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Posts from the "Traffic Justice" Category

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In Cleveland, Trucker Went to Prison, Lost License for Killing Woman on Bike

So far, no charges have been filed against the truck driver who earlier this month turned right across the bike lane on Folsom Street, killing 24-year-old Amelie Le Moullac. SFPD investigators are reviewing the video of the crash that SFBC staffer Marc Caswell located and handed to them — a piece of evidence that police say will be delivered the District Attorney’s office. While we await action from the city’s law enforcement agencies, a similar case out of Cleveland illustrates that the justice system can, in fact, impose real consequences for lethally negligent driving.

Sylvia Bingham of San Rafael, seen here with her parents, was killed in 2009 by a trucker in Cleveland. The driver lost his license and was sentenced to three years in prison. Photo: Sylvia Bingham Fund

In September, 2009, 22-year-old Sylvia Bingham, originally of San Rafael, was run over by a truck driver who made a right turn on a street in Cleveland, where Bingham had recently moved. The driver, Herschel Roberts, was sentenced to three years in prison and lost his driver’s license for life. A memorial ride for Bingham was held in San Francisco soon after her death.

According to the Plain Dealer, Judge Daniel Gaul found Roberts guilty of aggravated vehicular homicide, based on reasoning that could apply in Le Moullac’s case:

Before he announced the verdict, Gaul outlined the case and said Roberts, who was driving the truck for Leff Electric, had likely passed Bingham on her bike seconds earlier and, by law, had a duty to look in the truck’s mirrors before turning right onto East 21st Street from Prospect Avenue, where he had stopped at a red light.

Bingham had stopped behind him and was about to ride through the intersection when Roberts, who had made a wide turn onto East 21st Street, struck her with the back tires of the 26,000-pound truck.

“He had to know she was there,” Gaul said. “He should have known she was there.”

Gaul also said that Bingham, an experienced bicyclist, would not have proceeded through the intersection had she known Roberts would be turning. Witnesses said at trial that they could not recall that Roberts had used his turn signal.

In a letter addressed to Mayor Ed Lee, Sylvia Bingham’s father, Stephen Bingham, writes that the trucker who killed Le Moullac should be held to the same standard:

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SFBC Finds What SFPD Didn’t: Video of Crash That Killed Amelie Le Moullac

Soon after an SFPD sergeant harassed bicycle advocates at a rally for safer streets at the site where Amelie Le Moullac was killed, SF Bicycle Coalition Program Manager Marc Caswell found what SFPD investigators claimed they couldn’t: two surveillance cameras facing the street, one of which had footage showing the truck driver running over Le Moullac in the bike lane at Folsom and Sixth Streets on August 14.

Amelie Le Moullac. Photo: Voce Communications

Worse yet, all five of the businesses Caswell surveyed said police had never contacted them looking for surveillance cameras or witnesses to the crash, according to the SFBC.

“Our own staff, who were obviously not trained in police enforcement, took 10 minutes walking around and found footage that may be used as evidence down the road,” said SFBC Executive Director Leah Shahum. “We really wonder whether police are discounting cases in which people biking and walking are hit and killed based on some bias among officers.”

“When it comes to instances in which bicyclists are hit on our streets,” Shahum added, “there seems to be an alarming level of blame-the-victim attitude.”

In a blog post, the SFBC noted that had Caswell not discovered the footage on that day, it would have likely been deleted before the next morning, because the camera footage is only stored for a week.

Micha Star Liberty, an attorney representing Le Moullac and her parents, said that even though the investigating officer told her earlier this week that the initial traffic collision report had been completed, the SFPD has not released it to her. In her experience representing crash victims, she said, that’s unusual.

“I personally went to 850 Bryant [the Hall of Justice] today in an attempt to pick up the completed report, and was told the family could not obtain a copy,” said Liberty. “We eagerly await the release of this information by the SFPD, and welcome any additional information from the community about Amelie’s tragic death.”

The footage was captured by a camera on the property of Golden Auto, a shop located on the corner of Folsom and Sixth. SFPD has not returned an email requesting the department to confirm that it received the video from Golden Auto, and asking why it wasn’t found by SFPD during its investigation.

The spot where Le Moullac was killed, looking roughly from the location of Golden Auto. Photo: Google Street View

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At Safe Streets Rally, SFPD Blocks Bike Lane to Make Point of Victim-Blaming

Update: Shahum reported that SFBC staffer Marc Caswell found a surveillance camera at an auto body shop which has footage of Le Moullac’s crash, even though SFPD has said no such footage could be found. More on that story later as it develops.

San Francisco Police Sergeant Richard Ernst apparently decided that the best way to make Folsom Street safer was to purposefully park his car in the bike lane this morning and force bicycle commuters into motor traffic.

Staff from the SF Bicycle Coalition were out at Folsom and Sixth Streets, handing out flyers calling for safety improvements on SoMa’s freeway-like streets in the wake of the death of Amelie Le Moullac, who was run over at the intersection last week by a truck driver who appeared to have made an illegal right-turn across the bike lane on to Sixth.

When Ernst arrived on the scene, he didn’t express sympathy for Le Moullac and other victims, or show support for safety improvements. Instead, he illegally parked his cruiser in the bike lane next to an empty parking space for up to 10 minutes, stating that he wanted to send a message to people on bicycles that the onus was on them to pass to the left of right-turning cars. He reportedly made no mention of widespread violations by drivers who turn across bike lanes instead of merging fully into them.

He said it was his “right” to be there.

According to SFBC Executive Director Leah Shahum, Ernst blamed all three victims who were killed by truck drivers in SoMa and the Mission this year, and refused to leave until she “understood that it was the bicyclist’s fault.”

“This was shocking to hear, as I was told just a day ago by [SFPD Traffic] Commander [Mikail] Ali that the case was still under investigation and no cause had yet been determined,” Shahum said in a written account of the incident. While Ernst’s car was in the bike lane, “a steady stream of people biking on Folsom St. were blocked and forced to make sudden and sometimes-dangerous veers into the travel lane, which was busy with fast-moving car traffic during the peak of morning rush hour.”

One observer, who declined to be named, called Ernst’s behavior “insane.”

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Gascón’s “Message” Evolves, But Motorists’ Victims Still Await Justice

At the press conference held yesterday for the sentencing of Chris Bucchere, it was clear that District Attorney George Gascón’s rhetoric concerning traffic safety has evolved somewhat, toward a more accurate reflection of the dangers on city streets. In a departure from the “message to cyclists” that was his focus last month, Gascón emphasized that “traffic safety is a shared responsibility,” regardless of one’s mode of transport:

Photo: ABC 7

I know there are people in the community who don’t like to hear this, they like to blame one group or another. Some people will say, well, it’s only the motorists, if they were to behave differently, we would be safer. Other people will say, well if only the pedestrians would pay attention, we wouldn’t have these problems. And certainly, others would say, if only the cyclists were more courteous, we would not have as many accidents.

Regardless of the role you’re playing at that moment, whether you’re walking, you’re driving, or you’re cycling, if you’re violating the rules of the road, fatalities are foreseeable. And if they’re foreseeable, they are preventable.

On the last note, Gascón absolutely hit the mark. But he still didn’t acknowledge the reality that people operating multi-ton motor vehicles have a far greater capacity to inflict injury upon more vulnerable users of the road, and that the vast majority of pedestrians are injured by motorists.

The SFPD reported this week that 423 people were hit by drivers in the first five months of this year. Last year, the total was nearly 1,000. Yet, as we’ve reported, drivers are rarely prosecuted for killing pedestrians and bicycle riders as long as they’re sober and stay on the scene.

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SF Still Waiting for DA Gascón to “Send a Message” to Deadly Drivers

At the press conference yesterday to announce the plea deal between prosecutors and Chris Bucchere in the death of Sutchi Hui, SF District Attorney George Gascón said that his “goal is to send a message” to cyclists.

At a press conference yesterday, Gascón said the prosecution of Chris Bucchere for the death of Sutchi Hui should be “a message to cyclists.” Image: ABC

“Cyclists need to understand that they’re held accountable to the same standard as anybody else operating any other type of vehicle, and I believe we have achieved that in this case,” Gascón said. ”Often, bicyclists feel they are above the law.”

But with charges brought against so few of the 27 drivers who have killed pedestrians in San Francisco since the beginning of last year, it’s hard to believe motorists are being held to the same standard that Gascón applied in this case – a standard that all victims of traffic violence deserve.

Have law enforcement officials ever prosecuted a driver with the stated intent of sending a message to all people who drive? Or made broad, sweeping statements about motorists’ view of the law?

As Streetsblog has continually reported, drivers rarely face charges for killing pedestrians unless they’re intoxicated or flee the scene. The Center for Investigative Reporting buttressed that conclusion with an extensive study in April, looking at pedestrian fatalities in the Bay Area’s five largest counties between 2007 and 2011:

Sixty percent of the 238 motorists found to be at fault or suspected of a crime faced no criminal charges during the five-year period, CIR found in its analysis of thousands of pages of police and court records from Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties.

When drivers did face criminal charges, punishment often was light. Licenses rarely were taken away. Of those charged, less than 60 percent had their driving privileges suspended or revoked for even one day, an automatic penalty in drunk driving arrests.

Forty percent of those convicted faced no more than a day in jail; 13 drivers were jailed for more than a year. By contrast, those charged in accidental shootings often serve lengthy jail terms, according to media reports.

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Taxi Driver Reza Eslaminia Wanted for Vehicular Manslaughter

SF District Attorney George Gascón put out a call today for the arrest of Ezra Eslaminia, the taxi driver who killed 39-year-old Edmund Capalla last August when he caused a car crash at Eddy and Larkin Streets.

Eslaminia's mugshot from the DA's Office.

According to the DA’s office, Eslaminia was charged with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter on March 29, but police have been unable to locate him.

“This case illustrates the dangers in our streets when drivers don’t obey the rules of the road,” Gascón said in a statement. “We are working with SFPD to bring this defendant to justice and we need the public’s help tracking this person down.”

From the DA’s news release:

On August 11, 2012 at around 6:52pm, Eslaminia, a taxi driver for Luxor Cab, was driving on Eddy Street approaching the Larkin Street intersection. He drove through the intersection on a red light speeding at around 35 miles per hour.  As he drove through the intersection, he drove around a bus coming down Larkin Street when his cab was struck by another vehicle on the passenger side in the rear quarter panel. The impact caused his cab to spin out of control clockwise through the intersection and striking a pedestrian in the crosswalk who was walking northbound on Larkin Street.

Eslaminia is being charged with one count of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter.  The District Attorney’s Office approached this as a felony case and reviewed evidence that included a video, diagrams, witness statements and a subsequent accident reconstructionist report. After a thorough review and evaluation of the case, prosecutors found there was insufficient evidence to meet the burden of proof necessary to show a pattern of gross negligence, which would warrant a felony.

As the Bay Citizen reported in August, Capalla was the father of three young children, and was celebrating his youngest daughter’s birthday on the day he was killed:

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On Bay Area News Stands: The Lack of Accountability for Drivers Who Kill

Photo: Bryan Goebel

Featured on the front page of today’s San Francisco Chronicle and ABC 7 is an epic exposé on the lack of legal accountability for drivers who kill pedestrians in the Bay Area. The piece is by Zusha Elinson, a journalist at the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Streetsblog readers are all too familiar with the fact that drivers rarely face charges for killing pedestrians if they were sober and stayed on the scene. It’s promising to see so much press attention on a big story that’s remained under the radar of the mainstream media for too long.

Elinson analyzed years of police records from five Bay Area counties, explored the legal and cultural hurdles of penalizing those responsible for pedestrian fatalities, shared personal stories from family members of crash victims, and even delved into the history of motorization in the 1920s:

Pedestrian deaths made up more than a quarter of traffic fatalities over the past decade in the two major metropolitan areas in the Bay Area, according to a 2011 report by national transit advocacy group Transportation for America – outpaced only by New York and Los Angeles. An in-depth Center for Investigative Reporting review of the 434 pedestrians killed from 2007 through 2011 in the five largest Bay Area counties found that, like Joe Molinaro, one-third were walking in a crosswalk when they were struck – three times the national average, according to the group’s report. And in 2011, local fatalities increased almost 40 percent from the previous year.

Yet, more often than not, the drivers responsible faced no serious consequences.

Sixty percent of the 238 motorists found to be at fault or suspected of a crime faced no criminal charges during the five-year period, CIR found in its analysis of thousands of pages of police and court records from Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Mateo and San Francisco counties.

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San Francisco Should Treat Cars Like the Weapons They Are

At the latest city hearing on pedestrian safety, Jane Kim, supervisor of District 6, which sees more pedestrian injuries than any other, contrasted the typical reaction to vehicular violence with the typical reaction to gun violence.

“We should treat cars, in many ways, like a weapon. It has the same impact,” said Kim, pointing out that at least one in five patients treated for traumatic injuries at SF hospitals are victims hit by drivers. “Even if intentional or not, when you are driving a car, you are driving a very dangerous weapon, and you can use it wisely, and use it safely, and not harm anyone, but you can really injure people severely and kill people.”

Yet when a driver kills or maims someone, chances are slim they’ll face any legal repercussions as long as they were sober and they didn’t flee the scene. Why are cars, which injure two to three people every day and killed as many as 20 last year, treated so differently than other weapons?

Of the nine people known to have been killed in San Francisco traffic so far this year, only two drivers are known to have been charged. David Morales was charged with murder after killing 26-year old Francisco Guitierrez and car passenger Silvia Tun Cun, 29, in a car crash when fleeing police after a shooting on New Year’s Day. Kieran Brewer is facing felony charges for killing Hanren Chang on her 17th birthday in a crosswalk while driving drunk on Sloat Boulevard.

Meanwhile, there’s no indication of any legal consequences for the drivers who killed Sunnyside Elementary custodian Becky Lee in a crosswalk last Wednesday, retired teacher Tania Madfes in a crosswalk in West Portal in late March, Eileen Barrett in a crosswalk at Lake Merced in February, Diana Sullivan on her bike on King Street in February, or Melissa Kitson, killed when she was apparently leaving her SoMa office in January.

So this seems to be the takeaway: If you want to kill someone in San Francisco and get away with it, use a car. Just don’t commit felonies or drink before you get behind the wheel.

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Deadly Holiday Season: Two Peds, One Passenger Killed In Two Weeks

Yuee Yao, 56 (left) was killed by a drunk driver on a Twin Peaks road on December 20 during a visit from China. In a separate crash yesterday in the Mission, an unidentified 29-year-old woman (right) was killed while riding in a car, as was 26-year-old Francisco Gutierrez (no photo available) while walking into a convenience store. Drivers have been charged in both cases.

Two pedestrians and one vehicle passenger lost their lives in separate car crashes in the last two weeks, marking the last of 19 pedestrian deaths in 2012, and the first two traffic fatalities of 2013.

David Morales seen here during his arrest following the crash. Photo via KTVU

Yesterday at approximately 8 a.m., 19-year-old driver David Morales of San Francisco was fleeing from police when he crashed into a car at South Van Ness Avenue and 21st Streets, killing an unidentified woman in the car and causing it to slam into a corner store and kill 26-year-old Francisco Gutierrez as he was walking in, according to SFPD spokesperson Gordon Shyy. The driver of the car that was hit was also hospitalized with life threatening injuries, but has since been upgraded to critical condition.

Morales, who was arrested at the scene of the crash (captured in a video here), allegedly fled a traffic stop after police received calls about a shooting at the Valencia Gardens housing complex at 14th and Guererro Streets, according to the SFPD. Morales was charged with two counts of murder for the fatalities caused by the crash, as well as multiple other charges in relation to the shooting.

The scene of the car crash at 21st St. and South Van Ness Ave. during a police chase on New Year's Day. Photo: Michael Macor, SFGate

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A Reality Check for the DA’s New Traffic Safety Campaign

One of these things is not like the others: District Attorney George Gascón's new ad campaign would have San Franciscans believe that driving into a crosswalk full of pedestrians is no more dangerous than crossing against a signal on foot or bike.

For a district attorney who wants to save lives on the streets, using data to target the most dangerous traffic behaviors should be a no-brainer.

But the new traffic safety ad campaign announced today by San Francisco DA George Gascón seems to use little application of crash data collected by his own former police department. The three versions of the ad, which feature the tagline “What’s the Rush?,” list fines for respective traffic violations and plead, “Let’s all work together to make our streets safe.”

It’s encouraging that the DA is bringing attention to the need for safer streets: As a press release from his office noted, “Among California cities, San Francisco has historically had the highest per capita vehicle-pedestrian injury collision rate.” In 2011, 28 people were killed on San Francisco streets: 17 pedestrians, three bicyclists, and eight people in motor vehicles.

But not only do but the ads fail to target the most common causes of injuries and deaths on San Francisco streets — by seeming to equate plowing through pedestrians in a crosswalk with crossing against a light on bike or foot, they downplay the disproportionately greater risk inherent in driving a motor vehicle.

Rather than emphasize fines, a more effective approach for the campaign might be to list the number of people injured or killed by such violations each year. Fortunately, that data is summarized in the SF Municipal Transportation Agency’s 2010-2011 Traffic Collision Report [PDF], the most recent one available.

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