Fire Chief’s Pedestrian Victim-Blaming: Wrong and Dangerous

It can take up to two minutes for firefighters to leave Fire Station 1 on Folsom Street, where drivers block the “Keep Clear” zone. Though they attempt to use the new buffered bike lane, it’s also blocked by drivers. Image: KRON 4

There’s no telling where San Francisco Fire Chief Johanne Hayes-White got the patently false stats on pedestrian safety she cited to the SF Examiner yesterday. Hayes-White argued that the city shouldn’t build proven pedestrian safety upgrades because most people hit by drivers while walking are to blame for their own injuries.

The Fire Department hasn’t cited any data to back its misguided campaign against bulb-outs and bike lanes on the grounds that they cause delays for emergency vehicles. But what’s clear to anyone on the streets is that firefighters and ambulances are constantly delayed by private autos, whether they’re doubled-parked or sitting in congestion. By opposing proven safety upgrades on streets that see the very crashes they respond to, SFFD is making the city a more dangerous place to live.

SF Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White at a ## in September##. Image: SFGovTV

As Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Schneider told the Examiner, it’s “a shame.”

“We’re all working on public safety here,” she said. “What we need to be doing is building safer streets. These sort of improvements reduce deaths.”

Hayes-White told the Examiner that “as many as 74 percent of pedestrian injuries result from jaywalking, other citable offenses or pedestrians being ‘inattentive.'” But according to the SFMTA’s 2010-2011 Collisions Report [PDF], out of the 844 non-fatal pedestrian crashes in 2011, police attributed 573 primarily to driver error. The five most commonly-cited factors were driver violations, the top being motorists’ failure to yield the right-of-way in a crosswalk.

Despite the complete lack of data to support “distracted walking” as a significant cause of pedestrian deaths, Hayes-White and SFPD Chief Greg Suhr continue to blame the victims.

Meanwhile, as Supervisor Scott Wiener noted to the Examiner after a ride-along with SFFD responders, “Bulb-outs weren’t a problem. Double-parked cars are a huge problem for them.” Another screamingly obvious observation is the fact that bulb-outs often replace curbside parking spaces. Yet SFFD would have the public believe that fire truck and ambulance drivers have an easier time navigating around parked cars than curbs.

It’s hard not to cringe when watching recent media reports like the one from KTVU in October, showing fire truck drivers squeezing around stopped cars all while maintaining that the real problem is bulb-outs and bike lanes. The argument against unprotected bike lanes is especially perplexing, since they actually help provide a clear path for fire trucks (it’s pretty easy for people on bikes to get out of the way).

This was illustrated in one of Stanley Roberts’ recent People Behaving Badly segments (see below), filmed at Fire Station 1 on Folsom Street in SoMa. Roberts points out that drivers routinely block the “Keep Clear” zone intended to maintain a clear path of exit for fire trucks. What’s also plainly visible (yet barely mentioned) in the segment is Folsom’s new buffered bike lane, which now provides an emergency lane for fire trucks, except when car drivers violate it (as seen in the segment).

“During the commute, it can take firefighters as much as two minutes just to leave the station because of oblivious drivers,” Roberts says in the piece.

SFFD has been reporting that its average response time has dropped by eight seconds over the past two years. (Oddly enough, SF County Transportation Authority staff reported this week that average driving speeds on arterial streets have actually increased by as much as 1 mph over the past two years, saying it might be due to less construction and a shift from driving to transit ridership.)

As we reported in 2011, San Francisco’s roughly three pedestrian crashes per day cost the city big time — an estimated $76 million per year, when accounting for medical treatment, emergency services, lost wages, and other impacts. As the Examiner reported yesterday, up to 75 percent of the Fire Department’s calls are in response to emergency medical services. That includes traffic injuries, though it’s not clear what share of those calls are responding to crashes.

City Hall and the SFMTA have rightly recognized the imperative to implement best practices proven to save lives. It’s time for SFFD brass to re-think its hidebound, car-centric views and embrace efforts that complement the department’s mission to keep people safe.

  • Fran Taylor

    Pattern here? In this story from 2005:

    note that after Hayes-White’s husband called 911 about her walloping him on the head with a pint glass, “Hayes-White told police that her husband had hit himself over the head with the glass.”

    Sort of like pedestrians hurling themselves at cars.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    (Overtime! Featherbedding! Overstaffing! Frathouses! Drinking on the job! Massive overstaffing! Humungous overstaffing! Pensions! Pensions! Pensions!)

    The “public safety” unions are in a very very very nice safe place, and don’t think about questioning anything.

  • Um, SFFD? I hate to state the obvious, but now might not be the best time for you to talk about people getting run over.

  • njudah

    The “fire chief” is a hack who has no business being in charge of anything, much less a fire department in SF, where the department has to be ready to deal with things like earthquakes, etc and other unique problems. She is not very intelligent and only got the job for political reasons. If Ed Lee didn’t have his nose buried in the City Family, he’d fire her and appoint someone who can do the job without throwing pint glasses or lying through their teeth.

  • timsmith

    Seriously. Credibility problem, anyone?

  • jamiewhitaker

    Traffic congestion getting in the way and delaying emergency response vehicles to SoMa residents is the one of two reasons I’m going to fight the Warriors Arena being located at Piers 30-32. The other reason is already awful air pollution from said traffic congestion. My lungs and my life aren’t for sale, goddammit. If Mayor Lee wants to kill people in SoMa in the name of economic development, we need to show him the exit at the very next opportunity.

    A heart attack victim has about 6 minutes before they’re dead in some cases. If 2 minutes are lost by the guys working at Station 1 just trying to get the truck onto Folsom Street or an ambulance having to take the MUNI METRO Train Tracks (see it here: ), the person is probably going to be dead by the time emergency responders navigate through traffic … especially if they’re coming to help someone in Rincon Hill who may live 400 feet or more vertically from the ground.

    Uninformed statements about pedestrians aside, there is a deadly problem with emergency responders in downtown San Francisco getting stuck in traffic because Mayor Lee refuses to address the problem of oversaturated streets at certain times of the day. This is a public policy issue that is killing people.

    We need congestion pricing NOW.

  • jd_x

    This is so frustrating to see how biased the SFFD is against non-automobile traffic. Add it to the list (with the SFPD) of government departments with a windshield perspective. This has just got to change, so keep these great articles coming, Aaron and the rest of the Streetsblog crew.

  • Jim

    Much of the rush hour traffic that chokes SoMA is caused by drivers that live in all the other counties in the Bay Area and beyond. Any other traffic is from reverse commuters who live in SoMA and have the induced luxury of parking their cars in their condo building. Institute a congestion charge for Downtown SF, and you’ll see some of the traffic on local SoMA streets dissipate.

    Aside from the traffic, most drivers, driving on a one-way road or a two-way with a median, don’t know how to properly react to an approaching emergency vehicle. They just sit there like a deer assuming someone else get out of the way of the emergency vehicle. It is just way too easy and cheap to get a driver license in this country.

  • Wobbler

    If the Warriors build an arena on those two piers, it’s very possible the project will have a fire station attached to it, where an engine with be stationed and the fire boats will be tied up. That means the overall response time, from pier 22 1/2 where there is currently an engine would be even less.

  • wobbler

    The problem is not negotiating around the bulb-outs as the article describes. The problem is that in an ordinary intersection, there is a large amount of street space for cars to use as a place to go when an emergency vehicle comes up from behind them. When the bulb outs are built, the street space of the intersection decreases significantly, which is the intent. This becomes a problem when an emergency vehicle approaches because the cars have no place to go to get out of the way. When they used to be able to straddle the corner diagonally, as if they were going to park on the corner, they now must move across the intersection or turn onto the cross street, which may also have cars on them blocking the way.

    You see, it’s not the bulb out that’s in the way, it’s the traffic that can’t move out of the way because of the bulb outs that’s in the way.

  • GC

    Even if 100% of pedestrians were legally at fault in these collisions, it would be worth making safety improvements.

  • baklazhan

    I don’t get it: the ambulance seems to be making good time in that video. If it’s supposed to be demonstrating a problem, I’m not seeing it. The only issue was the SUV driver who drove across the ambulance’s path.

    In fact, it demonstrates the value of transit lanes for emergency access. I think a bidirectional bike lane (wide enough for an emergency vehicle) would be equally valuable, since bikes can get out of the way faster than cars can.

  • Nicholas Littlejohn

    Who is this chief weirdo and is she paid twenty or thirty thousand dollars a month like many SF public servants?

  • gneiss

    So – are you saying we should get rid of the baseball park because it causes traffic congestion on King Street during game days? Why not set up the environment around these venues so that people are encouraged to walk and take transit to them rather than making such a do or die binary statement about the development of the waterfront. I’m much rather see a basketball stadium there than parking lots any day.

  • jamiewhitaker

    The topic is emergency response times, and my opinion is that overall traffic congestion at certain times of day is the big problem in SoMa for fire trucks, ambulances, and police being delayed in reaching citizens who call for help.

    There was a good posting on Streetsblog about traffic congestion in November last year –

    It had a link to a good summary by the SFCTA of the forecasted amounts of traffic we’ll see by 2040 just using the current pipeline of development projects for modeling, not even thinking of an arena at Piers 30-32 or Central SoMa upzoning. Here’s that file:

    Highlights (citywide):
    101,000 new households
    191,000 new workers
    412,000 more daily car trips

    Focusing in on South of Market/Mission Bay:
    +35,000 new p.m. peak auto trips to, from, or within SoMa/Mission Bay
    Twice as many crowded transit lines
    20% more auto congestion
    Slower travel speeds

    Slide 9: “Our ‘planned future’ results in over-saturated (gridlock) conditions in the core network.”

    Slide 10: “A 20% reduction in auto traffic is needed to reach a ‘saturated’ network”

    I believe I read that the average response time is 8 minutes. If you have a heart attack trigger an episode of ventricular fibrillation, you’re dead after 6 minutes. The Stanley Roberts programs showed us that it take 2 minutes just for a truck to leave the station. Even then, gridlock conditions mean there’s time lost at every single intersection.

    The SFCTA’s 2012 Distribution of Trips by Mode is as follows:
    2% Bike
    20% Transit
    25% Walk
    53% Auto

    Let’s not forget the air pollution carcinogens that decrease lifespans… and in the meanwhile, increase instances of asthma attacks that require hospitalization for kids – something already documented to occur at a frequency along the waterfront and in Treasure Island that is 2.5x’s greater than the Citywide average. And the Mayor is doing nothing to move congestion pricing forward with all of this data that cars are killing us in his hands. Its even in the City’s Health and Safety Code – Look up Article 38 (thank you then-Supervisor Tom Ammiano!).

    Will bulb outs delay fire trucks? Well, if the intersections are already blocked by too many cars on over saturated streets in SoMa, are the bulb outs really the problem to start with?

    We need congestion pricing – now.

  • jamiewhitaker

    I said no such things.

    I’d rather see water than a parking lot, and the Seawall Lot 330 across the street can certainly fetch the money from a sale and future tax increment to pay the $50-$75 million needed to simply demolish Piers 30-32. However, I’m afraid our Mayor would like to pay $120 million of public tax dollars to demolish and then rebuild a more heavily fortified piers 30-32 that can hold up a public assembly arena (that means many more pilings for earthquake safety than what are rotting away there today).

    How much bike safety infrastructure could $120 million buy?

  • jamiewhitaker

    What happens when MUNI vehicles are sitting on the tracks? The E EMbarcadero street car? N Judah? T-Third? Shuttle?
    When the emergency responder turns that corner around Rincon Point from Bryant to Harrison, how do they know there’s not an N Judah, T Third, Shuttle, or some train leaving the 23rd Street barn on its way downtown delayed and backed up waiting to head into the Embarcadero tunnel before they get stuck behind the train?

    This may be a band-aid, but certainly not the only option I want to see available if I need emergency help.

  • jamiewhitaker

    I disagree. I watch the truck leaving Pier 22 1/2 now, and evening gridlock’s blocked intersections delay them getting further west into SoMa.

  • Sprague

    Thank you Aaron and Streetsblog for highlighting the likely cause of delays for first responders (congested streets and clueless motorists). The benefits of improved bicycle (and street and transit) infrastructure are multi-faceted. Along with significant safety and livability improvements, more people choosing to travel about town without a car results in less congestion and an improvement in emergency response times. The SFFD should be advocating for such street improvements for this reason (as well as for the significant public health benefit of fewer injured and killed pedestrians and cyclists).

  • gneiss

    Now we get at your real agenda – a permanent view easement for your personal property. So you want all city taxpayers to foot the bill to enhance your property values. You’re not just a NIMBY, but one who wants us to support your insular life style in the means which you have been accustomed to. No thanks.

    Since the waterfront belongs to all city taxpayers I see no reason why we shouldn’t use the land for a purpose that brings sales tax receipts to the city. Even if it ends up initially costing the Port of SF $120 million, the amount generated in yearly tax revenue and jobs would most then pay that back – certainly over having a parking lot or demolishing it.

    Unless your proposal also includes considering having a special assessment for your neighborhood to pay for the $50-75 million it would cost to demolish it and the ongoing loss in revenue the city would have received if the arena was there. Oh – you shouldn’t have to pay that? Wow, big surprise there.

  • jamiewhitaker

    I was simply repudiating your false dichotomy that if an arena is not built on Piers 30-32 that it will become a commuter parking lot again. There are other options … some entail keeping the pier, and some don’t.

    My neighborhood will contribute $27 million in overall property tax revenue this fiscal year … $16 million of it goes right to the general fund.

    Are you done making shit up?

  • murphstahoe

    My neighborhood will contribute $27 million in overall property tax
    revenue this fiscal year … $16 million of it goes right to the general

    I don’t have a strong opinion on this issue but all properties pay property tax….

  • jamiewhitaker

    That’s true … a bit of a tangent, though I was just pulling some more facts out of my pocket to throw at this fabricator of bologna.

    This post is about emergency response delays. I’m suggesting traffic congestion is the number one cause of the delays.

    If someone wonders why I oppose the Warriors Arena, they just need to look at my May 22, 2012 mention in the Examiner – “worried about increases in traffic” … which is relevant to the emergency response topic of this article.

    Oh, and I have no view to lose … I’d rather see water as I walk along the Embarcadero just like all folks have the right to do.

  • baklazhan

    There are two tracks, so as long as two Muni vehicles aren’t sitting next to each other– and it should be fairly easy to train the drivers to avoid doing so when there’s an ambulance coming– there shouldn’t be any problem.

    Certainly it’s better than dedicating 100% of the space to private cars, and then trying to deal with what happens when private cars occupy 100% of the space.

    Just compare the response times with areas outside San Francisco. Yes, the ambulances drive a bit faster– but they need to go much farther, since densities are lower.

  • AtariBaby

    “Inattentive walking” takes the cake. What’s wrong with this person? What does she have to gain from being an ass? Lives are at stake here.

  • Mac Mall

    It’s not the traffic. It’s not enough people working in the ems side of the sffd. When you get injured, you want a ambulance not a fire engine. It’s a lack of staff. Trust me on this. Smoke and mirrors would have you believe otherwise.

    And yes, people in SF walk in front of cars as if they have a right and the car must stop. That attitude gets many of people’s killed. I have seen it first hand. You might have the right but you might also end up dead or injured. Aka dead right.

    5000lbs vs 150lbs. Which would be easier to control? A simple eye to eye contact does wonders people. Letting a car pass may save you a life time of pain also. Give a little and take a little may keep you upright for future yrs to come. It isn’t rocket science.


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