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.