On Bay Area News Stands: The Lack of Accountability for Drivers Who Kill

Photo: Bryan Goebel

Featured on the front page of today’s San Francisco Chronicle and ABC 7 is an epic exposé on the lack of legal accountability for drivers who kill pedestrians in the Bay Area. The piece is by Zusha Elinson, a journalist at the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Streetsblog readers are all too familiar with the fact that drivers rarely face charges for killing pedestrians if they were sober and stayed on the scene. It’s promising to see so much press attention on a big story that’s remained under the radar of the mainstream media for too long.

Elinson analyzed years of police records from five Bay Area counties, explored the legal and cultural hurdles of penalizing those responsible for pedestrian fatalities, shared personal stories from family members of crash victims, and even delved into the history of motorization in the 1920s:

Pedestrian deaths made up more than a quarter of traffic fatalities over the past decade in the two major metropolitan areas in the Bay Area, according to a 2011 report by national transit advocacy group Transportation for America – outpaced only by New York and Los Angeles. An in-depth Center for Investigative Reporting review of the 434 pedestrians killed from 2007 through 2011 in the five largest Bay Area counties found that, like Joe Molinaro, one-third were walking in a crosswalk when they were struck – three times the national average, according to the group’s report. And in 2011, local fatalities increased almost 40 percent from the previous year.

Yet, more often than not, the drivers responsible faced no serious consequences.

Sixty percent of the 238 motorists found to be at fault or suspected of a crime faced no criminal charges during the five-year period, CIR found in its analysis of thousands of pages of police and court records from Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties.

When drivers did face criminal charges, punishment often was light. Licenses rarely were taken away. Of those charged, less than 60 percent had their driving privileges suspended or revoked for even one day, an automatic penalty in drunk driving arrests.

Forty percent of those convicted faced no more than a day in jail; 13 drivers were jailed for more than a year. By contrast, those charged in accidental shootings often serve lengthy jail terms, according to media reports.

I encourage you to set aside some break time to pore over the article for a comprehensive look at the state of pedestrian safety in the region. But here’s one more snippet not to be missed: SF District Attorney George Gascón made a strong statement suggesting that cars should be treated more like weapons, citing the high number (albeit an underestimate) of pedestrians injured every year in the city:

“If we had 700 people being shot every year, we would be jumping up and down,” he said. “Reckless driving is just as bad as people using a firearm recklessly.”

Of course, whether or not Gascón, the SFPD, and policymakers will put that perspective into practice is another story — a story that the big dailies like the SF Chronicle, the SF Examiner, and broadcast media will hopefully pick up more often.

  • Anonymous

    I’m so glad this is getting front page press. Thanks for writing up the blurb, the deaths need to stop! I’m hoping SF (or another city like Chicago) can actually make some progress on pedestrian safety so that they can be a clear example to other cities that we can do better.

  • Anonymous

    Most regular streetsblog readers already know this is the way of our auto-centric world, but these statistics fill me with despair. How can we change this reckless status quo?

  • bicicletera

    One part of the answer is to stop subsidizing cheap gas through military aggression.

  • Jim

    Quit allowing merchants and “residents” living in the 1950s from swaying public opinion about what should be the easiest mode to get around.

  • Anonymous

    *cough* First Amendment *cough*

  • anandakos

    The reason for this reluctance to indict is that the police are part of the driving gang. They don’t like to be delayed by cyclists or pedestrians any more than other drivers. And of course, since most of them are howling narcissists, absolutely certain that their presence is the only thing standing between America and chaos, they should certainly not be delayed.

    So they really don’t investigate the true causes (usually distracted or aggresive driving) that lead to pedestrian and cycle fatalities. They brush it under the rug and go for drinks with their driving buddies.

  • MoSt!

    Can I even tell you how many pedestrians walk in front of my car against the light? Take some personal responsibility and I promise to take mine.

  • MoSt!

    educate people to not walk into traffic…I’ve lived in SF for over a decade and the entitled nature of our populace is breeding stupidity.

  • NoeValleyJim

    This is the San Francisco Chronicle? How did this even happen? Did the Hearst family finally all die off or something?

  • Mario Tanev

    The article is about the lack of punishment when the driver is clearly at fault (which is a large portion of the problem). When the pedestrian is at fault, the damage is mostly on them – personal responsibility. But why should a pedestrian be responsible with their life for the luxury of an irresponsible driver?

  • I don’t care but I’m sure you’ll tell us

  • Anonymous

    I’ve been hit by a car twice–both times in a crosswalk with the right of way. Crosswalks and walk signals lull pedestrians into a false sense of security.

  • Over a decade huh?

  • Anonymous

    I think Jim was trying to say the merchants should be heard but not OVERrepresented, just because they are willing to act like rowdy jerks at a public meeting, booing down opposing opinions and unwilling to negotiate on a plan that has majority public support.

  • Anonymous

    Clearly, what we need is greater funding for suicide prevention efforts.

  • NoeValleyJim

    Man you must have some really bad luck. I have lived here much longer and have never been hit by a car as a pedestrian or as a cyclist. I am super careful and try to make eye contact with drivers though.

  • Anonymous

    Did you read the article? It was about pedestrians who had the legal right of way. Please read it and think about the people you see walking both with and against the light. Everyone has a right to live.

  • My daddy always said “You make your own luck” – or “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity”. Or as someone once said “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, um… well, don’t get fooled again”

  • Dave Moore

    To give some perspective on the data:
    434 pedestrians over a five year period died in a population of 6M (the 2012 estimate of the 5 counties, according to the census). That’s 87 a year.

    Based on the most recent data from the CDC’s nationwide death rates for 2011 (the most recent year) http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr61/nvsr61_06.pdf these are the death estimates. Note: the overall CA death rate is much lower than nationwide so I’m prorating the other rates by 634 / 804 or 80%. I don’t know if the 5 county area is significantly different from the rest of CA

    Deaths: 38K
    Accidental: 1891
    Accidental motor vehicle (including peds): 532
    Other things to compare to:
    Suicides: 590
    Falls: 408
    Homicides: 245

    I don’t have the precise numbers in front of me but I believe that the pedestrian deaths in SF are about 15 a year. They dropped for a while and may be rising. That would represent 75 of the 434, which is higher than proportionate population (SF has about 800K) people. Some of this might be explained by a) having more people walking than average in the Bay Area and b) more non-residents both driving and walking (commuters and tourists).

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