SFPD’s Traffic Chief Blames Some Ped Crashes on Confused Asian Immigrants

SFPD Traffic Company Commander Mikail Ali offered a particularly bizarre explanation yesterday for why a significant number of pedestrians killed in the city are Asian seniors: They’re recent immigrants who are confused by our traffic patterns, he said.

SFPD Traffic Company Commander Mikail Ali. ##http://abclocal.go.com/kgo/video?id=9386826##Photo: ABC 7##

SFPD Traffic Company Commander Mikail Ali. Photo: ABC 7

“I’m told that traffic patterns there, they flow differently than the grid type patterns that we have here, and so people may be accustomed to a different type of traffic pattern,” Ali told ABC 7.

It’s hard not to cringe when watching law enforcement officials sidestep the clear message the city needs: Drivers need to be more careful to protect the most vulnerable people on the streets — people who aren’t in cars, especially those young and old. SFPD’s data shows that the top factors cited in pedestrian crashes have nothing to do with pedestrian behavior.

Sure, everyone can benefit from using some caution, but the dangers facing San Franciscans on the streets are not immigrants unwittingly hurling themselves in front of cars.

Mayor Ed Lee seemed to be on board with the strategy of educating immigrants on how streets work. According to ABC 7, he supports “more bilingual campaigns to educate immigrants to the American traffic system.”

The fact that many victims killed by drivers are elderly and Asian probably has more to do with them being elderly — it’s well-known that the older we get, the more physically susceptible to injuries and less nimble we become. Consequently, designing cities to favor the movement of cars disproportionately hurts the elderly and minorities who walk.

Ali makes it sound like most pedestrian victims just got off a plane after a lifetime on chaotic streets in Asia and were unable to grasp San Francisco’s practice of prioritizing the streets for cruising drivers. Although, 84-year-old Isabell Huie, a longtime Chinatown activist, may have indeed been confused by the traffic pattern she saw when an elderly driver lost control of her car while trying to park, plowing into her and a man, killing Huie. We have yet to hear the SFPD say much about confused elderly drivers, though (these types of crashes happen more often than you might think).

We shouldn’t go too hard on Ali. He’s been making the right type of statements recently that other law enforcement officials haven’t. He told the SF Examiner last week that “grossly negligent” drivers will “find themselves in jail.” And in a presentation to the Police Commission yesterday, he made it clear that he’s keenly aware of the impetus to follow the department’s “Focus on the Five” campaign, which targets the five most common violations cited for causing pedestrian crashes (all driving violations) and the five most dangerous intersections in each police district.

SFPD Chief Greg Suhr, meanwhile, appeared to edge away from his apparent fixation on pedestrians who use cell phones in his comments at the commission meeting. Suhr promised an escalation in traffic enforcement as SFPD recoups its currently low staff in the coming months:

There’s no way we’re not going to see more tickets. We are. There will be more enforcement, especially at those intersections that have been demonstrating themselves to be more dangerous and where we get more complaints. But on the other side, it’s just the general public. As we get more crowded, we just need to slow down and be less distracted. The 30 seconds that it takes to cross the street can certainly be crossed without being on your cell phone, or looking down. People should never be texting while driving. I’m telling you right now, that’s a super expensive ticket, and there’s going to be a lot of those tickets given, whether they’re Uber or regular drivers. People just need to pay attention when they drive, and if everybody would just slow down.

These are promising signs that SFPD’s leadership is starting to get it: as far as enforcement is concerned, the path to safer streets is not wagging fingers at the victims. As Ali noted in his presentation, drivers “have a greater stake” in ensuring everyone’s safety, as they’re the ones piloting multi-ton motor vehicles. We’re pretty much all well aware that drivers are the ones with the power to kill.