One year ago yesterday, 62-year-old Wilbert Williams was sleeping in a tent next to a Highway 80 off-ramp at Fifth and Harrison Streets at about 1 a.m. when he was run over and killed by a drunk SUV driver who veered off the road.
“That morning, I woke up and got ready to see my husband,” wrote Williams’ widow, Yvette Williams, in a statement:
I turned on the television, and heard the story of a man hit by a car in his sleep. The car drove straight through the 5th Street offramp into an adjacent park. I saw my husband’s friends talking to the camera. As I searched for Wilbert on the screen, all I could see were his belongings — a sign written in his handwriting, his hat, his pillow and his wagon. My heart began to drop. I raced over to the scene as quickly as possible. As I was driven to the morgue — not the hospital — I prayed I would not find my husband… that it was someone else.
That day, my hopes were shattered and my life forever changed. I lost the love of my life. And on top of it, I faced prejudice.
Safe streets advocates held a memorial yesterday near the site where Williams was killed, highlighting the dangerous driving encouraged by the freeway ramps.
The Vision Zero Coalition, led by Walk SF and the SF Bicycle Coalition, called for urgent action from Caltrans, the state agency that controls highways and the city streets where freeway ramps touch down. With a decades-long legacy of gouging highways through cities, the agency still tends to disregard the burdens that grade-separated limited-access roads impose on urban neighborhoods like the South of Market District.
“Caltrans is notorious for focusing their engineering on facilitating vehicle traffic, and regularly misses the mark on safety goals,” said Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Ferrara in a statement. “Today, we’re asking Caltrans to stop with business as usual, and start building roads to protect the lives of people who travel on them.”
Caltrans recently pledged a new focus on safer streets, and took a first step by “piloting a pedestrian safety program, which uses injury data to inform investments,” according to the coalition’s press release. But “waiting for a potential program to help address the dangerous conditions freeways have created on our local streets is no longer an option,” said Ferrara. “Caltrans needs to prioritize safety and take steps to make corrective improvements now.”
The data collected by the SF Department of Public Health in recent years reinforces what’s already known by just about anyone who walks in SoMa: The city’s most dangerous streets are those designed for speed, and they’re the deadliest at freeway ramps.
“Freeway ramps in San Francisco are where fast moving traffic merging on and off freeways literally meets our local streets — and the people walking and biking along them,” said SFDPH’s Megan Wier, co-chair of the city’s Vision Zero Task Force. “This can be a fatal combination. Tracking these deaths and where they occur helps us to recognize patterns and opportunities to save lives.”