San Francisco Should Treat Cars Like the Weapons They Are

A woman hospitalized by a driver on Masonic Avenue in April 2011. Photo: ##http://blogs.sfweekly.com/thesnitch/2011/04/masonic_red_light_jogger.php##Matt Smith, SF Weekly##

At the latest city hearing on pedestrian safety, Jane Kim, supervisor of District 6, which sees more pedestrian injuries than any other, contrasted the typical reaction to vehicular violence with the typical reaction to gun violence.

“We should treat cars, in many ways, like a weapon. It has the same impact,” said Kim, pointing out that at least one in five patients treated for traumatic injuries at SF hospitals are victims hit by drivers. “Even if intentional or not, when you are driving a car, you are driving a very dangerous weapon, and you can use it wisely, and use it safely, and not harm anyone, but you can really injure people severely and kill people.”

Yet when a driver kills or maims someone, chances are slim they’ll face any legal repercussions as long as they were sober and they didn’t flee the scene. Why are cars, which injure two to three people every day and killed as many as 20 last year, treated so differently than other weapons?

Of the nine people known to have been killed in San Francisco traffic so far this year, only two drivers are known to have been charged. David Morales was charged with murder after killing 26-year old Francisco Guitierrez and car passenger Silvia Tun Cun, 29, in a car crash when fleeing police after a shooting on New Year’s Day. Kieran Brewer is facing felony charges for killing Hanren Chang on her 17th birthday in a crosswalk while driving drunk on Sloat Boulevard.

Meanwhile, there’s no indication of any legal consequences for the drivers who killed Sunnyside Elementary custodian Becky Lee in a crosswalk last Wednesday, retired teacher Tania Madfes in a crosswalk in West Portal in late March, Eileen Barrett in a crosswalk at Lake Merced in February, Diana Sullivan on her bike on King Street in February, or Melissa Kitson, killed when she was apparently leaving her SoMa office in January.

So this seems to be the takeaway: If you want to kill someone in San Francisco and get away with it, use a car. Just don’t commit felonies or drink before you get behind the wheel.

It wasn’t always this way. Streets in American cities were once considered to be truly public places, where, for instance, children could play. When automobiles arrived in the early 20th Century, one of the huge social shocks was the huge number of child pedestrian fatalities. At the time, cars were mainly regarded as a menace by city residents.

Market Street in 1905, before motorization (and the earthquake).

New York Times, Nov 23, 1924 via ##http://99percentinvisible.org/post/47063460311/episode-76-the-modern-moloch##99% Invisible##

As Peter Norton chronicles in his book Fighting Traffic, it took a sophisticated, large-scale PR campaign by car companies, automobile clubs, and other elements of what he calls “motordom” to shift public opinion toward acceptance of the car and car-oriented streets. By the 1930s, through lobbying and media campaigns, new concepts like “jaywalking” became entrenched, and American cities began imposing a new order on the streets.

The vast majority of street space was allocated to cars. Pedestrians were relegated to the margins, and laws were enacted mandating the use of pedestrian-specific rights of way like crosswalks. As responsibility for traffic injuries shifted away from motorists, pedestrians who were struck could be blamed as “reckless” when entering the roadway. That attitude still dominates today, unlike the notion of the car-as-weapon, which only recently seems to be regaining traction.

“You see real demonization of the car in the 20s that’s been totally forgotten,” Norton said in a recent edition of the podcast 99% Invisible. “Nobody remembers the memorials to the car, nobody remembers the monuments, nobody remembers the parades with Satan driving a Model T. Nobody remembers the cartoons, the editorial cartoons that routinely compared cars to the grim reaper, and Moloch, and Juggernaut, and all that.”

Hear Norton tell the story, and see more images from the era on 99% Invisible‘s website. Here’s the full podcast:

  • mikesonn

    Well written, Aaron.

  • Comparing a car to a weapon (while entirely valid in my mind) is fairly radical for a politician. Is Jane Kim as enlightened as she sounds?

  • voltairesmistress

    Three things:
    I read recently that 60% of San Francisco pedestrian-car collisions occurred in crosswalks. This figure weakens the argument that pedestrians belong only in crosswalks. Perhaps we should start crossing mid-block, at least in some situations?

    I’m not sure how we can change how dangerous intersections are for pedestrians. Speed kills, but drivers turning relatively slowly without seeing pedestrians also cause a lot of serious injuries and even deaths. Are there academic studies or case studies in other countries that point to intersection solutions?

    What changes would we need to make to U.S. law to make drivers automatically civilly liable or criminally responsible for pedestrian injuries unless pedestrian recklessness was proven? Do other countries do this? Any lawyers in the house?

  • What you’re describing is a strict liability law. Off-hand, this Copenhagenize post claims that all but four European countries have them.

  • SFwalker

    I do daily walks in SF and have to agree, the most dangerous place for peds to cross are crosswalks with and without stop signs, I’ve had more stopped drivers looking the other way and start to move forward. Unless the ped suddenly stops, your run over. You have to make eye contact to better your chances but many times, that’s creates a awkward situation That’s why, most of the time it’s safer to cross in the middle of the block, the cars are already moving and all you have to do just look for a clearing.

  • You can cross and walk in the street, only keep in mind that vehicles (including human-powered ones) have the right of way. Jaywalking is really a failure to yield. Without walking in the street it would be annoyingly difficult for a driver to get in or out of a parked car for instance since they’d have to use a curb-side door. I suspect many of the remaining pedestrian casualties are people who thoughtlessly get in or out of parked cars.

  • Dutch perspective (in English) on “Strict Liability”: http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2012/01/campaign-for-sustainable-safety-not.html

  • vcs

    Pedestrians have the right-of-way within crosswalks, so when a driver runs them over, the driver will almost always be entirely liable for the injury.

    But, drivers are required to carry insurance. So, the system finds it easier to treat the collision as a civil (financial) matter, rather than the much higher bar of criminally prosecuting the driver for “reckless driving”.

    The european “strict liability” standard that Aaron offers up is still a civil matter and doesn’t automatically jail drivers who are not willfully or recklessly endangering pedestrians.

  • davistrain

    While victims are just as dead whether they are run over by a car or killed by gunfire, calling a car a weapon is a stretch. Guns, crossbows, etc. are designed and intended to cause trauma; cars are a means of transportation. People are run over by Muni buses–does that make them weapons? Distraught citizens without access to a gun have been known to “end it all” by jumping in front of a train–does that make locomotives weapons? Steel pipes are building materials, and baseball bats are sporting goods–but they can be used as weapons. Unless a driver is deliberately trying to mow down a person on foot, on a bike, or even in another car (this is usually criminals trying to escape the police), cars do not fit the definition of weapon.

  • cricker

    Why not implement no right on red law? NYC put it in place and it would greatly reduce drivers that slow thru a red light just to make a right with little disregard for peds…

  • I don’t agree with the “meat is murder” approach when it comes to automobiles because we still have very much to go (contrary to some who suggest that automobiles will die in a few years because of oil, etc) in providing true alternatives to auto access and that I don’t think it is productive to turn auto-free/less life a “cultural” issue. I think even using transit some of the times (like to a game, etc) is better than none. If we’re trying to demonize auto usage then those who use autos would be less encouraged to try other modes.

    It is like trying to sell vegetarianism to the general population when they can have much of the health benefits by just eating more vegetables without completely abandoning meat.

  • Comparing a car to a gun is reasonable. But comparing car accidents to intentional shootings is just silly. I’m pretty sure that in cases that someone intentionally uses a car to kill someone they get charged. So your master plan of using a car to kill someone and get away with it would probably not work. What I don’t know is if the shooter in an accidental gun death is typically charged. That’s a better comparison.

    So then the question is more about what is the liability and / or punishment for negligence and whether it’s high enough to be a disincentive. You’re not including financial costs here so it’s hard to tell.

  • Personally I think we should treat weapons more like cars: require training, testing, and a license that has to be renewed frequently.

  • FogCity

    Buses are weapons…. Ban all buses….

  • Anonymous

    Jane Kim has made improving pedestrian safety one of her legislative priorities for her term as Supervisor, although I’m not sure anything too concrete has come out of that. D6 does have it’s own Pedestrian Safety committee led by Supe Kim that’s working on ways to improve safety in D6 and SF.

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