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Study: SF’s Severe Traffic Injuries Have Been Heavily Underestimated

The number of severe traffic injuries inflicted on San Francisco’s streets has been grossly underestimated, according to hospital researchers.

In one year, more than 60 percent of San Francisco’s severe traffic injuries were not identified in SFPD reports — until now, the city’s sole source of injury data — according to a new study [PDF] by researchers at the SF Department of Public Health.

A woman injured by driver on Masonic Avenue in 2011. Photo: Matt Smith, SF Weekly

In the 12 months starting at the beginning of April, 2014, 515 patients were admitted for severe traffic injuries at SF General Hospital, site of the city’s only trauma center. Police reports only accounted for about 200 of those injuries.

A person is severely injured in SF traffic every 17 hours on average, said Leilani Schwarcz, the epidemiologist who led the study as part of SFPDH’s Vision Zero team. Of the 515 victims counted in the one-year period, 36 percent were pedestrians, 20 percent were bicyclists, 26 percent were motor vehicle occupants,  and 17 percent were motorcyclists. Sixteen died.

The study defined “severe injuries” as cases where the victim was hospitalized for more than 24 hours. Of those, 10 percent are admitted to a skilled nursing facility for long-term recovery, as was the case for Monique Porsandeh in 2013.

“Those are the people that are most likely suffering long-term disabilities and physically or mentally-life changing events,” said Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Ferrara, who said it’s “really shocking that there are so many more life-changing injuries than we thought.”

Schwarcz said the SFMTA funded the SFDPH study to develop a system that combines a range of data sources to more accurately assess the “true burden” of traffic violence. The agencies plan to conduct broader studies on the subject.

Researchers don’t know yet why so many severe traffic injuries have gone unreported. One possible reason offered by Schwarcz was that police officers “aren’t trained medical professionals” and can’t necessarily assess injuries fully. In addition, injuries sustained on freeways, which are outside SFPD’s jurisdiction, might not be counted. A small number of traffic injuries flagged by SFPDH may be due to solo bike crashes or collisions in BART tunnels, but not enough to account for a significant share of the discrepancy with SFPD’s numbers.

Police reports were “never intended” to provide the sole basis for assessing the extent of traffic injuries, said Schwarcz.

Roughly 800 to 900 pedestrian crashes in total are reported every year, based on police reports. SFPD researchers have long suspected that at least 20 percent of pedestrian injuries go unreported, based on the volume of injuries seen at hospitals.

In 2011, an SFDPH study found that pedestrian injuries impose a cost of about $76 million a year, $15 million of which is for injury treatment alone.


SFDPH Interactive Map Highlights SF’s Most Dangerous Streets for Walking

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How dangerous is it to cross the street outside your door? A new interactive, corner-by-corner map created by the SF Department of Public Health shows the location of all pedestrian injuries and deaths from 2005 to 2010, highlighting the corridors that see the bulk of the city’s crashes.

By providing better access to data, SFDPH hopes the map will help city agencies understand where to target physical street safety improvements and traffic enforcement to reduce injuries, said Rajiv Bhatia, SFDPH’s director of occupational and environmental health.

“The interactive site simply allows users to get the data they need directly,” said Bhatia. “We’ve also made the underlying data available to anyone in the public sphere who wants to do further analysis or use the data for another application. User-friendly government data should help to get people talking about important problems like pedestrian safety and hopefully will contribute to more informed solutions.”

The map is based on data from the California Highway Patrol’s Statewide Integrated Traffic Reporting System (SWITRS). It compiles information on each pedestrian injury over the five-year period, including markers that differentiate between crashes in which the victim suffered minor injuries, severe injuries, or was killed.

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How Can SF Make Streets Safer If We Don’t Know How Dangerous They Are?

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Tracking, analyzing, and reporting pedestrian fatalities should be a basic function of the San Francisco Police Department. But the fact is that SF lacks public access to clear and accurate data about street safety. The information gap is deeply troubling, and city agencies must act quickly to rectify it.

In April, Streetsblog reported a discrepancy in the number of 2011 pedestrian fatalities reported by the SFPD. A department spokesperson had told Streetsblog the total was 13, but another officer who reviewed the data said it was actually 17. The spokesperson, Albie Esparza, said the initial undercount came from the SFPD’s hit-and-run unit, while the higher, more accurate number, provided by officer Linda Chen, apparently came from a more comprehensive list.

When asked about discrepancy, Esparza said the other four fatalities must have been bicyclists, not pedestrians. But when we checked that with Chen, she confirmed her numbers: 17 pedestrians killed, three bicyclists, and eight car drivers or passengers, for a total of 28 people killed in traffic crashes in 2011.

Asked about the possible cause for the error, Al Casciato, the retiring head of the SFPD’s Traffic Company, said the hit-and-run unit’s data may not always be up to date. Certain cases, he explained, like a pedestrian killed by a Muni train, or a victim who dies from his or her injuries months after a crash, may not be added to the unit’s report for some time.

Overall, the state of public data on street safety in SF is poor, and as a result, it can be exceedingly difficult just to ascertain, for example, whether traffic injuries are rising or falling. In New York City, annual reports on the volume of traffic injuries and deaths are compiled by the state Department of Motor Vehicles, and a recent law compelled the police department to release monthly updates on traffic violence. The system isn’t perfect — NYPD has so far managed to avoid releasing their data in an open format — but in SF, no such report is available until several years later.

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SFPD Issues Targeted Enforcement Plan to Reduce Pedestrian Injuries

The San Francisco Police Department yesterday announced a commitment to reduce pedestrian injuries through targeted enforcement of dangerous driving.

In a joint statement with Walk SF, the SFPD said it will target violations like speeding and red light-running, especially in areas with the highest pedestrian injury rates. SFPD also plans to sign an agreement soon to share data with the SFMTA and the Department of Public Health, to implement “systematic” education and enforcement at new 15 MPH school zones as each one rolls out, and to streamline its reporting on enforcement to the Pedestrian Safety Task Force.

The new emphasis on pedestrian safety was prompted by last month’s incident in the Tenderloin, where a van driver slammed into an elderly pedestrian with the right-of-way in a marked crosswalk, writes Walk SF:

Walk SF recently met with the Police Chief and the Mayor’s office… We will be meeting with the District Attorney as well, to urge more action on penalizing dangerous driving.

This is a real milestone. This is a commitment to accountable enforcement of the laws that protect you when you walk.

Walk SF appreciates the commitment by the Police Department and the Mayor to making San Francisco’s streets better and safer for everyone.

In the joint statement, Walk SF and SFPD note that “these actions will help to meet the city goals set by the 2010 Mayor’s Executive Directive on Pedestrian Safety to reduce serious and fatal pedestrian collisions by 25 percent by 2016 and by 50 percent by 2021.”

Read the full statement after the break.

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Task Force Begins Meeting to Develop Pedestrian Action Plan

Photo: Bryan Goebel

A Pedestrian Safety Task Force charged with coordinating and implementing actions to reduce pedestrian injuries and fatalities in San Francisco met for the first time Tuesday, bringing together a large group of representatives from different city departments who rarely sit down at the same table to talk about pedestrian safety.

“I do think that having this many agencies talking about this topic together is a big step forward for the city,” said Elizabeth Stampe, the executive director of Walk San Francisco, who attended the meeting.

The task force is the result of an executive directive issued by the Mayor’s Office [pdf] in late December that, for the first time, sets specific targets and dates for reducing pedestrian injuries and deaths. The 25-member group must develop a Pedestrian Action Plan that will meet the directive’s goals of reducing serious and fatal pedestrian injuries by 25 percent by 2016, and 50 percent by 2021.

Its mission also includes promoting and increasing walking along with “measurable goals and benchmarks” to address “existing disparities in injuries, deaths and walking conditions in San Francisco neighborhoods.” The directive was partly modeled after New York’s Pedestrian Safety Study and Action Plan, and preceded criticism from advocates that the city was failing to act to improve conditions for pedestrians.

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Chinatown Group Analyzes Pedestrian Safety, Offers Plan for Improvements

Photos: CCDC

Photos: CCDC

Chinatown’s crowded sidewalks, unsafe crosswalks and poor pedestrian signage are not likely to be among the endearing physical characteristic featured in any tourist brochure. Yet in a recent study — the San Francisco Chinatown Pedestrian Safety Needs Assessment [pdf] and Safety Plan [pdf] conducted by the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) — those issues were identified as several of the highest priority concerns for tenants, merchants and visitors to the popular area.

Chinatown is the densest neighborhood in San Francisco, according to the study, and has the lowest rate of automobile ownership, at 17 percent. The neighborhood is made up of a large percentage of transit users and pedestrians, many of them seniors. From the report:

The 2000 Census reported the median income for the neighborhood as $18,339, with a median age of 50. The proportion of the population living below the poverty level in 2000 was 21 percent versus 11 percent citywide.

Although Chinatown has the lowest rate of car ownership, it has the highest volume of traffic of any San Francisco neighborhood. Seventy eight percent of households live within 150 meters of a truck route. The proportion of Chinatown households living with traffic-related air quality hazards is 100 percent compared to 68 percent citywide.

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Commentary: Despite Mandate to Improve Pedestrian Safety, SF Doesn’t Act

I often write stories for Streetsblog as objectively as I can, but after talking with the SFMTA about their pedestrian safety report, I got a little too upset to write dispassionately. Therefore, I’ll call this a “commentary” and you can take it for what it’s worth.

If the footage of 65-year-old Nu Ha Dam getting mowed down in a crosswalk at Leavenworth and Geary by a UCSF shuttle on Wednesday didn’t appall you, the continued failure of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) to improve pedestrian safety should.

San Francisco has the highest rate of pedestrian injuries of any sizeable city in California and is one of the highest in the nation. Pedestrian injuries have stayed steady over the past few years at more than 800. Of total fatal collisions in San Francisco over the past ten years, pedestrians have consistently accounted for 50-60 percent.

So when the city comes out with a report [pdf] modeled on the New York City Department of Transportation’s much heralded Pedestrian Safety Study and Action Plan, you could excuse me for getting excited. The 55-page document is chock full of great data on existing conditions, and at a minimum helps lend some visibility to pedestrians on paper.

Unfortunately, the report has no collision reduction targets, work plans or evaluation metrics that will result in safer streets. All it offers is this bit of drivel:

[While the SFMTA has] an important role to play in improving pedestrian conditions, specific collision trends can be also influenced by demographic, cultural, and economic changes that affect the amount and type of traveling people engage in. For these reasons the SFMTA has in the past not set an exact percentage goal for the reduction of fatal collisions in future decades, though of course it remains our mission to improve roadway safety as rapidly as possible. It is the general goal of the SFMTA both to see reductions in pedestrian injuries every year and to increase the number of pedestrian trips in the City.

Important role? You have a charter mandate to improve pedestrian conditions as part of the Transit First policy (“5. Pedestrian areas shall be enhanced wherever possible to improve the safety and comfort of pedestrians and to encourage travel by foot”).

You’ve had that mandate since the 1970s.

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Promoting Health and Physical Activity Among Children on Walk to School Day

Children walk to Sunnyside School, one of the 15 Safe Routes to School facilities. Photo: Adrienne Johnson.

Children walk to Sunnyside Elementary School, one of the 15 San Francisco schools that are part of the city's Safe Routes to School program. Photo: Adrienne Johnson.

With childhood obesity a growing national epidemic, it is surprising that more parents don’t walk to school with their kids or organize amongst neighbors to encourage physical activity as part of the daily routine. Though San Francisco has extensive public transit and is quite walkable, the current school assignment policy results in longer school commutes, a problem city officials and advocates for increased walking blame in part for children not getting enough daily exercise.

Coinciding with yesterday’s International Walk to School Day, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and the Department of Public Health (SFDPH) discussed a study they have undertaken to collect baseline data on school commute patterns in an effort to encourage more walking. This initiative is especially important now, say officials, because the city will change the way it assigns children to schools starting in fall 2011 and they will have the opportunity to measure the impact local assignments will have on travel choice.

Officials plan to collect data at the fifteen schools participating in the Safe Routes to School program, as well as others that are not, and they hope the resulting information will demonstrate how effective improved traffic engineering, enforcement and eduction can be.

Ana Validzic, a SFDPH pedestrian safety coordinator, was at Fairmount Elementary School in Noe Valley yesterday to raise awareness for Walk to School Day. Fairmount and nine other schools were added to the city’s Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program this year, in addition to the five from last year. These schools are at the top of the city’s priority list for traffic calming treatments and better enforcement of traffic safety violations.

“One of the biggest obstacles right now is the way students are assigned to their schools,” said Validzic. With the change in the SFUSD assignment policy, she said, children will live much closer to their schools and parents won’t have as much of an impetus to drive. “It’s going to make programs like Safe Routes to School much more realistic.”

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CA Pedestrian Groups Gather For Conference on Improving Data and Advocacy

Pedestrian advocates, public health professionals and transportation planners and engineers will gather in Berkeley from Sunday through Tuesday to discuss how to improve pedestrian trip and injury data collection, both to inform pedestrian safety campaigns and influence the targets for walkable communities under California’s SB 375.

The conference, Pedestrians Count!, is being organized by California Walks and will include representatives from a number of advocacy groups, Caltrans, UCSF, the San Francisco Department of Public Health and the California Strategic Growth Council.

As California Walks executive director Wendy Alfsen argued, transportation engineers know every last detail about how Americans drive, but they don’t keep good data on pedestrians, beyond how many are killed and injured by cars. Without improving pedestrian data collection, she insisted, pedestrians will continue to be under-served when it comes to federal, state, and local transportation funding.

“Pedestrians are significantly and substantially underrepresented in large part because they’re under-counted. Pedestrian trips for a long time have been seen as pedestrian, ho-hum, invisible,” she said “As we’re moving to a multi-modal transportation system, all of the other modes have to be counted.”

Alfsen said that pedestrian fatalities count for 18 percent of all traffic deaths in California and the state’s fatality rate is 50 percent higher than the national average. “Overall traffic fatalities have been going down, but our percentage of the total in California is growing,” she said.

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Say What?

cable_car_at_columbus_and_powell_7316.jpgThe vibrations and rumble of cable cars used to occur on many of San Francisco's streets.

We are often attracted to city life for the energy, the boisterousness, the noise. I am a city guy having lived all my life in cities (born in Brooklyn, Chicago until age 10, Oakland until 17, and San Francisco since I was 20). I often make the joke that "nature is trying to kill me," when one of my friends suggests we go camping. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s I was a punk rock fan, and went to dozens of shows with ear-splitting volumes. I've been to plenty of other events through the years with overwhelming noise, from other concerts to major sports events, etc. Maybe that's why I have had a ringing in my ears for the last two years (tinnitus). And perhaps not surprisingly, I've become increasingly frustrated at the oft-overlooked urban problem of noise pollution.