take away someone elses right of way. And actually, jumping the red lights is safer because you get away from cars that might take a right turn on top of you. Most accidents are related to turning.

  • Anonymous

    @pchazzz:disqus wrote: “Several of the pedestrians who were killed by motorists were jaywalkers who darted out into traffic from between parked cars.  In such cases the driver really cannot be held at fault, nor are such fatalties considered newsworthy, regrettable though they may be.”

    I agree that there has to be accountability on all parties. Nobody can possibly blame a motorist traveling at the speed limit and paying attention who hits a pedestrian after that pedestrian had suddenly jumped out in front of the car (and not in a crosswalk). Same goes for a bicyclist darting in front of a car. Or a pedestrian darting in front of a bicyclist. (Though I a disagree that a fatality in such is not newsworthy … see below.)

    However, the problem — and which is newsworthy — is that our urban design is set up to cater to motorists and not pedestrians or cyclists. @mikesonn:disqus alluded to this with his mention of how the term “jaywalking” only came into existence with car culture. When a pedestrian “screws up”, they often get severely injured or die. Same for a bicyclist. However, the car driver rarely has to worry about this in collisions with bicyclists and pedestrians (hence the reason so many drivers are so nonchalant when driving and will speed, talk on the cell phone, and otherwise not pay attention). This isn’t what I would call a “livable” city, but a cold, unforgiving, and dangerous place. This is a huge problem which we must, as a society, address; we can’t just keep sweeping it under the rug as an accepted part of trying to live in a city. It is very newsworthy at how many pedestrians (and cyclists) have to pay with severe injury or death for making mistakes. We shouldn’t even have 4,000 lb hunks of steel with hundreds of horsepower driving anywhere near people unless they are traveling 20 mph or slower (“20 is plenty”). Again, making a mistake doesn’t mean you should be subjected to severe injury or death at the hands of a ridiculously over-sized and over-powered vehicle whose operator is often distracted, or, at best, unaware of the destructive potential literally at the tips of their hands and feet.

    All this being said, I would like to see the statistics for SF. Specifically, how many of the 900 pedestrians who were killed had the right of way, and how many of them “screwed up” and hence it was their fault. I’m sure this data is hard to find when, as this very article has pointed out,it should be something that the city tracks carefully and is working to improve. Instead, we all just accept it as the price to pay for having a car culture.

  • Anonymous

    Murph:  “So @pchazzz, it doesn’t really matter if the peds were in the crosswalk or not, does it… the only thing that matters is legal right of way.”
    What jd_x said: “No one can possibly blame a motorist traveling at the speed limit and paying attention who hits a pedestrian after that pedestrian had suddenly jumped out in front of the car (and not in a crosswalk).”

  • mikesonn

    @pchazzz:disqus You conveniently stopped reading the rest of @jd_x:disqus ‘s post, huh?

  • wham

     @mikesonn:disqus , please.  What are you TALKING about.  The auto industry and the bicycle industry and the pedestrian and the train industry and the ferry buildings and the subway stations all want space to locomote the way they do.  ALL of the above save one “wrest space away from pedestrians.” 

    Are you telling us that pedestrians should be able to walk straight in front of a bicycle going 20 miles per hour, or a car going 35?  A pedestrian who does that is an IDIOT.  And they do it all the time in San Francisco.  It’s darned well dangerous, and you shouldn’t be making excuses for it. 

    Or if you are, then please explain how ANY of us are supposed to function with nobody taking any sort of transportation besides our feet.  Remember, no ambulances if you get hurt; those require roads, right-of-way, and motor vehicles.  No fire trucks if your house is burning down, either; the whole city can catch on fire and burn down, instead of having some fire truck getting the right of way; might interfere with pedestrians, don’t want to “wrest their space away,” after all.  Let the city burn down, right?  Want trucked-in food, since there isn’t nearly enough agricultural space in San Francisco to feed a million people?  Too bad.  Starve.

    I mean, please explain where you’re going with a one-liner like that.  THINK, for God’s sake.

    We need all the forms of transportation mentioned above.  Do NOT encourage people to blow off jaywalking laws.  Their lives are as precious as yours are, and they should not be doing it.

  •  The Pedestrian Industry? Who is that? Nike and Rockport?

  • wham

     @twitter-14678929:disqus: I did NOT say “pedestrian industry,” and the words “all of the above SAVE ONE” indicate “except pedestrians.” 

    Now–does anyone have an explanation for the implications of mikesonn’s claim that “jaywalking” is just the industry trying to keep us down, man, and why it isn’t extremely stupid to imply that pedestrians should really have the freedom to walk right in front of a bicycle without looking whether the bicycle is doing 5 mph or 45 mph?  Still waiting…

  • wham

     (“Save one” means no, I was not claiming that pedestrians are “wrenching space” from pedestrians; it means that pedestrians are the one exception that aren’t, since ferry buildings, subway stations, roads, bicycle lanes (or the bicycles themselves, when they run stop signs and kill people), train tracks, etc., all DO “wrench space” from pedestrians… clear?)

  • Anonymous

    @mikesonn oh I read the rest of jd_x’s post alright. But I just don’t think that it really relates. I mean, so what?  Cars are big, they hurt people.  Peds and bikes are small, they get hurt.  Well, life ain’t fair.  Somebody call me a waaaahmbulance!  The point is that just because cars are big and hurt people doesn’t mean that they are always in the wrong, nor are pedestrians and bicyclists always in the right just because they are small and get hurt.

  • wham

     Sigh… OK, then, guess not, but also guess no one can say “I can’t refute your  points”… one day I’ll meet an American who’s capable of saying “actually, looks like I was wrong about that; you’ve got a point there.”  I will clasp the person’s hand and tell him or her that they have more strength of character than 99.9% of the people I’ve met in my life… carry on.

  • Miles Bader

    @pchazzz:disqus  It doesn’t mean that “cars are always in the wrong,” but it certainly does means that car drivers need to be held to a higher standards, bear more responsibility, and be subject to stricter regulations than pedestrians and other (much) less harmful forms of transportation.

  • Anonymous

    @ad25937faa588827a4525c53bd37b31d:disqus wrote: “[D]oes anyone have an explanation for the implications of mikesonn’s
    claim that “jaywalking” is just the industry trying to keep us down,
    man, and why it isn’t extremely stupid to imply that pedestrians should
    really have the freedom to walk right in front of a bicycle without
    looking whether the bicycle is doing 5 mph or 45 mph?”

    http://www.theatlanticcities.com/commute/2012/04/invention-jaywalking/1837/

  • Zack

    The two cases mentioned here were not that situation.  They were both people who had the right of way and were murdered by drivers.  No one’s claiming what the cyclists did was right, they just want equal treatment for equal crimes, which now isn’t the case at all.  What about the teenager in Concord who killed the father and daughter who were on the sidewalk?  Is that their fault too?  You appear to be a pretty heartless person, pchazzz.

  • Wham

     Jesus Christ, these people CANNOT read.  First murphstahoe claims that I said “the pedestrian industry” when I didn’t, and in fact was EXCLUDING the pedestrian (not “the pedestrian industry”) from that part of the critique; and then I ask “does anyone have an explanation for the IMPLICATIONS of mikesonn’s claim that ‘jaywalking’ is just the industry trying to keep us down, and why it isn’t extremely stupid… to imply that pedestrians should really have the freedom to walk right in front of a bicycle…doing 5 mph or 45 mph,” and jd_x posts proof of mikesonn’s claim that jaywalking wasn’t considered jaywalking 100 years ago.

    That’s very nice, jd_x, but that’s not what I asked.  I asked about the IMPLICATIONS of it, and is it, or is it not, stupid to walk right in front of a speeding bicycle.  You and murphstahoe and mikesonn either think it is stupid, but are too coy to say it, or don’t think it’s stupid–in which case I’d say “I still hope you aren’t stupid enough to try walking in front of a speeding bicycle, even though you believe that.”  It’s going to be stupid whether jaywalking’s development benefited the auto industry or not.  So it was also stupid to bring it up.  It sounds as if some of you would absolve the pedestrian of ANY responsibility, and that, too, is absolutely bone stupid. 

    When you’re on a bicycle, doing 25 or 35 mph (leaving out whether you bother to obey stop signs), and someone walks right in front of it, you’re telling me that person is hunky-dory, and you’re quite happy to say “yup! I was at fault on my bicycle, all right, not the pedestrian!  Walk right in front of me when I’m going 35 mph, no problem!  Hyukhyukhyukhyukhyuk!”??

    Jesus H. Christ–the POINT I was making was simply that pedestrians should not walk into the road without looking to see if a bike or car is about to hit them, and that MANY San Franciscans do, and that they’re effing STUPID for doing so.  Is that REALLY controversial and hard to understand?  Seriously??  Paging Charles Darwin, you have an award to give.

  • KillMoto

    So… They got speed data from this cyclists’ GPS, but police routinely ignore the wealth of vehicle “black box” telemetry data from automobiles.  

    That sucks. 

  • KillMoto

    All the more reason “black box” telemetry for all motor vehicle collisions should be made public record.  So the facts have a chance to speak for themselves…

  • Wham

     Actually, I retract this:

    “So it was also stupid to bring it up.”

    mikesonn might have intended none of the implications mentioned–though it did seem to me that the ONLY implication of bringing it up here was to absolve the pedestrian of any responsibility for his or her own safety–but he might well have simply been pointing out an interesting historical fact. 

    But I really find it INCREDIBLY uncontroversial to suggest that 1) people shouldn’t walk in front of speeding bicycles without looking 2) bicycles should obey a g—d—ed stop sign instead of arrogantly ignoring pedestrians, cars, and other bikes, and 3) car drivers shouldn’t text and drive.  If anyone has any argument against that, I wish they’d make it clearly, instead of all this hinting around and empty one-liners.

  • Anonymous

    @Wham TL;DR

  • Andrew_althorne

     @twitter-14678929:disqus pretty weak, but no worries, as mentioned, you don’t have good reading skills anyway…

  • Wham

    Anyway, Shorter, for those incapable of reading and are too stupid to figure this out on their own:
    1) don’t text and drive;
    2) don’t bicycle like an arrogant p—k, running stop signs and saying f— pedestrians, cars and other bicycles alike; and
    3) duh, dumbass, don’t walk right into the road without looking if there might be a bicycle or car speeding toward you.

  • Wham

     *who are* incapable of reading…

  • Anonymous

    Utterly disgusting…..this is pure and simple discrimination.

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