Media Coverage of Pedestrian Deaths Misses the Big Story

Two men were killed by drivers in San Francisco yesterday, but only one of those fatalities made national headlines.

The media often doesn't give due attention to the most frequent cause of traffic injury on SF streets: pedestrian victims hit by car drivers. Photo: ##http://blogs.sfweekly.com/thesnitch/2011/04/masonic_red_light_jogger.php##Matt Smith, SF Weekly##

The crashes were strikingly similar: Both victims were males in their 40s who were reportedly crossing mid-block, and both drivers were apparently sober and stayed at the scene.

But while the death of 45-year-old Thomas Ferguson — hit by a private auto driver on Lombard Street near Van Ness Avenue — only appeared in a handful of local media outlets, the death of the unidentified man hit by a Muni bus driver at Hayes and Fillmore Streets was picked up by the Associated Press. The wire report broadcast the news of a transit vehicle driver killing a pedestrian in publications across the country. So far, in the SF press, the Muni collision has generated about twice as many stories as the Ferguson case.

Yet the statistics show that relatively few pedestrians in San Francisco are killed by Muni drivers — far and away, most are killed by drivers of private cars. Of the 13 pedestrians killed in 2011, two were hit by buses, according to SFPD data, and all but one of the others by auto drivers. About three pedestrians are injured in San Francisco traffic every single day — the vast majority by cars.

All pedestrian deaths are preventable, and in order to save lives we have to understand what causes car-pedestrian fatalities, then take steps to prevent them. Yet the media seldom seeks out and publishes the details of these cases.

Given past coverage of similar cases, we probably won’t see follow-up reports about what caused Ferguson’s death. A vague description from Bay City News labeled Ferguson a jaywalker “apparently walking outside of the crosswalk” when he was “struck by a passing vehicle.” There was no mention of the driver’s speed. (The driver was only mentioned to note that he or she was “very cooperative.”)

It was last July when a media firestorm followed the case of Randolph Ang, the first bicyclist to kill a pedestrian in the Bay Area in at least five years. Just two weeks ago, Ang’s sentencing received an inordinate amount of coverage compared to the more than a dozen car-ped deaths each year. Seldom do San Franciscans learn what sentence, if any, a fatally reckless driver receives. And while the Ang case was followed by calls in the local press for a crackdown on bicycle riders, it’s hard to imagine that Ferguson’s death or the other pedestrian deaths caused by drivers this year will result in calls for a crackdown on drivers.

Whether it’s simply because rare news grabs headlines, or because most editors and reporters are immersed in a car-centric culture that won’t face up to the greatest dangers on our streets, our local media is failing to convey vital information about the dangers faced by people walking in San Francisco.

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