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To Tackle Anti-Bike Bias, SFPD Must Start With Knowledge of Traffic Laws

At a heated community meeting last month, a bike commuter asked SFPD Park Station Captain John Sanford whether he could expect to continue safely treating stop signs as yield signs. Sanford had instituted a crackdown on that behavior, and some ticket recipients said they were told they had to put their foot down at stop signs. Sanford confirmed to the crowd that that requirement does not exist, and insisted that his officers didn’t enforce it.

Photo: mikaela_carolyn/Twitter

An officer from SFPD’s Traffic Company stops a bike commuter on Market Street. Photo: mikaela_carolyn/Twitter

Sanford then called over Traffic Company Sergeant Frank Harrell, who was in another conversation a few yards away, to consult as an expert on bicycle traffic laws.

Harrell walked over and told the crowd, “The law says that the bicyclist must come to a complete stop and drop one foot.”

In a roar, the group erupted, “No!”

“This is the problem,” one man said to Harrell. “You guys don’t have the rules right.”

Ignorance and misinterpretation of traffic laws among SFPD officers — even the supposed experts — is a sign of the anti-bike bias that pervades the department.

Bike advocates and attorneys say officers routinely fail to accurately cite the laws they enforce against bicyclists, and even fabricate justifications.

“It comes up all the time,” said Michael Stephenson, an attorney who estimates officers have wrongly cited a law in about a third of the bicycle crash cases he’s investigated at Bay Area Bicycle Law (more than 1,000 of them).

Miles Cooper, a bike injury attorney who was there when Harrell falsely cited the stop sign law, said it’s “a classic example of the huge institutional biases that have to be overcome in order for cyclists to be treated as equal on the roadway.”

SFPD Sergeant Frank Harrell speaking to the crowd at Park Station. SFBC/Flickr

SFPD Traffic Sergeant Frank Harrell speaking to the crowd at Park Station. SFBC/Flickr

Cooper was one of dozens who recounted experiences with anti-bike bias at the SFPD at a City Hall hearing two years ago. Supervisors called the hearing after the death of Amelie Le Moullac, who was killed on her bike by a truck driver at Sixth and Folsom Streets, and was initially blamed by police who asserted that the onus is on bicyclists to pass to the left of right-turning vehicles.

The SFPD later found that the trucker was at fault for failing to yield when making a right turn, but only after video of the crash was found by a staffer at the SF Bicycle Coalition. Although the botched investigation sparked outrage and brought political attention to the issue of police bias, the trucker was never charged by the District Attorney’s office.

Leah Shahum, who was executive director of the SFBC at the time of the hearing, now heads the national Vision Zero Coalition. “It’s not surprising that Vision Zero is raising questions and debate about long-held practices around traffic safety,” said Shahum. “This is happening around the country.”

SF is seeing “a realignment of thinking of policies and on-the-ground practices in really significant ways,” she said. “It’s not unusual that there will be individuals within those departments who perhaps don’t fully understand the shift that is happening, and may resist and hold on to ideas from the past.”

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The “Bike Yield Law”: It’s How Captain Sanford Rolls, Too

Even John Sanford is not immune to practicing the safe, common-sense ethic that most people on bikes use to negotiate stop signs. SFPD’s Park Station captain is the latest officer to be filmed within the Park District executing the completely normal practice of slowing and yielding, and not necessarily coming to a full stop, during a ride with bike advocates last month.

As SF Weekly reported, Morgan Fitzgibbons of the Wigg Party posted video today of Sanford’s rolling stop at a stop sign on John F. Kennedy Drive’s parking-protected bike lanes in Golden Gate Park. It’s exactly the sort of safe behavior that John Avalos and five other supervisors want to legitimize with a “Bike Yield Law” ordinance, after bike commuters reportedly received tickets for similar behavior during a crackdown instituted by Sanford.

“I just wanted to show this was normal behavior, that even the poster child for the bike crackdown shows on a bicycle,” Fitzgibbons told SF Weekly. The assertions from Sanford and SFPD Chief Greg Suhr that it’s dangerous to allow people on bikes to safely roll through stop signs “are just so silly,” he said.

Chief Suhr told KQED this week, “Stop signs are pretty simple. They say ‘stop.’ They don’t say ‘yield,’ they don’t say ‘slow down.’”

Fitzgibbons had refrained from posting the video until today because he worried it would seem like an act of undue shaming toward Sanford. But in an email conversation I had with him yesterday, he changed his mind after I put it like this: If even Sanford does rolling stops, who doesn’t?

“After thinking about it we realized he has nothing to be embarrassed about — treating a stop sign as a yield sign is a perfectly normal, safe, reasonable thing to do,” Fitzgibbons wrote in a post on Facebook that featured the video. “If he wants to be embarrassed by his own hypocrisy, that’s his problem.”

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SFPD Chief Suhr Misses the Point of the “Bike Yield Law”

SF Police Department Chief Greg Suhr doesn’t seem to grasp the point of the “Bike Yield Law” proposed by Supervisor John Avalos.

SFPD Chief Greg Suhr. Screenshot from SF Bay Guardian/Youtube

“Stop signs are pretty simple. They say ‘stop,'” Suhr told KQED today. “They don’t say ‘yield,’ they don’t say ‘slow down.'” Suhr added that anyone who violates the letter of the stop sign law “will be cited.”

If only it were so simple. Here’s the problem: California’s stop sign law is based on the unrealistic expectation that people ride 30-pound bikes exactly like they pilot 3,000-pound cars. Just about everybody who gets on a bike, including SFPD officers (see the video below), treats stop signs by slowing down and yielding to others with the right-of-way.

There is an ethic to biking safely at stop signs, and it’s more like the “golden rule,” as Avalos put it, than the letter of the current law. Idaho updated its stop sign law in 1982 to reflect that, and bicycle-related injuries there have dropped since. As bike commuters demonstrated on the Wiggle recently, strict compliance with the stop sign law by people on bikes would result in absurd traffic queues — and no one would be safer for it.

“Our traffic laws have not changed since the mid-20th century, but the way people move around our cities has,” SF Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Noah Budnick said at a press conference introducing the Avalos ordinance today. “What the Bike Yield Law does is move our city into a leadership position in the 21st century.”

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Majority of Supes Back the “Bike Yield Law” to Be Introduced Tomorrow

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The “Bike Yield Law” proposed by Supervisor John Avalos is poised to be approved by the Board of Supervisors.

Supervisors Avalos, Breed, Wiener, Kim, Mar, and Campos have all signed on as sponsors of the "Bike Yield Law." Photos: SF Board of Supervisors

Supervisors Avalos, Breed, Wiener, Kim, Mar, and Campos have all signed on as sponsors of the “Bike Yield Law.” Photos: SF Board of Supervisors

The ordinance urges the SFPD to let bicycle riders safely treat stop signs as yield signs. Avalos plans to introduce the ordinance tomorrow, and it has support from six supervisors — the majority needed to vote it into law. It’s unclear if it has support from SFPD officials.

The latest endorsements come from Supervisors David Campos, Jane Kim, and Eric Mar, joining early sponsors London Breed and Scott WienerThe six co-sponsors plan to hold a press conference at City Hall before tomorrow’s board meeting.

At the event, SF Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Noah Budnick will speak about “the need to provide SFPD the direction and clarity that they deserve in order to achieve Vision Zero and safer streets overall,” according to an SFBC press release.

While local legislation cannot supersede the state’s stop sign law, Avalos’s ordinance would set a “San Francisco Right-of-Way Policy” that would “make citations for bicyclists who safely yield at stop signs the lowest law enforcement priority.” In essence, it would legitimize the safe, practical way that people on bikes normally treat stop signs, which has been legal in Idaho for 32 years.

Avalos announced his plans to introduce the legislation last month after SFPD Park Station Captain John Sanford called off his letter-of-the-law crackdown on bike commuters rolling stop signs. In an interview with Streetsblog, Sanford seemed hesitant to support the bill, saying that police already use discretion in prioritizing limited enforcement resources.

Support from the SFPD will be crucial for the non-binding ordinance to hold sway over police traffic enforcement priorities. The SFPD’s lagging compliance with its own “Focus on the Five” campaign against the most dangerous driving violations is evidence of how difficult it is to change police practices, even when it’s official department policy. Most SFPD stations have only begun to move toward the enforcement target set in January 2014.

The press conference announcing the “Bike Yield Law” ordinance will be held tomorrow on the steps of City Hall at 12:30 p.m.


Northern Station Leads Rise in SFPD “Focus on the Five” Citations

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Image: SFPD via SFGovTV

SFPD traffic citations issued for “Focus on the Five” have hit an all-time high of 32 percent, as the SF Examiner reported earlier this week.

The rate of tickets issued for the five most dangerous driving violations in this year’s second quarter was up 34 percent compared to the same quarter last year, according to stats presented by SFPD Traffic Company Commander Ann Mannix last week. The numbers show a dramatic improvement over last year’s period, when tickets to people walking and biking increased at a far faster rate.

While Richmond Station’s “Five” rate of 63 percent is still the only one to exceed the SFPD’s 50 percent mandate, several other stations are leading the way. The largest increase was seen at Northern Station, where “Five” tickets jumped 125 percent to a rate of 41 percent.

Northern Station Captain Greg McEachern doesn’t seem to share Park Station Captain John Sanford’s fixation on addressing complaints about innocuous bike violations. In a July interview with Hoodline, McEachern explained his take on the situation Page Street, a popular bike route which runs through both districts:

I’ve gotten feedback from the community about traffic concerns in the Page Street area, but not in particular about bicyclists coming through. What I always tell my officers when we do our enforcement is that we don’t target any specific entity of traffic—pedestrian, bicyclist or a vehicle. What we do is we respond to a location and we look for what violations are occurring.

We don’t focus on any one specific thing—what we’re trying to do is save lives. I think everyone would agree that there are violations of traffic laws by everyone; we’d be naive if we thought that it didn’t happen by all groups. We focus on what we feel we need to focus on to make sure that collisions go down, and that we reach the Vision Zero goal of reducing fatalities by 2020.

It’s worth noting that the officers who reportedly cited bike commuters passing to the left of the car queue on Page were part of SFPD’s Traffic Company, not Northern Station.

Three other stations have reached “Focus on the Five” rates above the average: Ingleside is at 38 percent (a 30 percent increase from the same quarter last year), Taraval is at 40 percent (a 94 percent increase), and Bayview is at 33 (a 10 percent decrease). The Traffic Company’s rate rose by 100 percent, to 31 percent.

Sanford’s Park Station increased “Five” tickets by 41 percent, to 28 percent, and reportedly issued no tickets to bicyclists during the quarter from April to June, which preceded his bike crackdown.

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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 are 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.


SFBC, 3 Supervisors Say Law Should Let Cyclists Treat Stops as “Yield” Signs

The SF Bicycle Coalition announced its “unfettered support” today for a “Bike Yield Law” that would enable cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs and cautiously roll through when there is no cross-traffic.

Until now, the SFBC has had no official position on the stop sign law, focusing instead on the message that police enforcement of bicycle riders who harmlessly roll through stop signs distracts from efforts to enforce violations that actually hurt people.

But when SFPD Park Station Captain John Sanford attempted to crack down on bike commuters at stop signs earlier this month, the idea of changing the current law gained steam. After his first bike ride in many years, Sanford told Streetsblog that he can see how the “bike yield” practice can make sense, and that police already use “subjective” discretion in their enforcement. Last Thursday, he took a ride with a group of bike advocates to make amends.

Letting bicyclists treat stops as yields would entail changes to city ordinances and state law, which the SFBC refers to under the umbrella of the “Bike Yield Law.” The organization wrote in a statement:

The Bike Yield Law clarifies that people biking absolutely have to yield to people walking, but no one should waste time cracking down on people biking safely. The SFPD deserves this clear direction on how best to keep our streets safe, and that is the goal of the Bike Yield Law, which we support.

The SFBC plans to throw its support behind an ordinance proposed by Supervisor John Avalos, which Supervisors London Breed and Scott Wiener plan to co-sponsor, that would “make citations for bicyclists who safely yield at stop signs the lowest law enforcement priority.”

But for now, there’s no broader campaign to change the state stop sign law, which is more challenging. California Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Dave Snyder told SF Weekly last week that while the current law is “inappropriate,” the organization’s energy is focused on creating safer streets.

A similar law has been in effect since 1982 in Idaho, where it’s been credited with reducing injuries and clarifying expectations between drivers and bicyclists. Idaho’s law also allows bicycle riders to proceed through red lights when safe, and Paris adopted a similar law last month.

In the Bay Area, there was an effort in 2008 at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission to endorse a “bike yield” law, on the tails of an (unsuccessful) effort in Oregon to change its law. But the MTC legislation stalled and was never approved. MTC staff wrote in a 2007 memo [PDF], “Allowing cyclists to roll through takes the ambiguity of the law away and allows law enforcement to focus on more serious violations.”


SFPD’s Sanford Explains His Evolving Views on Bicycling and Traffic Priorities

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John Sanford rode a bicycle yesterday for the first time in an untold number of years. Then, he sat down for nearly two hours to have an insightful discussion with a couple of his staunchest critics. Streetsblog’s recorded interview with Sanford is posted at the bottom of this article.

SFPD Captain John Sanford sat down for two hours yesterday with Streetsblog and a neighborhood advocate to talk about safer streets. Photo: Aaron Bialick

SFPD Captain John Sanford sat down for two hours yesterday with Streetsblog and a neighborhood advocate to talk about safer streets. Photo: Aaron Bialick

The new-ish captain of SFPD’s Park Station is taking strides to build relationships and learn from safe streets advocates after his short-lived crackdown on innocuous bike violations at stop signs last week, which led to dozens of protesters packing a community meeting Tuesday.

By the end of the hours-long meeting, Sanford announced an end to the bike crackdown (at least for now). After listening to compelling explanations as to why people on bikes treat stop signs as yield signs, he also promised to refine his enforcement efforts to account for differences between bikes and cars. (Supervisor John Avalos has since proposed it as a policy.)

Sanford paused the bike crackdown after two days, and then reached out to me and the SF Bicycle Coalition for one-on-one meetings. At Tuesday’s meeting, he told the crowd that his intention was to “get the attention of the cyclists. I think we got the attention of the cyclists.”

I caught up with the captain yesterday after Katherine Roberts, a longtime advocate for safer streets in Cole Valley, invited me to tag along on a neighborhood walk that Sanford had arranged with her. Roberts planned to point out the daily dangers of using crosswalks on streets like Stanyan, where drivers routinely fail to yield to pedestrians.

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Avalos Proposes Ordinance Urging SFPD to Let Cyclists Yield at Stop Signs

Supervisor John Avalos plans to introduce a policy urging the SFPD to let people on bikes treat stop signs as yield signs. It could legitimize the safe, practical maneuver already practiced by the vast majority of people on bikes, which is legal in Idaho.

John Avalos in a screenshot from his 2011 mayoral campaign video.

John Avalos in a screenshot from his 2011 mayoral campaign video.

While SF can’t supersede the state’s flawed stop sign law, Avalos’ ordinance would set a “San Francisco Right-of-Way Policy” that would “make citations for bicyclists who safely yield at stop signs the lowest law enforcement priority,” said a press release from Avalos’ office:

The California Vehicle Code requires bikes to follow all the same rules as cars. But bikes are very different than cars. We’ve learned that traffic flows better when we give bikes certain considerations like bike lanes, sharrows, and bike boxes. Strict enforcement of stop sign laws for cyclists is counterproductive for several reasons:

  • It takes away scarce enforcement resources from more dangerous violations.
  • It is counterintuitive to the way most bicyclists and drivers currently navigate intersections.
  • It discourages people from bicycling.

“Nobody condones unsafe behavior by cyclists, but common sense enforcement of the law will make our streets safer and more predictable,” the release says, noting that a 2010 academic study found that injuries have decreased in Idaho in the 32 years since it changed its law. “The study also found that Boise, Idaho had much lower injury rates than comparable cities such as Sacramento and Bakersfield.”

“We can minimize these conflicts if we all take our turn at intersections and avoid being a ‘right-of-way thief,'” Avalos said in a statement. “Our streets work best when we all follow the ‘golden rule,’ and treat others like we want to be treated.”

With City Hall on legislative recess, Avalos can’t formally introduce his ordinance until September. If approved, SF would become the first known city in the state to recognize that the stop sign law isn’t realistic when applied to bicycles.

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Tomorrow: Weigh in on SFPD’s Bike Crackdown With Captain Sanford

As a new video illustrates, SFPD seems to hold drivers to a different standard when they roll stop signs at Page and Scott Streets. Image: Kristin Tieche/Vimeo

A new video illustrates how SFPD holds drivers who roll through stop signs to a different standard than cyclists. Image: Kristin Tieche/Vimeo

SFPD Park Station’s monthly community meeting tomorrow evening is your chance to weigh in on the ongoing harassment of bike commuters led by new captain John Sanford.

SFPD Park Station Captain John Sanford. Photo: SFPD

SFPD Park Station Captain John Sanford. Photo: SFPD

On the ride there, you can join a second Wiggle “stop-in” to demonstrate the folly of holding bicycle riders to the letter of the stop sign law.

Sanford’s decision to devote police resources to these tickets is now opposed by at least three supervisors: London BreedJohn Avalos, and Scott Wiener.

“Enforcement against minor bike violations won’t make our streets safer but will make it a heck of a lot harder for people to bike,” Wiener wrote in a post on Medium today:

In my view, traffic enforcement should focus on dangerous traffic behaviors — which are largely by motorists – that lead to deaths and serious injuries on our roads. Regarding bikes, police absolutely should enforce against cyclists engaging in dangerous and reckless behavior , for example, blowing through stop signs without slowing down, violating the rights-of-way of other road users, biking on sidewalks, and speeding . However, enforcing against cyclists for minor violations  —  such as slowing down at a stop sign, cautiously and safely entering the intersection, and not violating anyone’s right-of-way  —  is not a productive use of scarce traffic enforcement resources.

While Sanford fixates on holding cyclists to a strict interpretation of the stop sign law, SFPD still seems to ignore “rolling stops” committed by car drivers at the same locations.

A new video produced by Volker Neumann and Kristin Tieche (below) shows traffic on a normal night at the intersection of Page and Scott Streets on the Wiggle, where most bicyclists and drivers don’t come to a complete stop when there’s no cross traffic.

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