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Posts from the Traffic Justice Category


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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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.


SFPD Charges Trucker Who Killed Rose Kelly, 61, in Richmond Crosswalk

33rd Avenue at Cabrillo Street in the Outer Richmond. Photo: Google Street View

33rd Avenue at Cabrillo Street in the Outer Richmond. Photo: Google Street View

Updated 6/22 with the name of the driver.

The SFPD has filed misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charges against the truck driver who killed 61-year-old Rose Kelly in a crosswalk in the Outer Richmond yesterday afternoon. It’s now up to District Attorney George Gascón to follow through with the prosecution.

Kelly was walking east in a crosswalk on Cabrillo Street at 33rd Avenue when she was hit by a GMC truck driver at 1:21 p.m, SFPD told the SF Chronicle and Bay City NewsKelly died from chest and head injuries at SF General Hospital.

Kelly was killed at an intersection with four-way stop signs, where pedestrians always have the right-of-way in a crosswalk. [Update] SFPD officials confirmed that the charges were filed against the driver, Bing Zuo Wu, a 62-year-old SF resident.

Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Ferrara said the organization “sends our regards to the family and friends who are mourning the loss of Rose Kelly, who was killed by a large vehicle driver who failed to yield.”

“It’s a stark reminder that large vehicles result in more severe crashes than smaller vehicles,” Ferrara noted, pointing out that the SFMTA is in “the final stages of developing a large vehicle training curriculum” announced in February. “It’s in the best interest of companies that use large vehicles to require that all employees take this training.”

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Trucker Who Killed Amelie Le Moullac Deemed “Negligent” in Civil Suit

A civil jury has determined that a truck driver was negligent when he killed Amelie Le Moullac as she rode her bike at Folsom and Sixth Streets in August 2013, KQED’s Bryan Goebel (Streetsblog SF’s first editor) reported today:

Amelie Le Moullac. Photo: Voce Communications

A San Francisco Superior Court jury has found the driver of a big rig truck negligent for striking and killing a 24-year-old woman who was bicycling to Caltrain in the city’s South of Market.

Amelie Le Moullac’s family had sought $20 million in damages from the driver, Gilberto Alcantar, 47, and Milpitas-based Daylight Foods. The jury awarded the family $4 million, and also found Daylight Foods legally responsible for the August 2013 crash at 6th and Folsom streets.

“This was not a mere accident, and I’m relieved to hear from the jury that something wrong was done, and I’m very sorry that the police missed that,” Denis Le Moullac, Amelie’s father, told KQED. “One can only be relieved to hear that our daughter had done nothing wrong. This is not really something that deeply consoles us, but it satisfies us.”

The finding that Le Moullac was not at fault for her own death reinforces the finding of SFPD investigators after footage of the crash was presented to them by Marc Caswell, then a staffer for the SF Bicycle Coalition, who tracked down the video himself after a memorial and rally held at the scene of the crash. Earlier that day, SFPD Sergeant Richard Ernst had parked in the bike lane to make a point of blaming Le Moullac for her own death.

“After we held the memorial for Ms. Le Moullac, and Sergeant Ernst had acted so outrageously, we were standing on the corner cleaning up when I had a pang of doubt that the SFPD had treated this case as seriously as I would have hoped they would,” Caswell recalled. “So, I decided to just ask the businesses — and I am so honored that my small action led to some amount of resolution for the Le Moullac family from this terrible injustice.”

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In Civil Court, Specious Claims Used to Defend Trucker Who Killed Le Moullac

The attorney representing the truck driver who killed Amelie Le Moullac while she was riding her bike now says she was to blame because she was wearing earbuds at the time.

Amelie Le Moullac. Photo: Voce Communications

Even though the SFPD clearly faulted Gilberto Alcantar for killing Le Moullac at Folsom and Sixth Streets in August 2013, District Attorney George Gascon declined to file charges, and the trucking company that employed Alcantar is fighting a wrongful death lawsuit in civil court.

As reported by KQED’s Bryan Goebel (Streetsblog SF’s first editor), the attorney defending Alcantar and Daylight Foods, his employer, is using the same victim-blaming false claims that an SFPD sergeant made. The defense attorney also asserted that Le Moullac was to blame for her own death because she was biking with earbuds, even though a witness countered that claim:

In his opening statements, Alcantar’s attorney, Brent Anderson, alleged Le Moullac was wearing earbuds and was distracted. A photo displayed in court showed a piece of Le Moullac’s helmet found at the scene tangled in what Alcantar’s attorney said were earbuds.

That allegation was disputed by [a] Muni driver, who testified the helmet was “intact” and Le Moullac did not have any buds in her ears.

Anderson claimed the truck slowed to 7 mph before turning onto Sixth Street, and alleged Le Moullac was riding “two times as fast” and “caught the truck, and was passing it on the right, while the truck was making a right.”

“Those were the choices that she made,” Anderson told jurors. “We think it is unfair to blame Mr. Alcantar for this accident.”

Anderson said bicyclists have an “obligation” to pass on the left of a right-turning vehicle, which is good safety advice but not actually the law, according to the California Vehicle Code.

Once again, the SFPD already determined that Alcantar made an illegal right turn in front of Le Moullac — a clear violation of the law. The Le Moullac family’s attorney also claimed Alcantar didn’t use a turn signal, though Anderson disputed that.

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Safe Streets Advocates: “Enough is Enough” — Time to End Traffic Violence

Miles Epstein stands in the crosswalk where Pricila Moreto was killed outside City Hall. Photo: Aaron Bialick

The recent spate of drivers killing or maiming pedestrians has both City Hall leaders and SF agencies running out of excuses for their snail’s-pace implementation of measures that would make city streets safer.

At a rally on Friday, a coalition of safe streets advocates chanted, “Enough is enough.” The 28 people killed in crashes on city streets this year, 18 of them pedestrians, puts SF on pace to surpass last year’s number of fatalities.

At the event, 28 pairs of white shoes were placed on City Hall’s steps to represent this year’s deaths.

SF Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Leah Shahum pointed out that, with about three people hit by cars in SF every day, the shoes represent only a tiny fraction of injury victims whose lives are often ruined. “There are more than 100 times this many people injured,” she said. “People with broken limbs, with irreversible trauma and damage to their bodies.”

“For every person involved in gun violence in San Francisco, there are five people who are hit by cars,” said Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Schneider. “We don’t call this violence for some reason, but cars are also weapons. They take people’s lives, they take people’s limbs.”

Those killed or seriously injured by drivers on SF’s streets are disproportionately likely to be minorities, seniors, and people with disabilities. Over half of those killed this year were seniors — including 68-year-old Priscila “Precy” Moreto, who was killed on October 23 in the crosswalk right in front of the City Hall steps where the rally was held. One man at the event, Miles Epstein, held a sign reading, “Hey City Hall, there is blood in your crosswalk.”

Friday’s rally was not just a call to action, but also a memorial for victims like Moreto, a Filipino-American woman who was run over by a tour trolley driver who was apparently distracted while narrating to passengers. Rudy Asercion, executive director of the National Federation of Filipino American Association of SF, called on the Board of Supervisors to push for legal changes to ban tour drivers from narrating at the same time.

The event was far from the first pedestrian safety rally in SF. Pi Ra of the Senior and Disability Action Network, who has been active in pedestrian safety advocacy since 2000, said pedestrian safety advocates “get a sugar high” every few years when calling for action. Each time, city leaders provide lip service, but lasting change never seems to result.

The typical excuse, Ra said, is that there’s no funding for safer streets, despite the vast economic toll of traffic injuries — $15 million per year just for medical treatment, according to a 2011 report from the SF Department of Public Health. Traffic injuries account for one-fourth of all traumatic injuries in the city.

“We need action. We don’t need more town hall meetings. We don’t need any more plans,” said Ra. “What about the cost of our lives? What about the costs around our injuries? That’s costing far more than the little bit of money we’re asking for to make it safe for everybody.”

“We have the funding, and we have the political will,” said Shahum. “What’s missing? It’s the action.”

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SFPD Arrests Driver for Killing Pui Fong Yim, 78, at Stockton and Sacramento

Image: CBS 5

SFPD arrested an SUV driver, 40-year-old Calixto Dilinila, for killing 78-year-old Pui Fong Yim Lee in a crosswalk Saturday at Stockton and Sacramento Streets, outside the Stockton tunnel.

Calixto Dilinila. Photo: SFPD

Witnesses told CBS 5 that Dilinila was making a left turn from Sacramento onto Stockton when he ran Yim Lee over, as she made her way across Stockton during what family members described as her routine daily walk. Dilinila was arrested for misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter and for failing to yield to a pedestrian.

In January, SFPD’s Traffic Company Commander said a policy change initiated in 2013 allows officers to arrest drivers in fatal crashes where there appears to be “probable cause.” This marked a departure from SFPD’s earlier failure to penalize reckless driving when drivers were neither intoxicated nor fled the scene.

Ever since that policy change, and beginning with two arrests in separate crashes on December 31, four drivers (including Dililina) have been arrested for killing a pedestrian while sober and while also staying on the scene. Out of the 13 pedestrian deaths this year, Dililina is the second such arrestee.

Police Captain David Lazar told reporters that officers are still investigating Saturday’s crash. “We’re going to make a determination as to what signal lights were green, and if there was a red hand up,” he told the SF Chronicle. “On some of the blocks on Stockton Street, the light may be green, but the hand is up.”

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Four CA Hit-and-Run Bills Await Governor Brown’s Signature

Hit-and-runs have been a problem in California for a long time. In this 1973 publicity still, Adam 12’s fictional television LAPD officers investigate a hit-and-run. Four bills to curb these crimes await Governor Brown’s approval. Photo: Wikipedia

Four bills targeting hit-and-run crimes in California await Governor Jerry Brown’s signature, including two from Assemblymember Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles), who has made hit-and-runs a focus this year. The bills have passed both houses of the California legislature and are awaiting the governor’s signature.

One, a late addition to the legislative calendar (A.B. 47), would allow law enforcement authorities to broadcast information about vehicles suspected of being involved in a hit-and-run collision using the existing “Amber” alert system, which notifies the public about child abductions via changeable message signs on freeways across the state.

The system is strictly limited to avoid its overuse, and the Senate made amendments to the bill to further tightened restrictions. The new “Yellow” alerts would only be allowed when a hit-and-run has caused a serious injury or death. There has to be at least a partial description of the vehicle and its license plate available, and there must be a chance that making the information public will help catch the suspect and protect the public from further harm.

Another Gatto bill, A.B. 1532, would require an automatic six-month license suspension for anyone convicted of a hit-and-run collision in which a person was hit. Currently, consequences for leaving the scene of a crash are light if the victim has less than serious injuries, but someone who drives away can claim not to know how badly the victim was hurt. With this law, anyone who drives away and gets caught will face more serious consequences just for the act of leaving.

Meanwhile, the bill from Assemblymember Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), A.B. 2673, which would remove the possibility of a civil compromise in the case of a hit-and-run conviction, has also passed both houses of the legislature and is awaiting the governor’s signature.

Current law allows someone convicted of a hit-and-run to avoid criminal prosecution if they come to an agreement with the victim of the collision, and this bill removes that possibility.

Yet another bill, A.B. 2337 from Assemblymember Eric Linder (R-Corona), would extend the period of time that a driver’s license is suspended for a hit-and-run conviction from one to two years. This would apply to anyone caught and convicted of a hit-and-run that caused the death or serious injury of another person.

If stiffer penalties can make people think twice about leaving the scene of a crash, then these bills may well help reduce the incidence of hit-and-runs. As long as people believe they can escape the consequences, however, the heavier penalties may not act as a deterrent. But combined with a new system that will broadcast a car’s description and license plate for all to see, it will be more difficult to escape.

As Assemblymember Gatto said, “Together, these bills will empower the public to help us catch hit-and-run drivers before they can cover up the evidence of their crimes and ensure the perpetrators of these cowardly acts think twice before leaving fellow citizens dying on the side of the road.”


Court Applies Reckless Driving to Bikes. When Will Gascón Apply it to Cars?

A California state appeals court ruled last week that “reckless driving” can be applied to people on bicycles who kill or injure others, just as it’s applied to people driving, as the SF Chronicle reported. No one, including bicycle advocates, seems to dispute that full accountability should be brought to anyone who commit acts of traffic violence — but the reality is, drivers who maim and kill rarely ever face penalties.

DA George Gascón in a Streetfilm in 2010, when he went on a bike ride with advocates. He was the SFPD chief at the time.

There are countless such examples. One of the most egregious is the case of 29-year-old Kieran Brewer, who killed 17-year-old Hanren Chang in a crosswalk on Sloat Boulevard while he drove drunk, and was sentenced to just six months in prison. Or consider Gilberto Alcantar, who will face no charges for illegally turning his truck across a bike lane and killing 24-year-old Amelie Le Moullac at Sixth and Folsom Streets. SF District Attorney George Gascón claims that despite video of the crash, prosecutors can’t make an adequate case to file charges.

“Prosecution of deadly traffic crashes needs to be investigated, and prosecuted, to the fullest extent in order to reflect the severity of traffic crimes,” said Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Schneider. “We also need to ensure fair and equal enforcement across modes, which historically had not happened.”

As the Center for Investigative Reporting reported last year, 60 percent of the 238 motorists “found to be at fault or suspected of a crime faced no criminal charges” between 2006 and 2011 in five Bay Area counties:

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CA Assembly Bill Would Create Alert System For Hit-and-Run Crashes

Police in Orange in Southern California released this picture of a truck driven by a hit-and-run perpetrator two weeks ago. With AB 47, there would be a much higher chance drivers like this one are caught. Photo: NBC4

It is too common a story. A family is crossing the street or some friends are bicycling along when a negligent car driver changes their lives forever. While the victims lie wounded in the street, the driver flees and is never heard from again. Advocates for safe streets, victims of hit-and-run crashes, and their friends and family say that there are not enough resources or legal protections for victims.

Asm. Gatto

Assemblymember Mike Gatto

One California Assemblymember has vowed to change that.

Assembly Bill 47, a heavily amended version of legislation re-introduced this week by Assemblymember Mike Gatto (D-LA), would create a statewide “yellow alert system” modeled after the Medina Alert system, which was created in Denver but is now a statewide program in Colorado.

The system would require that Caltrans and other highway owners use electronic signage, radio, and other available media to broadcast information about vehicles suspected in hit-and-run crashes. Unlike alerts issued over TV news, the yellow alerts would enlist drivers and other road users to spot hit- and-run drivers right away.

Basically, the bill would create an “Amber Alert” system similar to what is used when a child is kidnapped to help catch hit-and-run drivers.

“These are crimes which, by their nature, occur at a high rate of speed and with clear means for fleeing the scene,” said Gatto.  “The public is almost always needed to catch those who leave fellow citizens dying on the side of the road, and AB 47 will allow us to do so promptly, before the perpetrator can get away and cover up the evidence.”

Last year, Gatto authored AB 184, which doubled the statute of limitations on prosecuting hit-and-run drivers.  This year, he also introduced AB 1532, which would require mandatory license suspension for anyone convicted of a hit-and-run involving another person.

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