SFPD Traffic Commander’s Strategy for Safer Streets: Finger-Wagging

For SFPD Traffic Company Commander Mikail Ali, the reason so many people are getting killed by drivers on SF’s streets apparently has nothing to do with the fact that every station but one is failing miserably to adhere to the department’s “Focus on the Five” enforcement strategy.

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

Nor is it because SF’s streets are overwhelmingly designed to put motor vehicle movement first, rather than the safety of people walking on them. That’s according Ali’s comments in yesterday’s column from the SF Chronicle’s Heather Knight, who didn’t seem to question Ali’s take.

Apparently, Ali’s strategy for making streets safer is to keep wagging fingers at the victims who “took major risks” and died. “The hope is that the public will change their behavior voluntarily,” he told Knight. Ali said he’s “been accused of blaming the victim,” then proceeded to blame last year’s victims.

“A lot of it is just really, really bad behavior,” Ali told Knight. “If we play this kind of sterile, numbers-only game, people surmise that it’s fairly innocuous behavior that’s causing these fatalities when in fact it’s very clear what the behaviors are.”

It’s “clear” indeed for those who do pay attention to numbers and statistics. SFPD’s data shows that the five most common causes of pedestrian injuries are all driver violations: speeding, running red lights, running stop signs, violating pedestrians’ right-of-way in a crosswalk, and failing to yield while turning. A year ago, SFPD’s top brass promised that officers would devote at least 50 percent of traffic citations to those violations under its “Focus on the Five” campaign.

But Ali, who has previously told media that confused Asian immigrants are to blame for many crashes, shirked those responsibilities in yesterday’s column. He also showed that he’s missed the point of Vision Zero. Crossing the street wouldn’t be such a “major risk” if city agencies implemented design and enforcement measures to slow driving speeds and minimize the chance of crashes, even when people make errors.

“It’s really troubling that the San Francisco Police Department sees this only as an individual behavior problem, considering that six percent of streets account for 60 percent of severe and fatal injuries,” said Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Schneider. “Until they actually meet [their Focus on the Five] goals, I really don’t think it’s important appropriate for them to call on individuals to change their behavior.”

Of the 18 people killed by drivers while walking in SF last year (not the 17 Knight reported), Ali and Knight highlighted the ones in which the victims walked in front of a driver at the wrong time. In one of Ali’s examples of “really, really bad behavior” which he “hopes” will stop, a 91-year-old woman was killed on Fillmore at California Street last February when she walked in front of a stopped truck, which could have been blocking the crosswalk.

The only “badly behaved” driver mentioned in the column was Anthony Wisner, who was on meth when he fled police in a stolen van and crashed, killing Zachary Watson. That’s not exactly representative of behavior that causes most deadly crashes.

Knight and Ali made no mention of the more common driver violations that killed victims last year, like 87-year-old Pei Fong Yim or 67-year-old Priscila Moreto (Knight herself tweeted a photo of Moreto’s crash scene outside City Hall when it occurred). Many cases where victims were crossing outside of crosswalks took place on streets designed for fast driving, and where crosswalks were far apart — a predictably deadly combination.

“We can’t expect people to operate safely on the roadway system if they’re designed for speed, where we have long blocks where it’s not convenient to cross in an urban environment,” said Schneider. “The whole concept of Vision Zero is to design a system that forgives, where we can expect human error, and that that error isn’t fatal.”

“We can’t keep putting the burden on individuals rather than recognizing that the city plays a really major role. Sure, individuals need to be responsible, but the city needs to make sure they’re helping to keep people safe. It’s not helpful to blame people when we’re not doing enough.”

  • BBnet3000

    There’s a man who doesn’t let facts and strategies for actually being effective get in the way of doing the job his way.

  • the_greasybear

    SFPD: Bias, bias, bias.

  • I think this article raises fair questions. However, I will say that based on my personal experience on SF’s PSAC (Pedestrian Safety Advisory Committee), the SFPD has made some significant cultural improvements (one symbolic but important example: changing the name of the Major ACCIDENT Investigation Team to the Traffic Collision Investigation Team), and Commander Ali has seemed dedicated and sincere in his testimony at our meetings. Again, though, I do respect the topic being brought up.

  • NoeValleyJim

    Commander Ali does have a point: we need to design our streets to be safer. We need more bike lanes, narrower streets and fewer long sight lines, which encourage speeding. It would be best if automobile traffic never got above 20 MPH except at a very few select expressways.

  • Prinzrob

    We really need to learn to separate our discussion about crashes from our discussion about fatalities.

    Crashes occur for many reasons, including people making mistakes, behaving foolishly, negligently, or maliciously, or because of poorly designed infrastructure.

    When fatalities happen it is almost always a result of speed, speed, and speed.

    If SF is serious about the Vision Zero initiative then a focus must be put on reducing speeds in the city, so that when inevitable crashes occur they are survivable. Reducing crashes is also an important goal, but secondary to speed.

  • The 6% of streets-60% of several/fatal injuries statistic is outrageous. Was ‘focus on the 5’ is in response to that statistic or did it come out as an implementation strategy in service to Vision Zero?

    Also, recent report out of NYC has shown that Vision Zero there, even with scrappy implementation, is a big success.

  • Filamino

    It is too soon to say Vision Zero was a success in NYC. One year is not good enough.

  • The stats they reported are good, no? If we’re talking about statistically if 1 yr is indicative of unequivocal effectiveness, then one would have to say No, but I’m fine with calling it a success.