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.

Comparing just the violations shown in the ads, SFPD found more than 10 times as many motorists at fault for violating pedestrian right-of-way in a crosswalk (343 injury collisions in 2011) than police did pedestrians (33) or bicyclists (32) for crossing against a red light in the same year.

In injury collisions with pedestrians and bicyclists, 878 driver violations were cited, compared with 271 for pedestrians and 305 for bicyclists.

In pedestrian collisions, drivers were found at fault two-thirds of the time, and 95 percent of pedestrians injured last year were hit by drivers, the report says. The top four motorist violations were cited 473 times, comprising more than half of all pedestrian and motorist violations cited in such crashes combined:

  • Failure to yield to pedestrian at a crosswalk (343)
  • Driving at unsafe speed given conditions of roadway (59)
  • Unsafe maneuver or backing after being parked (43)
  • Violation of signal red light (28)

No doubt, Gascón has much more crash data to brush up on, but his campaign’s messaging is problematic at a much more basic level. It flies in the face of the intuitive notion that operating a motor vehicle on city streets carries much greater risk to others than does moving around without a car. Negotiating the streets safely does require attention and courtesy to some extent on everyone’s part, but holding drivers and non-drivers to the same standard smacks of favorism toward motorists — or, as Copenhagenize’s Mikael Colville-Anderson puts it, “Ignoring the bull in the China shop.”

“Walking does not pose a danger to anyone else. Driving does,” said Elizabeth Stampe, executive director of Walk SF. “It’s simple physics. There is a greater level of responsibility that goes with driving a 4,000-pound vehicle, and we’d like to see the DA make that clear.”

“We appreciate the DA’s attention to keeping people safe while walking,” she added, “but we’d like to see a clearer focus on the most dangerous behaviors.”

A note about bicycle-car collisions: The SFMTA report says, “Fault for collisions seems to be evenly split among bicycle riders and motorists, according to the SFPD collision reports.” But given that evidence of SFPD bias against bicycle riders crops up again and again, those numbers come into question. For instance, the most commonly cited bicyclist violation by far (100 of 325) was “driving at unsafe speed given conditions of roadway” (drivers were blamed for 20 such violations) — a conspicuous statistic, given that bicycles are generally much slower than cars.

Meanwhile, the DA has filed charges against the two bicyclists who have killed pedestrians — the only such cases in the city in at least seven years — but Gascón’s promise to hold drivers responsible for the same crime may have faltered. Although Gascón did charge a few such drivers after taking office last year, the pattern of withholding charges against most drivers who are responsible for killing pedestrians, as long as they’re sober drivers and don’t flee the scene, seems to have returned.

But even in the two recent cases of pedestrians who were killed by drivers this fall, in which one driver was drunk and one ran a red light, Stampe said she’s still hasn’t heard back from the DA’s office on whether charges will be filed. “We’ve asked the DA’s office several times for updates,” she said.

  • “What’s the rush?”  Um, I’m trying to get somewhere on time?  What a stupid question.

  • Anonymous

    You know, I have to admit: it is a really stupid tagline. I mean, sure, society may be in too much of a hurry these days, but it’s not like an ad regarding road safety is going to — or even should be trying to — address the issue of everybody being in a hurry. People are in a hurry, and that’s just the way it is like or not, so we need to be designing our cities to accommodate that fact. It’s funny how when, one is  car-centric, they can’t think rationally any more; they will do anything to justify the status quo even if it is completely incoherent.

  • Casey.

    The very fact that they’re talking about road manners makes me happy.

  • Compare this to the campaign by Saint Sadik-Kahn that was entirely focused on cyclists.
    Just the fact that motorist behavior is targeted at all is progress.

  • Mom on a bike

    This equal-opportunity finger wagging is some bullshit right here. Why, just today as I was grumbling while riding past a cyclist getting pulled over by a motorcycle cop on Steiner at Duboce, what comes tearing around the corner towards me after running a stop sign on 14th but…a commercial truck with two portapotties in the bed. I estimate he was going at least 15 MPH. 

    Here Gascon, I fixed this ad campaign for you: (1) What’s the Rush? Commercial trucks failing to yield (or stop) [pay this penalty]…. (2) …Drivers running red lights [” “]…. (3) …Taxis blocking the bike lane (not to drop off disabled passengers) [” “]…..

  • Anonymous

     Most drivers should if not already know that they shouldn’t ignore stop signs or run red lights, but there are plenty of cyclists and pedestrians don’t think that those laws apply to them, or treat them as an advisory. The hope is to improve the compliance.

  • Anonymous

     “Walking does not pose a danger to anyone else. Driving does,”…

    Give me a break, walking and driving in a safe manner do not impose danger, but walking and driving in a unsafe manner do pose danger to someone else. If somebody decides to step into traffic without paying attention, it can cause drivers to react suddenly by braking hard or to steer away. Both actions could cause collisions with other vehicles. If the oncoming vehicle is a bicycle or motorcycle, the cyclist could lose balance and fall. This is particularly problematic since bicycles ride closer to pedestrians and often share space with pedestrians (which part of it is the responsibility of the cyclist).

  • True story, bro. Just the other night I was at an intersection waiting to cross (on foot). Then I pulled out my phone to check the time, saw I had a text message, started to check the message, got a phone call, as I answered the phone the light changed and I stepped into the street and blurted “WHOOOOAH!” as a cyclist buzzed me from 2 inches away. (I guess they were a little late with their light).

    Dammit, I forgot to look before I booked!

  • “Go fast, but do not rush, grasshopper.”

  • mikesonn

    “Most drivers should if not already know that they shouldn’t ignore stop signs or run red lights”

    Is that so? I’d beg to differ. And all the above (drivers, cyclists, peds) are PEOPLE and PEOPLE ignore rules, but the concentration of our law enforcement should be on those PEOPLE operating vehicles that have the potential for the most harm/damage.

  • Most cyclists actually do follow the rules of the road. “Look where you’re going, take your turn, don’t run over the pedestrians.” There’s nothing in there about stopping at stop signs.

  • FYI, at the Pedestrian Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) meeting tonight (Tue 12/11, 5:30pm, City Hall Room 408), Rebecca Prozan from the DA’s office will present briefly on this initiative and will provide updates on enforcement cases. Please attend if you are interested! 

    -Thomas Rogers
    PSAC District 10 rep and current Chair

  • Guest

    They don’t want to scare any of the sacred cows.

  • Mom on a bike

    Turns out that defensive driving, which everyone shouldve learned but hasn’t (thanks to our namby pamby licensing requirements), will pretty much prevent any collision scenarios you attempt to illustrate.

  • keenplanner

    Let’s see…Car get’s $238 ticket, injures or kills pedestrian in crosswalk, driver gets sued by injured pedestrian (minor injury can be $40K + med costs, death could be millions).  Driver maxes out insurance coverage, victim may go after driver’s assets, including savings and real estate. “but I didn’t see him” is not an excuse.

  •  I agree. Sure cars are more dangerous than bikes, but as mikesonn points out the problem here is people, and any campaign should target us all. As a bicyclist, I’m happy to be included. I never go fast enough to kill anyone, but sometimes when I’m in a rush I do blow through a crosswalk and piss people off. This is a great reminder for me that those extra few feet aren’t worth the incivility.

  • John Willshire

    Its called Streetsblog, not Driverblog, or Bicycleblog. We all share the responsibility for STREET safety. Pointing out, AGAIN, that automobiles are more impactful is just this blogger killing a dead horse…Duh?! Stop driver bashing, Streetsblog!

  • mikesonn

    What? It’d be nice to not have point out the obvious but apparently it is lost on many of our elected (and non-elected) officials. I donate to Streetsblog specifically because it states clearly what needs to be stated but isn’t.

  • there are plenty of cyclists and pedestrians don’t think that those laws apply to them, or treat them as an advisory

    This is complete crap. “Oh, that’s a stop sign for cars only”. Please.

    Ignoring the law is different than being ignorant of the law.

  • Anecdotes do not equal data.

  • Are we a bit too heavy on the data and facts?

    Recognition of the true dangers on our streets is one horse I truly wish was dead (I never have liked the imagery of that analogy…).

  • spinster

    Walking unsafely certainly does pose a threat.  During my commute this morning, I noticed a pedestrian about to cross the Panhandle multi-use path.  I had the suspicion he wasn’t going to look both ways as he entered the stream of morning bicycle commuters, so as I drew closer, I slowed my speed considerably and rang my bell.  He jerked his head to the left, was startled by the sight of me, and stopped short.  As I continued on, he shouted at me, “I guess some people don’t get out of the way for anyone!”  I’m glad I was able to stop him, because if he’d walked into me, I could have been hurt.  But in his mind, he had the right of way and I failed to yield it, even though I did exactly what I should have done, as a responsible cyclist.  

  • Anonymous

     If cyclists believe that they shouldn’t stop at stop signs as a form of political protest (which I understand because bikers lose momentum if they come to a full stop, and that they can still observe traffic anyway), then some driver who is speeding could say that they do so as a form of a protest. If they see an empty street, why should they be restricted by a sign that doesn’t take the exact condition into account?

    But if you choose to ignore those rules as a political protest, you shouldn’t be surprised to get punished.

  • Anonymous

     “In pedestrian collisions, drivers were found at fault two-thirds of the time”

    that means that the pedestrians were found at fault 1/3 of the time. It is not a majority, but not insignificant. I don’t think there’s anything inappropriate to remind pedestrians that they need to obey signals. Even though nominally they have the ROW whenever they step onto the street, but on coming vehicles may not have the ability to stop in time. In areas with high pedestrian volume, people obeying the laws would actually help traffic moving.

  • But if you choose to ignore those rules as a political protest, you shouldn’t be surprised to get punished.
    Again complete crap. Nobody’s surprised. Just pissed that of all things that we could spend our limited resources for enforcement on, this is what is chosen.

    If the SFPD decided that they wanted to have a jihad on drunk drivers, they could be throwing half of the East Bay in jail by enforcing in North Beach on a Friday or Saturday night. Never happens. In fact, when the SFPD does a sting on drunk drivers – they PRE-ANNOUNCE when and where the checkpoint is going to be!

  • people obeying the laws would actually help traffic moving
    which is of course more important than keeping people out of the morgue

  • Just so everyone knows who’s who, @acnetj:disqus is Andy Chow.

  • Anonymous

     Re: murphstahoe

    …as if we don’t ever get on a vehicle whether it is car, taxi, bus or train, in downtown areas. So it is pedestrians’ interest (they are also car drivers, cyclists, transit riders, just have a different role in that particular moment) to have traffic be moving in a reasonable pace. The problem is that the same individual could act selfish, like driving into downtown speeding and ignoring everyone, but expect all the drivers to yield for him or her when walking between the parking lot and where he or she is going.

  • Anonymous

    They should do this thing called “prosecution” when people don’t obey the rules once in a while. People know the DA can’t or won’t prosecute most of the time, so they don’t care if they run over someone or whatever. Plus, SF juries are also very very lenient, so this is a great place for those poor drivers from Elsewhere who can’t comprehend they’re in a urban environment to keep on driving like idiots, knowing not much will happen, not even a ticket for speeding.

  • mikesonn

    @andychow So your perceived expedience is more valuable than someone’s safety?

  • Anonymous

    Pedestrians unnecessarily slows down traffic (I am not suggesting anything that the pedestrians have the legal right of way for, and that I am aware the conflicts that exist under the current system) if they are crossing on a red light and vehicles that do have to the right of way are slowing down or stopping to provide safety for the jaywalker. I don’t know what ideas you have. Are you suggesting that pedestrians can walk anywhere anytime and everyone else on a vehicle have to go at the speed of the lowest common denominator. If that’s the case, what’s the point of a bike lane anyway?

  • What I read from you Andy is that a pedestrian who has a Walk Signal should nonetheless hurry up and get out of the way of a car turning right or left through that crosswalk, or a car turning right on red. That isn’t “unnecessarily slowing down traffic” – in a crosswalk a pedestrian IS traffic.

    It is not incumbent on a pedestrian with the right of way to hustle out of the way of a turning motor vehicle any more than it is incumbent upon someone on a road driving the speed limit to hit the gas and stop bothering the driver behind them.

  • Pretty sure Andy is complaining about jaywalkers who hold up traffic while crossing on a red light. That does happen, but in the scheme of things it’s pretty minor.

    OTOH 2nd hand exhaust fumes kill thousands and that’s NOT OKAY. We need a whole lot more low-motor and no-motor streets and we need them NOW.

  • mikesonn

    I’m having a hard time understanding what Andy is saying, but what I’m getting is the same as murph based mostly on Andy’s past pro-car commentary.

    I’m with peternatural in saying we need more low/no – motor streets ASAP, especially in the busy downtown core.

  • Anonymous

    Why keep saying I said something that I didn’t say? Someone starting to walk across the street on a red light can unnecessarily holding up traffic that has a clear green light. Right turning vehicles do have to yield to crossing pedestrians whether they are getting a green or red light. I know the laws and I stick by them when I drive. Do I jaywalk? I do sometimes, but much more conservatively (because a lot of times there’s no traffic that I would unnecessarily block).

    I don’t see anything wrong with the messages the signs are trying to send. You see it wrong because you believe that pedestrians can never be wrong. I believe that pedestrians should have more knowledge about how drivers behave and of their surroundings. I don’t believe in a system where our safety is completely reliant on drivers obeying the law.

    If you’re advocating slow transportation like slow food, I understand, but I believe that people do want fast transportation, which is one of the primary reasons why they drive instead of taking transit or bike, Unless we want to grade separate everything (like building more freeways and things like the Central Subway), we need to have reasonable laws so vehicles and pedestrians can coexist on surface streets with vehicles operating at a reasonable pace.

  • mikesonn

    “Why keep saying I said something that I didn’t say?” […] “I don’t see anything wrong with the messages the signs are trying to send. You see it wrong because you believe that pedestrians can never be wrong.” HA.

    See 3rd paragraph: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaywalking

    A reasonable pace is debatable and also dependent on location and time of day. Sure people like to travel fast, but in the crowded FiDi between 8-5 on a weekday, fast does not equal reasonable. That’s the point. Yes, walking out into a busy street is not safe or smart, but when in a dense pedestrian heavy environment a driver shouldn’t be going much faster than a bike so stopping shouldn’t be an issue.

    Andy, you follow all the rules and only break them when you feel it is safe enough to do it. How are you different than anyone else? You bend the rules when you see fit to your circumstance.

    Also, you should sign each post since you insist on using a different DISQUS handle now.


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