DA Gascón Erroneously Blames the Victim in Most Pedestrian Fatalities

SF District Attorney George Gascón told reporters today that the reason so few drivers are charged in pedestrian injuries and fatalities is that “in the majority of those cases, unfortunately, the pedestrian has been the one deemed to be at fault.”

District Attorney George Gascón. Photo: Matthew Roth

“That’s why I keep saying, and I will keep saying it again, and again, and again: The rules of the road apply equally to everyone, whether you’re driving a car, riding a bicycle, walking, or riding a skateboard — it doesn’t matter, a red light means that you stop,” said Gascón.

However, according to a 2009 SFMTA collision report [PDF], the most recent one available, pedestrian violations “were determined to be the cause of about a third of the total vehicle-pedestrian collisions” in 2008, while “the plurality (42 percent) was caused by a violation of the pedestrian right-of-way on the part of the motorist.”

The report also noted that “while driving at unsafe speeds is not a frequently listed primary collision cause for vehicle-pedestrian collisions, it can be a contributing factor both in causing collisions and in increasing their severity.”

Even Chronicle columnist and former pedestrian victim-blamer C.W. Nevius recently conceded that “it is pretty hard to escape the conclusion — it’s the drivers’ fault.”

Furthermore, street safety advocates question the readiness to hold pedestrians to the same standard as the operators of fast, multi-ton vehicles. (As Peter Norton documented in his book Fighting Traffic, public attitudes toward pedestrian fatalities used to hold motorists accountable for such violence on crowded city streets; it was not until the 1930’s that the concept of “jaywalking” was invented.)

“I guarantee you that we review every case closely, and if a motorist is wrong and they’re violating the law, they will be prosecuted,” Gascón said of the 876 pedestrians reported injured and the 17 killed in San Francisco last year. “We are prosecuting motorists that were not drunk, that were negligent, and that resulted in a death.”

Gascón did recently break a longstanding pattern in San Francisco of not charging drivers who weren’t drunk or caught fleeing the scene. He prosecuted three drivers and a bicyclist for lethal negligence in 2011 traffic fatalities. All of those charges were misdemeanors. Yesterday the DA filed felony manslaughter charges against Chris Bucchere for biking into and killing Sutchi Hui, but Gascón could not say whether any drivers might be charged in the other known deaths of six pedestrians and a bicyclist this year.

When asked specifically about the cases of Sena Putra and Robert Yegge — both killed within the last month by truck drivers whom police deemed to be at fault — Gascón said he wasn’t aware of them. The difference between the Bucchere/Hui case is stark. Within three weeks of Hui’s death, Gascón told the media that he “definitely” planned to file manslaughter charges against Bucchere.

The DA’s office says they only prosecute cases handed off to the them by SFPD. On Monday Streetsblog asked for a list of pedestrian fatality cases presented to Gascón this year. The DA’s office said it may take a few more days to complete in order to ensure accuracy.

  • gogregorio

    Thank you for reporting on this!  Applying this kind of pressure is exactly what journalism is for, and our streets are made all the safer by it.

  • In which recent cases has SFPD determined that excessive vehicle speed contributed to a pedestrian injury/death? Is this analysis always performed as part of the investigation of a pedestrian/vehicle collision? In how many of these cases was the location of the pedestrian (at moment of collision) exactly determined?

  • mikesonn

    Stay on his office and the SFPD! Well done!

  • Anonymous

    Gascón wasn’t aware of the deaths of Sena Putra or Robert Yegge?  You’ve got to be kidding me.  Are the SFPD and DA office so numb to cars-related deaths that they don’t even notice them at all?

  • Richard Mlynarik

    Willie’s Republican pro-death penalty puppet boy.  San Francisco got what it was told to vote for. a “moderate”.

  • voltairesmistress

    Great article.  Speeding on straight streets is a problem to be sure, but it seems a lot of pedestrian-auto collisions occur when the driver is turning right or left at an intersection.  It is particularly difficult for drivers to see all pedestrians when making these turns, so it is very important for drivers to slow down quite a bit when turning.  I think we should all be putting more pressure on cities to design intersections to have more pedestrian visibility.  In some countries like Finland, no vehicle may be left parked within 15 feet of any intersection.  This reduces parking spots but increases pedestrian safety.

  • Anonymous

    One of the fundamental underpinnings of criminal law is that a crime consists of a thought and an action; mens rea, or “guilty mind” requires that a person know his act will cause harm and actus reus is the guily act itself.  What Streetsblog, and many of its commenters seem to be advocating is an automatic finding of guilt whenever a pedestrian is struck by a car, but this does not comport with judicial standards. The pedestrian may have been harmed, or even killed, but this alone does not make it a crime; however the pedestrian or his or her survivors may have a case in civil court, where the bar is set lower.

  • Anonymous

    And we like it that way 🙂

  • Gneiss

    pchazz – that’s simply not true.  An act of criminal negligence, which is what is what is the test required in traffic deaths does not require intent or ‘guilt mind’ as you put it.  Here’s the legal definition we are working with:

    “The failure to use reasonable care to avoid consequences that threaten or harm the safety of the public and that are the foreseeable outcome of acting in a particular manner”

    It’s all based on what you define as *reasonable*.  I don’t believe that DUI should be the only test for whether a person is reasonable in application of this test.  Speeding, failure to yeild, and driving too fast for conditions should also apply.

  • Mario Tanev

    To speed I would like to add impatience and disregard of someone’s right of way, like the accident that was caught on camera. For some reason society accepts these as normal, and they really should not be.

  • Anonymous

    This is exactly the kind of journalism we need!  Please pursue this issue relentlessly.

    I have just made a contribution to Streets Blog in the hope of supporting your efforts.

  • 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.

  • Sprague

    Good point!  “Daylighting” intersections is sorely needed throughout San Francisco to improve pedestrian visibility and safety.

  • mikesonn

    Now if he’d just apply that across the board vs selectively as has been the case thus far.

  • peternatural

    By that standard, Chris Bucchere did nothing wrong. Racing through a yellow light and slamming into a pedestrian in a crosswalk, resulting in the pedestrian’s death, was just an unfortunate accident. Bucchere didn’t mean to hurt anyone.

  • Wow, thank you! I’m humbly appreciative and encouraged by the supportive comments.

  • Fran Taylor

    WalkSF in collecting letters to send to city officials protesting the DA’s assertion. Here’s what I sent in:

    In 2003, the Southeast Mission Pedestrian Safety Working Group held its first meeting. A police officer in charge of talking about traffic safety with school children in San Francisco got up and stoutly declared that “the number one cause of pedestrian fatalities is pedestrian fault” and handed out a sheet of statistics to support his statement. Unfortunately, I didn’t check the statistics until I got home. Sure enough, pedestrian fault was right at the top, with the most cases of pedestrian fatalities. However, the next several entries — failure to yield, speeding, red-light running, etc. — were all driver fault. No one of these exceeded pedestrian fault, but taken together, they totaled about twice the number cited for pedestrian fault.

    This deceptive approach hasn’t changed. It’s just gotten worse. No longer is just one lowly sargeant going out to lie to school children. Now we have a DA braying his lies to the press, spreading the message to the entire public that pedestrians deserve what they get.

    I have no idea why police officers and the DA hate pedestrians so much. Maybe if they got out of their patrol cars and walked once in a while, they’d understand better what it’s like to be buzzed in crosswalks, driven at on sidewalks, and then blamed for existing.

  • Anonymous

    That depends on whether the ped jumped the walk signal. Also, peds are supposed to look both ways to make sure the intersection is clear of traffic before stepping off the curb.

  • Anonymous

     I actually don’t think they hate pedestrians, they just know it’s easier to try to scare pedestrians into submission than to try to actually control the perpetrators (i.e. drivers).  And considering how most police cars are driven–accelerating too fast, rolling through stops–they obviously can’t even control their own police force.

    I for one would like to see police actually patrolling–driving slowly and looking around–when they’re in their cars.  All I see is the same impatient driving that’s far too common.

  • Anonymous

    I’m getting confused…are pedestrians the victims or the obstacle/enemy?

  •  It certainly plays into the narrative that these cases are going to be hard and they don’t want to hassle when they could just be hanging out at the wiggle writing citations for rolling stop signs…

  • Adrienne Johnson

    I remember Driver’s Ed pretty well. One of the things I remember clearly was being taught that it was my responsibility as a driver to always drive in a way that allowed me to stop for the unexpected- give enough space to allow the car in front to stop suddenly, don’t drive close to parked cars to avoid hitting opening doors and exiting people, never speed in residential areas and near schools and playgrounds and always assume that someone will walk out in front of you. It was drummed into me hard that if I was driving a car I was responsible for what happened because my car could kill. So if I was taught to take responsibility for the safety of those around me why can’t the PD and the DA hold me responsible? This is driving not Catholocism, the law can judge me and is required to.

  • Anonymous

    One way to daylight intersections while minimizing the impact to parking: place motorcycle and bicycle parking by the intersections, since it’s much easier to see over them than it is to see over an SUV or van.

  • mikesonn

    Most of the time that still requires a loss in “car” parking, which is what people apparently really care about. However, placing bike corrals at the last spots before an intersection not only daylights that crosswalk, but also provides 12-15 spaces per 1 car space [actually increasing available parking].

  • Anonymous

    Or driving through an intersection/near a school, tc., qualify as de facto, driver must anticipate the possibility that they will need to suddenly stop or swerve to avoid murdering a pedestrian.

  • Anonymous

    Scandinavia also has a lot of underground parking garages, but many Streetsblog readers seem to oppose placing all parking underground.

  • mikesonn

    First: STOP!
    Second: cars don’t just *appear* in garages, they have to be driven there on city streets.
    Third: underground anything costs multiples more $$$$.

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