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SFPD Commits to “Vision Zero” With Policy Reforms to Back Up the Rhetoric

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[Editor's note: Streetsblog will not be publishing Monday in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.]

The conversation is changing when it comes to the SFPD’s approach to traffic violence. That much was clear at a four-hour hearing at City Hall last night, where SFPD Chief Suhr and Traffic Company Commander Mikail Ali pledged to pursue Vision Zero, the call to end traffic fatalities within ten years.

SFPD Chief Greg Suhr speaks at the hearing alongside SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin. Photo: ##http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2014/01/17/san-francisco-pledges-to-boost-traffic-safety-after-deadly-crashes/##CBS 5##

SFPD Chief Greg Suhr speaks at the hearing alongside SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin. Photo: CBS 5

Suhr told city supervisors and the Police Commission, in a room packed with citizens, the SFPD’s command staff, and every police captain, that “we are committed to a new normal in San Francisco.” And the SFPD backed up the rhetoric by announcing real performance metrics and procedural changes.

The raft of SFPD changes to investigations, citation issuance, and arrests marks a “seismic shift in policy,” Suhr told the Bay Guardian in a video interview after the hearing. It’s too early to say how deep and lasting these reforms will be, but there is real substance to them.

For the first time, SFPD presented a goal to measure the performance of its “Focus on the Five” program: At least 50 percent of tickets issued should be for the five most common violations in crashes in pedestrian crashes — drivers’ violation of pedestrian right-of-way, speeding, running red lights, running stop signs, and turning violations. In 2013, during which the program was in effect, the number was 22 percent, according to Ali.

A policy change initiated in 2013 also allows officers to arrest drivers in fatal crashes where there appears to be “probable cause,” Ali said. That appears to explain the unusual instance of two drivers being arrested for killing pedestrians on New Year’s Eve.

In a new policy change for 2014, Ali said SFPD can now also issue citations to a party found to be at fault. Previously, police policy was not to issue a citation in a crash unless the officer witnessed the violation him or herself. One major reason SFPD said they often refrained from issuing tickets was to avoid double jeopardy — charging someone for the same crime twice — the theory being if the SFPD issued a citation, the district attorney may not be able to legally file charges as well.

Police will also issue citations or make arrests off-scene, when an investigation later determines fault in a case, said Ali. In fact, Suhr said that SFPD would review collision cases throughout the past year for such opportunities, including that of Jikaiah Stevens, who was hit by a driver who admitted to running a red light, yet faced no penalties. Stevens spoke at the hearing after a short documentary telling her story was shown.

“That driver will be issued a citation,” Suhr said. “Going forward, we’re committed to making a decision at the scene and/or doing a mailer if it requires follow-up investigation.”

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The Life-Altering Impact of Traffic Violence: Jikaiah Stevens’ Story

Reminder: Today at 5 p.m. at City Hall, a hearing on the SFPD’s treatment of pedestrian and bicycle crashes will be held by the Police Commission and a Board of Supervisors committee. You’re invited to share your thoughts at the Board of Supervisors Chamber, Room 250.

We’ve heard the story too many times. A reckless driver strikes a person, at no fault of the victim’s, and the motorist faces no legal repercussions. It happens even in cases like that of 31-year-old Jikaiah Stevens, who was hit in a crosswalk by Wren Coe in September as she crossed on a green light. Even though witnesses attested to Coe running a red light, and Coe herself admitted fault, she didn’t get so much as a ticket.

Dolly Totes and her team produced this superb mini documentary, “Walk at Her Own Risk,” which tells Stevens’ story in the broader context of pedestrian safety in San Francisco. Stevens was also featured in an SF Chronicle story yesterday.

Stevens was left with medical bills of $143,000 and has suffered ailments like brain injury that caused a loss smell and taste, “extreme unexpected social anxiety,” and short-term memory loss. Police say they can’t cite or charge the driver because they didn’t witness the crash themselves. Stevens says no lawyer will take her case to sue Coe because Coe doesn’t have enough assets. An online fundraiser has been set up to help pay her bills.

“I say, I got hit by a car in a crosswalk, and they go, oh, so that person’s in a lot of trouble now, huh?” Stevens says. “I go, actually no, none. She doesn’t have to pay anything, and she got her license, and she can go hit anyone else she wants.”

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NYC Mayor de Blasio Pursues “Vision Zero” While Ed Lee Displays Zero Vision

“There is an epidemic of traffic fatalities and it can’t go on… Every one of us thinks: ‘What if that was my child?’” The mayor of a major American city said this today, announcing efforts to pursue Vision Zero, the goal of ending traffic deaths within ten years. Standing at the site where a child was killed by a driver, he said, “That is, in fact, how we have to make public policy and how we have to implement public policy.”

Meanwhile, Ed Lee put out a press release. Photo: Asian Week

The mayor who spoke those words was not SF’s Ed Lee — it was Bill de Blasio, the new mayor of New York City. Coincidentally, Mayor Lee did issue a press release today addressing traffic violence, but unlike the message de Blasio sent at his press conference, Lee’s statements appeared to be aimed more at placating city residents who’ve been calling for safer streets than demonstrating a serious commitment to making that a major priority.

Lee’s press release, which he did not hold a press conference to announce, touted a new SFMTA safe driving awareness campaign, an increase in SFPD traffic enforcement staff, and the SFMTA’s procurement of funds for planned traffic signal upgrades along Polk Street and South Van Ness Avenue — in 2017. A safe driving training program for truckers contracted by the city will also start in 2015.

The “Be Nice, Look Twice,” campaign will comprise a safe driving fact sheet to be distributed starting next month. Nice, yes, but the campaign is being produced by the SFMTA, not the SFPD — the agency that has the force of law behind it. (The only traffic safety flyers recently issued by the police department were basically a middle finger to pedestrian victims.)

While de Blasio stated today that he and his top commissioners “are standing with” the families of traffic violence victims (and they literally stood with victims’ families at the announcement), and that “we’re starting immediately to make changes to protect our children, and to protect all New Yorkers,” Mayor Lee’s printed statement was essentially a tepidly generalized “be careful, slow down” PSA, softened to the point of near meaninglessness:

Pedestrian safety continues to be a key focus as our City grows. San Francisco is a City that walks, and we all have a shared responsibility to protect and care for the most vulnerable users on our City streets. By looking out for each other and by driving more slowly and carefully, we can make a big impact on improving safety for those walking in San Francisco. This new campaign will be culturally competent and will touch all corners of San Francisco.

“The mayor’s announcement acknowledges the long-standing and pervasive problem of traffic crimes on our city’s streets, but it does little to end the preventable injuries and deaths from the daily crashes plaguing our streets,” said Natalie Burdick of Walk SF. ”When there are solutions that can save lives, no loss of life should be acceptable. Rather than taking a scattershot approach that doesn’t even offer safety training until 2015, or engineering improvements until 2017, the city should adopt a Vision Zero goal now to eliminate every traffic death, whether it’s a driver, bicyclist, or pedestrian, over the next 10 years.”

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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:

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Supes Call for Aggressive Enforcement Against Dangerous Driving

In an emotionally-charged discussion, the dangers of walking on San Francisco’s streets took center stage at yesterday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, the first since an alarming number of San Franciscans were injured and killed by drivers over the holiday season.

Giampaolo Boschetti’s pickup truck at the scene where he ran over and killed Zhen Guang Ng in Crocker-Amazon on New Year’s Eve. Photo: ABC 7

Every supervisor except Katy Tang, Mark Farrell, and Malia Cohen spoke to express condolences to the families of the victims and call for an aggressive increase in police enforcement and physical improvements to make city streets safer.

Mayor Ed Lee also said that he’ll be making an announcement “regarding pedestrian safety” soon, according to Bay City News. ”We can’t just sit back and let this happen,” Lee told BCN.

“Vehicles are weapons. Vehicles do kill people, intentional or not,” said Supervisor London Breed. “It is important that we make sure that the enforcement to obey the law, which is to protect us all, is out there.”

After 2013 ended with 20 pedestrians having lost their lives — a six year high — the violence has continued this week, most recently with the year’s first pedestrian fatality yesterday evening on Van Ness and Grove Streets. Police say the 38-year-old man was killed when running across Van Ness, outside of a crosswalk, chasing after a man whom he was apparently involved in an altercation with, according to media reports. An SFPD spokesperson said that “there was apparently no negligence on the part of the driver.”

But in many of the other recent pedestrian crashes, the fault appeared to lie with the driver. Of the six pedestrians killed in December, some were elderly, and one was a six-year-old girl, Sophia Liu. Supervisors drew particular attention to her death, as well as that of 84-year-old Isabel Huie, a well-known Chinatown community activist who was killed by an elderly driver who apparently lost control of her car.

“The past couple weeks have been an enormous wake up call for our city. We can do better,” said Supervisor David Chiu.

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This Evening on Talk 910: Gil Gross Talks Ped Safety With Streetsblog

Tune in to 910 AM at 6 p.m. for Gil Gross’ show, where I’ll be on the air to discuss SF’s recent spate of pedestrian crashes, the SFPD’s habit of blaming pedestrian victims, and what we can do to make our streets safer. For a preview of the show, you can check out Gross’s August discussion about research on “distracted walking.”

Update: The 10-minute interview is available for listening here.

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A 2014 Resolution for Greg Suhr and SFPD: Stop Blaming Pedestrian Victims

Despite the glimmer of hope brought by the arrest of two reckless drivers who killed pedestrians, the SFPD is still blaming people walking on the streets for getting hit by motorists.

Greg Suhr. Photo: SFPD

According to recent tweets and press statements from SF police, the reason San Franciscans are getting maimed and killed on the streets at an alarming rate has nothing to do with the people driving multi-ton motor vehicles into them. No, it’s because people aren’t walking in fear of drivers.

After a year in which 20 pedestrians were killed — a six-year high — the SFPD could remind drivers that they have a responsibility to keep other people safe on the streets by exercising caution. After all, motorists are piloting machines that can easily turn into weapons, and they hit nearly 1,000 people in 2012. The department’s data shows [PDF] that the five most common causes cited for those crashes are motorist violations, the top one being a failure to yield to pedestrians’ right-of-way in a crosswalk, accounting for 41 percent of all crashes.

Yet this tweet sent out today by the SFPD might as well have been typed out behind the wheel:

This kind of message is consistent with what the public has heard from SFPD Chief Greg Suhr, who, at every opportunity to issue a statement on street safety, has pointed the finger at people walking with cell phones. It’s as if the people who get slammed by drivers every day in the city are criminals.

This has to stop.

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SFPD Arrests Two Drivers After Holiday Spate of Pedestrian Deaths

Uber driver Syed Muzzafar’s SUV at Polk and Ellis Streets, where he ran over a family of three, killing Sophia Liu, 6. Muzzafar was later arrested. Photo: KTVU

In what could be a departure from the SF Police Department’s usual failure to penalize reckless driving, officers have arrested two of the five motorists who have killed people on San Francisco streets since December 20.

In the last hours of 2013, the year’s pedestrian death toll increased to 20. Both of the crashes in which the drivers were arrested took place on New Year’s Eve, and appear to be the fault of motorists who failed to yield to people in a crosswalk. Last year, none of the other sober drivers who killed pedestrians without fleeing the scene are known to have been charged.

Syed Muzzafar (left) and Giampaolo Boschetti (right) were both arrested for killing pedestrians on New Year’s Eve. Photos: SFPD

In one incident, at about 3:30 p.m., 86-year-old Zhen Guang Ng was run down in a crosswalk at Naples and Rolph Streets in Crocker-Amazon by 69-year-old Giampaolo Boschetti, who was booked on charges of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and failure to stop at a stop sign, according to police.

In a later crash at 8 p.m. in the Tenderloin, an Uber ride-share driver, 57-year-old Syed Muzzafar of Union City, ran over a mother and her two children in a crosswalk as he turned right at Polk and Ellis Streets, according to reports. All three were hospitalized, and six-year-old Sofia Liu died from her injuries. The SFPD said Muzzafar was arrested on charges of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence and failure to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk.

Before the arrests were announced, SFPD Traffic Company Commander Mikail Ali told the SF Examiner that he mainly attributed the recent rise in pedestrian deaths — a six-year high — to the increased walking and driving that comes with job growth. He also appeared, however, to take a more serious tone towards “grossly negligent” drivers than the department has conveyed in the past.

“We’re bringing more and more people into our city and with that is a challenge of managing and getting better behavior on the part of our drivers and in some cases on the part of pedestrians,” Ali told the Examiner. “When you behave in such a grossly negligent way, you’re going to find yourself unfortunately going to jail when you take someone’s life on the roadway.”

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With WalkFirst, SF Takes a Data-Driven Approach to Pedestrian Safety

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The city recently launched the WalkFirst program to lay a data-driven, participatory foundation for the effort to attain the main goal of its Pedestrian Strategy — cutting pedestrian injuries in half by 2021. In the coming months, staff from the SFMTA, the Planning Department, the Controller’s Office, and the Department of Public Health will field public input on dangerous streets and release new data illustrating the toll of pedestrian injuries and deaths.

Pedestrians use an unmarked crosswalk on Mission Street near Fifth. Photo: Aaron Bialick

Pedestrians use an unmarked crosswalk on Mission Street near Fifth. Photo: Aaron Bialick

To start, the new WalkFirst website has easy-to-use, interactive tools showing where most pedestrian crashes occur, the factors that cause them, and the kit of street design tools to reduce them. An online survey also allows people to weigh in on how pedestrian safety funding should be prioritized.

“For the first time, San Francisco will be investing in projects that are data-driven and focused on the most dangerous streets for pedestrians,” said Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Schneider. WalkFirst is “a step forward for using the data that we have to the make the biggest impact.”

The feedback from the website will inform a draft plan for safety improvements scheduled to come out in January, with adoption by the SFMTA Board expected in February. The plan will guide an expected $17 million in safety improvements over the next five years. “By combining rigorous technical analysis with significant community outreach, we will target our investments in the communities that need them the most,” SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin said in a statement.

The city’s goals include “upgrading” 70 miles of streets where injuries are most concentrated — 5 miles per year through 2021. Another aim is to extend pedestrian crossing times at 800 intersections — at least 160 annually. Schools and senior centers with high rates of pedestrian injuries will also be targeted for improvements, while the SFPD is expected to beef up its “Focus on the Five” effort to prioritize traffic enforcement efforts against the most dangerous violations at the most dangerous locations. (Not all SFPD captains appear to have gotten that memo.)

City agencies are also working on a report providing a fuller picture of the economic toll of pedestrian injuries, as well as the benefits of reducing them. As we reported in 2011, DPH and the University of California, SF estimated that the costs of medical treatment, emergency services, and other impacts of ped crashes add up to about $76 million annually. The WalkFirst report is expected to expand upon the economic ripple effects of traffic violence.

“Every life and injury is incredibly valuable, but from a decision-maker’s perspective, it’s also helpful to understand how much this is costing us to help make the case for the improvements that are needed,” said Schneider. “It costs way more to treat someone who’s been injured than it does to prevent the injuries in the first place.”

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Inner Sunset Organizers Take a Serious Look at Irving Street Public Plaza

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This concept for a plaza on Irving Street at 10th Avenue is intended as a “conversation starter” for the Irving Commons project. Image: Chris Duderstadt

The vision for a block-long pedestrian plaza on Irving Street in the Inner Sunset is taking the next step, with the launch of a community-based study. Dubbed “Irving Commons,” the plaza idea was warmly received by neighbors when it was presented two years ago at Inner Sunset Sundays, a street party organized four times per year on the block of Irving between Ninth and Tenth Avenues.

Chris Duderstadt, an organizer of the Irving Commons Project, at Inner Sunset Sundays last weekend. Photo: Inner Sunset Sundays via Facebook

The Irving Commons Project is being led by a group of local organizers, including Adam Greenfield, an organizer of Inner Sunset Sundays and president of the Inner Sunset Park Neighbors board. He emphasized that the study is not necessarily a campaign for the plaza, but simply an examination of its potential. “We started to realize that doing the occasional street event was so limited in what we could do, so the idea started coming out: What if this were a permanent gathering space?”

Taking cues from successful plazas in SF and other cities, organizers say the location appears to meet all the right qualifications. It’s right next to the bustling neighborhood hub of Ninth and Irving, where four transit lines, including the N-Judah — Muni’s busiest — either pass through or stop nearby. But the block itself has no transit lines or garage entrances. Meanwhile, it’s home to a variety of businesses and gets a lot of walking and biking traffic.

The vast majority of the block, however, is essentially a parking lot. Lincoln Way, one block over, serves as the main thruway for drivers.

“It’s definitely worth a study,” D5 Supervisor London Breed told Streetsblog at Inner Sunset Sundays last weekend. “I think it’s a great idea, and I love the fact that they’re coming together to talk about it, and they’re not trying force anything down anyone’s throat. They’re saying, we want to see what’s possible.”

The plaza study is intended to flesh out traffic impacts (with help from city planners, organizers hope) and the potential benefits to nearby businesses. It will also survey how people get to the street. Surveys done on similar commercial streets like Polk, Columbus, Geary in the Richmond, and Irving west of 19th Avenue have consistently found that the proportion of people arriving without cars is roughly around 80 percent.

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