Is SFPD Serious About Cracking Down on Distracted Driving?

SFPD Traffic Company Commander Mikail Ali (right) and SF District Attorney George Gascón. Photo: Aaron Bialick

SF District Attorney George Gascón and SFPD Traffic Company Commander Mikail Ali held a press conference last Thursday to bring attention to distracted driving, since April is officially National Distracted Driving Awareness Month.

It’s promising to see law enforcement officials bring attention to this deadly and growing problem on San Francisco streets. What remains to be seen, however, is whether drivers who kill and maim others are being held accountable with thorough police crash investigations and prosecuted by the DA’s office when they’re at fault.

While SF stats on traffic crashes attributed to distracted driving aren’t available, the CA Highway Patrol says that nationally, it was a factor in 3,331 deaths and over 400,000 injuries in 2011. The Centers for Disease Control released a study last month finding that 68.7 percent of U.S. adult drivers (aged 18–64) admitted in surveys to talking on their cell phones while driving at least once in the past 30 days — far more than those in European countries. In the United Kingdom, only 20.5 percent said they had done so.

Gascón explained that data from the SF Municipal Transportation Agency shows that 60 percent of pedestrian injures in San Francisco take place in crosswalks, compared to 45 percent statewide, and 44 percent in New York City.

“Clearly, here, we’re having a much bigger problem. It’s a problem that’s impacting many lives,” said Gascón. “We’re having not only around 20 pedestrians that are being killed every year on our streets, we have well in excess of 700 pedestrians that are injured every year.” (The Department of Public Health puts the number of injuries closer to 900.)

“We need to work together to make sure we reduce the mayhem that is going on on our streets,” added Gascón.

Commander Ali said SFPD officers have beefed up enforcement against distracted driving throughout April, but that stats on violations and ticketing won’t be available until the end of the month.

Walk SF Executive Director Elizabeth Stampe applauded Gascón and the SFPD “for cracking down on people that are endangering others by driving distracted.” Still, she said, “It’s hard to know if everyone’s been held to account for endangering, and in many cases, killing people walking.”

So far this year, seven pedestrians have been killed in San Francisco, and at least three of the drivers in those have been charged because they were either drunk or fleeing police. But in cases in which drivers were sober and stayed on the scene, like the crashes that killed Becky Lee, Tania Madfes, and Melissa Kitson, causes remain less clear, and there’s no word on whether those drivers face charges.

Streetsblog has a request in with the DA’s office for how many of this year’s pedestrian crash cases have been forwarded from the SFPD to the DA, but has yet to hear back. As we’ve reported, drivers rarely face charges for injuring pedestrians unless the victim dies and the driver was intoxicated or fled the scene.

When Ali was asked how often pedestrian fatality cases that may involve distracted driving are forwarded to the DA, he said, “All of our fatalities are investigated by a team of officers within the traffic company, and there is a concerted effort with the district attorney to ensure that the elements of the crime are, in fact, in place, and, ultimately, decisions are made based on the specifics of each case, on whether or not that case meets the merits of criminal prosecution.”

Jeff Wozniak, an attorney who represents victims in bicycle and pedestrian crashes, says that whether or not drivers face charges depends to large extent on the thoroughness of SFPD crash investigations, which are forwarded to the DA. “Most crimes are investigated by the cops and then referred to the DA once the investigation has finished and it is believed that a crime was committed,” he wrote in an email to Streetsblog.

“The function of the DA investigations unit, at least as far as I know, is to further investigate serious crimes and locate witnesses and assist with evidence management, etc.,” said Wozniak. “They do not investigate incidents to determine whether a crime occurred.”

Gascón said prosecutions against distracted drivers could be made easier by a March decision by the California Appellate Court that ruled it’s illegal to hold a phone while driving. Assemblymember Tom Ammiano is also aiming to make distracted driving easier to prosecute with AB 840, a proposed state bill that would require drivers to sign a statement acknowledging that they’re aware of the danger inherent in the practice. Ammiano explained in an op-ed in the Huffington Post:

One obstacle to eliminating distracted driving is this sad fact: Few drivers who kill pedestrians or cyclists are held to legal account. This is true even when they are clearly at fault. That is where AB 840 comes in.

Currently, prosecutors often choose not to pursue cases against distracted drivers who kill cyclists and motorists. Why not?

It turns out to be hard to convince a jury (made up mostly of drivers) that a driver knew he or she was doing something dangerous — something that could end up killing someone else.

My bill will force drivers to confront that fact.

It requires that everyone who applies for a driver’s license signs a statement acknowledging that he or she knows of the dangers of distracted driving.

With that kind of notice on file, prosecutors will have an easier time showing that drivers knew, or should have known, they were doing the wrong thing when their distraction led to the death or injury of a cyclist or pedestrian.

Stampe applauded Ammiano’s bill, and said she hopes to see Gascón show his support for it.

While there’s little question that texting while driving is dangerous — as CHP Captain BJ Whitten pointed out at the DA’s press conference, distracted driving increases the risk of crashes 23-fold — it’s not at all clear that this fact has registered with SF’s local law enforcement establishment.

Texting certainly was a popular topic for Mayor Ed Lee and SFPD Chief Greg Suhr at last Friday’s Walk to Work Day press conference. But they didn’t talk about distracted driving as much as they wagged their fingers at pedestrians for walking and texting. Lee lamented “the phenomenon that we’ve seen in the last two years where people are taking their technology gadgets, and paying more attention to that than to walking with their kids, or their seniors, and looking out for each other,” but didn’t specifically call out the inherent risk of texting while driving. While the danger of distracted driving is well-established by a growing body of studies, there is virtually no data to support the claim that “distracted walking” is contributing to pedestrian deaths.

Suhr, meanwhile, summed up the victim-blaming perspective succinctly when he told San Franciscans, “For god’s sake, do not walk and text.”

  • If you think it’s hard enough to convince City Hall and the long-standing “city family” of the livable streets concept, just try to do the same with the SFPD. Despite the recent TV commercials, many (most?) officers don’t live in SF and bring to work their suburban automobile essentialism.

  • If you think it’s hard enough to convince City Hall and the long-standing “city family” of the livable streets concept, just try to do the same with the SFPD. Despite the recent TV commercials, many (most?) officers don’t live in SF and bring to work their suburban automobile essentialism.

  • How about every driver sign this?

    “I Don/Donna Driver acknowledge the dangers inherent in all forms of driving, but especially distracted driving. I solemnly pledge to drive safely, legally, soberly, with my full attention, and slowly enough for conditions at all times so as to never injure or kill human beings with my car. I acknowledge that highly populated cities present especially complex driving conditions, and I need to use all my wits and then some to get through one safely. If I have any doubts about my ability to comply with this pledge, I will have someone else drive, or I will bike, walk or take transit instead.”

  • Anonymous

    the distracted driving/walking issue is sooo frustrating because if we go back in time to pre-cell phones drivers were still crashing into one another and pedestrians! The problem runs deeper. Not to say that distracted driving isn’t a problem, but I think it can be a red-herring. Is distracted walking the the new jay walking?

    I would also say that distracted walking is a ruse. Typical police victim blaming, it’s the same when someone get’s robbed the response from the police is “well they should have been more careful with their gadgets.”

    I was thinking about this the other day and if your friend/family member had a cast on and said “I got hit by a car” most people would sympathize w/ their friend/family and assume that the fault was with the driver. If it happens to someone else though, a lot of people (in my experience) assume the injured party was jaywalking or on their cell phone or both. This perspective problem almost always lets off the driver in our culture and blames the victim when the data shows that even with sloppy investigation the driver in SF pedestrian-car crashes is the driver failing to yield.

  • Anonymous

    Also, Gascon is looking pretty haggard these days, I wonder what happened to him? He’s aging as fast as Mirkarimi… I wonder what’s causing Gascon’s stress?

  • Mario Tanev

    Distracted driving is the easy pickings. It’s easier to target than failure to yield, even though it doesn’t account for nearly enough of the incidents. It’s sad that we don’t hear any discussion of targeting of impatient, otherwise inattentive drivers. Drivers who don’t preemptively slow down when they go anywhere near a crosswalk (marked or unmarked) are really the general reason for these “accidents” and why these “accidents” so often result in death.

  • His people told him he’s going to lose the highest profile case he decided to pursue, and we’re laying into him for the slam dunk cases he’s declined to prosecute.

  • Anonymous

    Enforcement is great, but I really feel like it distracts from the simple need to design streets better. In many neighborhoods and commercial areas, as well as park areas and connections, shared space has some incredible statistics on decreasing pedestrian injuries, and in other areas, we need to do a better job to essentially make sure it’s nearly impossible to drive distractedly.

  • Ryan Brady

    Remove parking from street corners. I bet a big part of those crosswalk accidents is because drivers can’t see pedestrians until they are already in the street.

  • neigh-bor

    Every morning I cycle on a street full of cars heading to the highway. I am no longer surprised by the absurd things people choose to do while driving their car 2 feet away from me – shaving, eating a bowl of cereal with a spoon, cell phone, cell phone, texting, pretending their not on phone while being on phone, make up, eating what looks like an ice cream sunday, reading the newspaper, seriously it is amazing.

    My impression is that these folks have an arrogance/invincibility thing that makes them feel like they personally don’t need to pay attention while driving because they are really good at it.

  • It would be interesting to see a ped safety comparison between cities that allow corner parking and those that don’t.

  • Anonymous

    How do we pursue misdesigned intersections? The T intersection at 12th and Harrison has no marked crosswalks at all, after intersections the length of 12th that have crosswalks, signals, and countdown timers (and Harrison has 6 lanes there).

    The other end of 12th at S. Van Ness is in a crosswalk desert as well.

  • Pontifikate

    There are red curbs near the corners in my neighborhood and yet people constantly park there, especially overnight. We need these drivers to get an especially steep ticket; I would say tow them. They cause deaths.

  • Pontifikate

    Every day when I wait for the bus I see countless people texting or talking on their cell. I’d love to see a plainclothes, plain car police officer go after these people. It’s easy as pie. There seems to be no enforcement unless you’re a sitting duck (ie a parked vehicle).

  • the_greasybear

    Call them in and insist they be ticketed: 553-1200, then press #1, then press #6.

  • Anonymous

    How about a necktie when speaking to the press?

  • voltairesmistress

    Aggressive driving is easier to spot than distracted driving. Why doesn’t SFPD put its resources into a large squadron of motorcycle police working 24/7 to stop all aggressive drivers seen, regardless of whether they’ve broken a particular law? In my experience, a driver who commits one, somewhat risky move simply goes on to engage in a dozen more during his or her brief drive along city streets. Follow any such driver for a mile or so and you will see repeated minor infractions and often dangerous actions. Follow another seemingly cautious driver and you will see almost continual compliance with the rule of law. In other words, why single out one cause of poor driving behavior — distraction? Cause is much less important than effect. We need to create a different city driving climate. Without ubiquitous enforcement, that change to safe streets will remain forever beyond our grasp.

  • Anonymous

    The “broken windows” theory of driving? There may be something to that, but we’ll never find out as long as the City continues to reserve a special, lenient standard for law-breaking motorists. SFPD, the DA and the local media will rail for weeks against a bicyclist who hits a pedestrian, and bring charges–yet they dismiss most all motorist-pedestrian collisions (if they acknowledge them at all) with saccharine blather about “unfortunate accidents” and stern admonitions to pedestrians to stop texting and walking.

  • voltairesmistress

    You are right. When I drive I know it’s highly unlikely anything I or anyone else does will result in us getting pulled over. When I walk or ride, I know I am basically on my own when it comes to staying safe. We have to change the “conversation”, because currently 900 pedestrian injuries a year is not a figure many people know about. Instead, these “accidents” are considered almost unavoidable. That change of mindset may start on blogs like this, but we will have it take it to the politicians. Until it becomes a serious electoral issue, street safety will remain just so much hand-wringing.

  • Anonymous

    Not sure drunk biking or walking is such a good idea.

  • Anonymous

    Are you seriously concerned about “drunk walking” or are you that desperate to defend motorists’ disregard for the safety of others?

  • Real deal

    How self righteous is your statement? The bicyclists at the wiggle in S.F. abuse all laws, common sense, and rules for safety. Blowing through stop signs and cross walks at break neck speeds. Get over yourselves.

  • Anonymous

    Seriously! Someone who is too drunk to drive a car is too drunk to ride a bike or even walk. That person is a hazard to themself and others. Call a cab or get a ride from a friend.

  • Mario Tanev

    7/7 of these year’s fatalities are caused by drivers, not bicyclists. Laws don’t always target consequences. I care about the consequences, and the consequence of maiming or death is a serious one.

  • gneiss

    Real deal – You are making a moral argument rather than practical. Do you know of any pedestrians that have been injured or killed on the wiggle by people on bicycles? Or is it just that you have been inconvenienced (i.e. slowed down) driving through lower Haight?

  • Common sense = roll through when there’s no one to stop for.
    Rules of the road = take your turn.
    Safety = look before you book.

    I don’t see a problem, and I walk through there all the time. Cyclists stop for me in droves.

  • gneiss

    p_chazz – how is walking home drunk a danger to people around you? It’s only a danger if you make an error in judgement and get run over by – wait for it – someone driving a car. Without setting up our streets as corridors of death where motorist speeds are high enough to kill, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

  • mikesonn

    .08 BAC is the legal limit for OWI. Walking w/ .08 BAC is NOT the same as driving w/ .08 BAC.

  • do not feed the troll

  • Anonymous

    Another good start is taking the message to our family and friends–“Did you know 900 pedestrians are injured every year in San Francisco? We could prevent many of those injuries by slowing cars down and through better design, like daylighting crosswalks…”

  • voltairesmistress

    Funny you should mention that — I have startled friends and family with that 900 pedestrians injured number. They find it obscene and almost unbelievable. So I think it’s a great place to start. Another place: NPR’s report today that people over age 75 are hit at twice the rate of non-senior adults.

  • Eric Fischer

    Nearside vs. farside bus stops would probably provide a good case study for this, since nearside stops provide an extensive area by the corner where right-turning drivers should be able to see everything.

    (I am a skeptic of daylighting myself, since I think drivers are more likely to slow down if they don’t know whether there is a car coming around the corner than they are if they know there is a pedestrian still on the curb. But a real study would be much better than me making guesses.)

  • Anonymous

    I wonder what’s causing Gascon’s stress?

    Having Willie’s arm so far up his ventriloquist box is tiring.

    Ed Lee also is always rather weary looking.

    But don’t feel too sorry, not even for pro-death-penalty Republicans: the salary and especially the outrageous public service pension jackpot provide enough incentive to keep doing and saying just as one is told.

  • Anonymous

    A drunk walker can stumble into another pedestrian or throw up on the sidewalk, creating a trip and fall hazard.

  • Anonymous

    @murphstahoe:disqus definition of a troll–someone who disagrees with murphstahoe.

  • definition of a troll – someone who says we should not crack down on drunk driving because of the epidemic of people throwing up on the sidewalk

  • mondo

    There were at least two fatalities caused by cyclists last year. How many fatalities caused by pedestrians last year?

  • How many fatalities caused by Santa Claus last year?

  • This is inaccurate. There was one pedestrian fatality caused by a bicyclist in 2011 and one in 2010. There were none as far as I can tell from 2000 – 2009. From 2000 – 2009 220 pedestrians in SF were killed by cars/trucks/buses. In 2010 15 pedestrians and 1 bicyclist were killed by cars/trucks/buses. In 2011 17 pedestrians and 2 bicyclists were killed by cars/trucks/buses. In 2012 20 pedestrians were killed by cars/trucks/buses. (Can’t find any reports of cyclists in SF killed in 2012.) So far this year 7 pedestrians and 1 bicyclist have been killed by cars/trucks/buses.

  • Anonymous

    Wrong, and off-topic. One bicyclist struck and killed a pedestrian in SF last year. Meanwhile, this discussion is about motorists, who last year killed 20 pedestrians in the city.

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