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: ## 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.

  • How many cars are on the road versus Muni vehicles?

  • thielges

    You’ve made an important observation Aaron.  The public likes to hear about transit’s faults but doesn’t want to hear about their own faults.  So transit drivers are vilified but when an auto driver kills someone its just another oopsie.  Another effect that continues to keep people in their cars.

    I’ve noticed that professional drivers (truck drivers, bus drivers, police, ambulance staff, etc.) seem to be more … um … professional in their driving compared to the rest of us amateurs behind the wheel of our cars.  The only exception seems to be concrete and those double-trailer earth moving trucks that serve construction sites,  For some reason those folks drive like maniacs, as if they’re being paid by the load.

  • SFresident

    Your article serves no real point. You seem to complain that “rare news” grabs headlines. You’re not happy cause your definition of “news” is narrowly defined. And then you spread this very broad bias that MOST editors and reports are immersed in car centric culture. Seriously? How do you know that.

    And why shouldn’t coverage about a cyclist killing a pedestrian garner large coverage? This is important news.

    You would do well to stop hating cars and defining cars as “evil” and discuss, at least once in a while, the insane, dangerous and illegal habits of many cyclists on our San Francisco streets.

  • Anonymous

    @feefbdf37653f0bdc7a056fc49367712:disqus  wrote: ” And then you spread this very broad bias that MOST editors and reports
    are immersed in car centric culture. Seriously? How do you know that.”

    Are you kidding? Do *you* not know that? Do the 85% of people in this country who commute by private auto and the less than 1% of people who ride a bike for transit not convince you that we live in a car-centric culture? How about the complete lack of bike facilities, even in the top cities for bicycling in the US? And as Aaron pointed out in the article, the amount of media attention pedestrian deaths due to cars versus those due to bicycles receives is highly skewed so that they disproportionately focus on the latter. I don’t understand how you can possible argue against somebody pointing out how our society is biased towards a car-centric culture. You might want to argue that that bias is acceptable (thought I disagree), but you certainly can’t argue that we live in a car-centric culture.

  • Fran Taylor

    Several years ago, the media frenzy that followed local dog mauling deaths prompted me to write a piece comparing it with the utter indifference that pedestrian deaths inspires. Plus ca change…

  • SFresident

    And, of course, jd_x didn’t really read what I said. It was the BROAD statement made in the title article calling most reporters and editors biased toward our car centric culture. Guess what? We are and will continue to ALWAYS be a car centric culture. Guess what? probably only about .001 of 1% of all people use a bike to get to work or get around. Biking works, even in SF for a tiny tiny portion of citizens.

    But, IMO, cyclists have not yet learned how to ride safely and with courtesy on our public streets, that are meant for cars and bikes. They remain angry at cars, and in fact, to some pedestrians who seem to “get in their way” when we enter a crosswalk legally.

    And I maintain that there is very little discussion or reporting on that issue, because it is extremely embarrassing and sensitive to discuss among the cycling community.

  • ReeD

    As much as I hate the sensationalism and vilification of bikers and transit, I have to agree with Jonah on this one…

    Of course, either way, this should be reduced.

  • Gggfish

    please don’t post drunk!

  • John Murphy

    SFResident – I have no problem with and am not angry at cars. They are inanimate objects. I’m pretty sure you are aware of this, yet you post a screed that people are ANGRY AT CARS”

    It’s the incompetent drivers that drive me batty. If you do not comprehend that our drivers lack the basic skill set to safely operate their vehicles, you are worshipping at the church of the ostrich

  • Aaron Bialick

    When people on bicycles start comprising anything remotely close to a substantial portion of pedestrian injuries and fatalities, I assure you we will be the first on it.

  • Anonymous

    i think it’d be cool to set out a zero-serious injuries or deaths policy — it makes sense intuitively, and it could sell politically. every death becomes serious — nobody should be maimed or kill just to move around the city. right now, we still see transpo-related deaths as inevitable, but this is bs. we accept because we want to.

  • Aaron Bialick

    The angle here is not so much about the danger posed by an individual street user (like a Muni or car driver), but looking from the pedestrian’s standpoint: What is the greatest danger we face when we step outside, and is that being represented realistically in the media? Right now, the vast majority of pedestrian crashes are with car drivers, and each of those crashes aren’t getting the amount of attention they deserve.

  • Greg R

    Thank you for brining this glaring hypocrisy to light Aaron.

  • TL

    Jonah’s point misses the point. If you’re only worried about getting hit by buses, you’re missing 12 out of 13 chances to get yourself killed on the road.

  • Anonymous

    I think it is extremely safe to assume that in the USA the vast majority of workers in any profession (with the possible exception of bike shop employees and city planners) are making most of their trips by car. It is simply a statistical likelihood, no scientific survey required. 

    I believe what Aaron was trying to get across was that it is okay to report on unusual news, but it should be put in a statistically factual context and be corrected for any widespread, existing bias so the reader understands the real-world level of significance. It would be like if I was doing a story on a parachute failure, to be fair to the skydiving industry I might want to note that fatalities are uncommon and that one has a greater chance of being struck by lightning. 

    It is a reporter’s duty to try understand their own context and bias, but car culture has become so ingrained in this country that many people find it impossible to remove themselves from it and report objectively. Case in point: requesting objective reporting on driver vs. cyclist faulted deaths does not equate to “defining cars as evil”. Cars are objects and have no motives or morality, but the people who use them carelessly or dangerously do. It is okay to report on this as well, especially since it has much factual significance to the public well being.

  • Davistrain

    They probably ARE paid by the load.

  • SFresident

    And of course, as soon as someone such as myself, who posts a careful and courteous opinion about cycling/cars/streets, which may differ radically from other opinions here, the next reply to me is “please don’t post drunk”. Does that statement help the discussion? Does that statement promote intelligence? And, why would the editor even allow that statement? 

    And to John Murphy: Have you seen how many cyclists ride “angry” thru our streets, at the moments notice giving the finger to a pedestrian or driver who does something to irritate them or perhaps cause them to slow down and obey the law? such as stopping at stop signs and traffic lights and not running me over when I legally enter the crosswalk.

    Unfortunately, any discussion about this type of behavior remains deeply closeted and forbidden, due to the embarrassment and self-entitlement of most (not all) cyclists.

  • mikesonn

    “who posts a careful and courteous opinion ”


    “Guess what? probably only about .001 of 1% of all people use a bike to get to work or get around.”

  •  We have a disagreement on the level of courtesy you are bringing to the discussion. Feels to me like you just gave me the finger.

  • SFresident

    Oh, Dear Dear Mr. Murphy. so kind of you to point out how your feelings were hurt.And how, of course, once again, you re-directed the conversation to you, not to to the subject at hand.

  • peternatural

    99.999% of drivers break the law during every single outing
    in their car. They speed, habitually roll through stop signs and red lights
    (while turning right), fail to signal when changing lanes, pass on the
    right, park illegally and block sidewalks and crosswalks, feed meters,
    talk on the phone with no hands-free device, and on and on. As a result,
    there are an astounding 800 injury accidents involving pedestrians each
    year in San Francisco, which works out to 2-3 per day — day in and day out.

    IMO, motorists have not yet learned how to drive safely and with
    courtesy on our public streets. They
    remain angry at anyone who gets in their way, especially pedestrians who dare to try to cross the street legally in a crosswalk.

    And I maintain that there is very little discussion or reporting on
    this issue, because it is extremely embarrassing and sensitive to
    discuss among the motoring community.

    FTFY 😉

  • mikesonn

    Maybe the reply button is really difficult on DISQUS…

  • 94103er

    There’s very little careful or courteous (or remotely good rhetoric, for that matter) about writing random words in ALL CAPS to make some sort of point.

    Also, have *you* seen how many drivers ride “angry” through our streets, at a moment’s notice giving the finger, honking, or revving the engine to annoy a fellow driver/cyclist/pedestrian who does something to irritate them or perhaps cause them to slow down and obey the law? (Or, my very very favorite, honking in retaliation to a fellow driver honking at them for doing something dangerous.)

    “Any discussion about this type of behavior remains deeply closeted and forbidden…”

    Except where it hides in plain sight, right here on Streetsblog.

  • Guest

    You complain about a broad but likely factual statement made regarding the transportation habits of reporters as a whole, then in the very next paragraph you make the following broad but unsupported statement regarding people who may choose to ride a bicycle, as a whole: “cyclists have not yet learned how to ride safely and with courtesy on our public streets”.
    Also, you make a statement about courtesy after someone makes fun of you, then proceed to make fun of another commenter who makes a statement about your lack of courtesy: “Oh, Dear Dear Mr. Murphy. so kind of you to point out how your feelings were hurt.”Many of the people who read and comment on this blog regularly do so because they are interested in getting to the bottom of our transportation safety and sustainability issues, and in learning about real-world solutions as they are being implemented in similar cities around the world. Opinions differ widely, but the discourse usually remains civil and on-topic until someone with a bad case of cognitive dissonance chimes in.

    This story is about how pedestrian fatalities caused by people driving private automobiles are statistically underreported, thus taking the spotlight off of an important public safety issue. If you would like to get the conversation back on track by saying something meaningful on this topic please be my guest.

  • SFresident

    Actually, I did give Murphy the proverbial finger. Like he and other cyclists give to car drivers and pedestrians here in SF on an hourly and daily basis.

    Valencia St. is ground zero for giving the finger to anyone who dares get in the way of a cyclist. Don’t forget. Differing opinions vary widely.

  • Actually, I did give Murphy the proverbial finger.

    No kidding. But we knew that. You’re just a troll. Unfortunately for your “worldview” though the Chronicle may not know that, City Hall does.

    The United States is ground zero for giving the finger to anyone who dares get in the way of a motorist.

  • I wonder if the 65 year old from the Castro / Market accident today thinks there’s too much focus on Bike/Ped collisions.

  • mikesonn

    I wonder if the 5+ people hit by drivers, bus drivers, or cyclists (this week alone) think there needs to me more coverage all around (which is the point of this column).

  • Still playing the blame game.

  • mikesonn

    Still missing the point.

  • Anonymous

    @facebook-518248622:disqus No, it’s not playing the blame game. This article isn’t about any one incident but about general *policy*. You are speaking in anecdotes. For every one person who was injured by a cyclists who you have pointed out probably isn’t happy about what happened, I can find hundreds who were injured by cars and are pissed that nobody is looking out for them and reporting their story and how dangerous cars are to pedestrians.

    Nobody is saying anybody’s life — be they pedestrian, cyclist, or motorists — is expendable. That is a separate issue. The issue here is how as a society we can most effectively save pedestrians from injury or death. And the clear answer is: reduce their exposure to motorists. Yet this is rarely mentioned in the media. That is the point of this article.

  • How is exposing the old guy who got hit in the castro to less cars making him any safer? I’m sorry…it’s still apples and oranges.

  • Anonymous

    @facebook-518248622:disqus We’re not talking about the “old guy” (though you may be). Again, we’re talking about policy, how the media covers pedestrian accidents in *general* (not any one single accident, but the sum of all the parts, ie, the big picture the media presents). We can’t change what happened to him, but we can certainly prevent the injury to others in the future by reducing everyone’s exposure to cars. But if you want to talk anecdotes, I’m sure the “old guy” would be happy to hear that people are trying to prevent pedestrians from getting in the future by attacking the number one (by far) source of their troubles: cars.

  • mikesonn

    @jd_x:disqus It’s not worth it. Jason has an agenda/view point/whatever and he will take nothing less than all cyclists taking full responsibility for the actions of all other cyclists. And until all cyclists take said responsibility, all cyclists are just “playing the blame game.”

  • kleht

    It’s true that the media is picking up on pedestrian deaths caused by busses and bicyclists and not so much relating to those caused by other vehicles, especially autos. However, there has been so much said in the past about deaths caused by cars that it’s really not news anymore and has not been for some time. But at the same time there has been a lot of attention given over time to that fact. Decisions are continually being made at the city and state levels on what changes need to be made regarding this problem.

    Yesterday, in the SF Chronicle, there was a similar statement made by the president of the SF Bicycle Coalition that too much attention has been given to the fact that a pedestrian was killed by a bicycle rider running a red light. She also said that 96% of the accidents involving pedestrians were with the autos. Was she correct in objecting? Perhaps.

    However, the article also indicated that about 3.5% of travel in San Francisco is by bicycle. If we allow about the same percentage for travel by bus that would leave about 93% travel is by auto (I don’t know the actual rate). This year, if deaths by bicycle was 1 and deaths by autos was 11, which was so stated in the article, then the pedestrian death rate by bicycle could be higher than that involving autos. Do the math and see if I’m wrong.

    1 death results from 3.5% bicycle use rate. Then the death rate involving autos would be about 1 divided by 3.5 times 93 equals 26 deaths. But the actual deaths reported is 11. Now this is not a scientific study, but if the analysis holds up, then perhaps the media is not necessarily overdoing the unusual coverage.

  • Aaron Bialick

    62 percent of trips are by car in San Francisco.

  • Anonymous

    @8b187830bf5bbe34fa88365b0f8a1e8d:disqus Here’s a stab at what you’re trying to do but using Aaron’s more accurate number:

    18 injuries/year to pedestrians from bicyclists
    800 injuries/year to pedestrians from cars

    3.5% trips by bike
    62% trips by car

    3.5% goes into 62% approximately 18 times. So there are 18 times as many trips by car as by bike. If 3.5% cause 18 injuries, then assuming that injury rate stayed the same, then 62% would cause 18*18 = 324 injuries/year. Still less than half of the 800 cars cause.

    For deaths, somewhere between 25-30 pedestrians are killed by cars per year ( Bicycling, we’ve had a couple in the past 5 years. So let’s say 25 deaths per year due to cars, and 0.5 per year due to bicycles. Using the same mode share percentages before, you have 0.5 x 18 = 9, meaning there would be 9 deaths per year from bicycles if we extrapolated out to assume they had a 62% mode share.

    However, these numbers are still biased high because autos have a huge advantage over bicycles: the infrastructure is designed for them and people are much more used to looking for them. As more bicycle infrastructure is built and more people cycle which in turn means everybody gets used to looking for bicycles, then the number will drop even more. Why? Because bicycles are inherently safer than cars since they weigh orders of magnitude less, travel several times slower, have no assisted power (which allows for sudden acceleration, something you can’t do under your own power), and their operators do not have their senses dulled. There’s pretty much no way you can argue that bicycles aren’t inherently safer to not just pedestrians, but other cyclists and motorists.

  • Aaron Bialick

    @jd_x:disqus  I should point out a couple of things that actually extrapolate your point further:

    – The two bicycle-pedestrian deaths in at least six years, immediately, we only have the Bay Citizen’s “Bike Accident Tracker” to go by, and that only goes back as far as the start as 2005, and there are no other deaths since then. Beyond that, I nor any other media I’ve seen has investigated when the last time it’s happened was. A knowledgeable colleague of mine told me he thinks Randolph Ang’s case could even be the first time it’s ever happened in the city. Finding out if there has been another one will take some digging, but no one else has announced doing so yet.

    – The 800+ number is only of pedestrians injured – not counting injuries to bicyclists and other motorists/passengers. I don’t have those numbers off the top of my head.

  • WM

    I cannot help but believe that the less pro-life a population is, the more reckless it will be with all life, such as how close and fast a person drives by other human beings. A calloused attitude cannot be quarantined to one segment of society, such as the unborn, it will permeate the culture.

  • Wow. How big of a shoe-horn did it take to get that political hypothesis wedged into such a completely unrelated topic?

  • Walt

     San Francisco is about as pro-life as a city can be.  It’s got local universal health care for everyone, as best we can.  It has one of the nation’s best emergency care/ trauma public hospitals.  It has a huge, first-rate university health system that takes people with unusual, specialized health needs from all over the northern part of the state.  It funds non-profits to provide more senior, kids, pregnant mom, and disability nutrition and care opportunities than practically any American city.  It’s maintaining parks, recreation, schools, as best we can despite terribly irresponsible state budget.  Its voters have regulated passed local bonds to fund affordable housing.  In a town where everybody walks, it even happens to have several government and volunteer groups engaged in efforts to improve pedestrian safety.

    There’s nothing casual or reckless about San Francisco’s efforts to make a society that’s pro-life.  I invite you to look more closely at everything that includes.


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