A 2014 Resolution for Greg Suhr and SFPD: Stop Blaming Pedestrian Victims

Despite the glimmer of hope brought by the arrest of two reckless drivers who killed pedestrians, the SFPD is still blaming people walking on the streets for getting hit by motorists.

Greg Suhr. Photo: SFPD

According to recent tweets and press statements from SF police, the reason San Franciscans are getting maimed and killed on the streets at an alarming rate has nothing to do with the people driving multi-ton motor vehicles into them. No, it’s because people aren’t walking in fear of drivers.

After a year in which 20 pedestrians were killed — a six-year high — the SFPD could remind drivers that they have a responsibility to keep other people safe on the streets by exercising caution. After all, motorists are piloting machines that can easily turn into weapons, and they hit nearly 1,000 people in 2012. The department’s data shows [PDF] that the five most common causes cited for those crashes are motorist violations, the top one being a failure to yield to pedestrians’ right-of-way in a crosswalk, accounting for 41 percent of all crashes.

Yet this tweet sent out today by the SFPD might as well have been typed out behind the wheel:

This kind of message is consistent with what the public has heard from SFPD Chief Greg Suhr, who, at every opportunity to issue a statement on street safety, has pointed the finger at people walking with cell phones. It’s as if the people who get slammed by drivers every day in the city are criminals.

This has to stop.

In New York City, newly-appointed Police Chief Bill Bratton committed yesterday to an “intensive focus on traffic issues,” moving the city toward incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “Vision Zero” goal — eliminating traffic deaths within ten years.

Fortunately, some folks in the SFPD appear to be getting it. Thankfully, the department arrested two drivers who hit and killed people on New Year’s Eve who, by all accounts, did nothing wrong. No matter which way you look at it, there’s nothing that 87-year-old Zhen Guang Ng or six-year-old Sophia Liu and her family could’ve done to avoid getting run over. Reckless driving happens — it happens way, way too often — and Suhr’s department needs to grapple with it.

Traffic company commander Mikail Ali has the right idea. He told the SF Examiner this week, “When you behave in such a grossly negligent way, you’re going to find yourself unfortunately going to jail when you take someone’s life on the roadway.” SFPD should model its traffic enforcement efforts with this approach in mind.

But other SFPD officials are still putting out the message that there’s nothing the police can do about reckless driving, that the responsibility to prevent violence lies with victims. After Liu and her family were run over by an Uber driver in the Tenderloin, Lieutenant Julian Hill told ABC 7, “We have to remember sometimes people in vehicles aren’t paying attention. And so we just have to be diligent as a pedestrian and make sure that the intersection is clear, that the streets are clear.”

Seriously. An SFPD representative basically said that even though they were in the crosswalk with the walk signal, the Liu family should have jumped out of the way of Syed Muzzafar’s SUV.

In 2014, San Francisco can continue ceding streets to reckless driving, which has resulted in so many deaths and injuries, or we can join leading cities that envision bringing an end to traffic violence using proven safety measures and data-driven enforcement.

The SFPD has said it’s committed to its “Focus on the Five” program, and the Police Commission has urged the department to target the most dangerous driving behaviors. But to catch up, the SFPD’s leadership must recalibrate the lens through which it views our streets.

  • robin

    it would be great if sfpd changed their tune, but perhaps more effective if CCoSF were to implement “vulnerable users legislation”. Doing so would place the onus of responsibility on those with less to lose (figuratively speaking) so that collisions involving two unequal modes of transport (i.e. car and bike, car and ped, bike and ped) would automatically place fault on the less vulnerable user of the road until proven otherwise. sfpd would have no choice but to follow suit, motorists would pay more attention, and cyclists would be less likely to act recklessly. next step in getting there: identifying are the orgs and the supervisors that can support this kind of action. if we leave it to sfpd, we might die waiting.

  • Mario Tanev

    Isn’t there a fundamental issue with the US Constitution? That is, innocence until proven guilty? Perhaps “vulnerable users legislation” can work with fines and citations, but not when it comes to manslaughter charges.

    The right approach might be to reduce the speed limits everywhere to a level where a collision is easily avoidable, and if a collision occurs, it is not life-threatening (20mph or less). Then speed violation can be criminalized and the only deaths that would happen would be due to speed violations. That way nobody could claim they didn’t see the pedestrian.

  • Upright Biker

    Perhaps it could be that the charge of negligence is automatic when a vehicle strikes a more vulnerable streets user, but that when it comes to the courts, innocence of that charge is assumed unless proved otherwise.

  • Dave Moore

    Would you call the statement “If you see someone shooting, duck” blaming the victim? These statements alone don’t assign guilt or blame to the pedestrians. They try to remind people that regardless of fault that they can take some action to protect themselves, and that they shouldn’t assume they’re safe. It should go hand in hand with educating drivers, increasing enforcement of safe driving and applying reasonable policies to determining the degree of negligence in each accident. They’re all different, and different punishments should be doled out.

  • ladyfleur

    The problem is that the vast majority of “pedestrian safety” statements are aimed at pedestrian behavior, not driver behavior. If they started with statements warning drivers on how to be more careful, then added a few tips for people walking it wouldn’t be so offensive.

    The problem is that many people are driving too fast, and driving distracted. They aren’t taking the time to look for people before they go zipping around corners, squeezing through gaps in traffic to make left turns, blowing around stopped traffic, etc.

  • GC

    Way to be part of the problem, Chief.

  • gneiss

    Excuse me, but why shouldn’t we, as pedestrians, assume that we are safe? The very problem that we have on our streets is the pervasive culture of fear that pedestrians face every time they walk. It’s why we clutch the hands of our children when we legally cross the street. Or dash across an unsignalized crosswalk if a car is approaching. It’s the very thing that the police and other ‘authorities’ should be working to mitigate.

    Our city officials lament the fact that families leave the city, but when you look at how unwelcoming our streets have become to the very young, is it any wonder that people want to leave – if only so they can give their kids a safer place to play? When we can’t even allow our children to walk with us because we’re afraid they’ll get killed by cars when crossing the streets that represents an incalculable loss of the social contract. The police should be working to change the behavior of people who are driving the heavy machinery – not telling us we aren’t safe whenever we cross the street.

  • Dave Moore

    Aspiring to something is very different from assuming it’s true. There’s nothing inherently wrong with telling people to take prudent precautions. I don’t see how it’s equivalent to saying that’s the way it should be. In fact it seems critical to understand how things are to figure out how they could change.

    I don’t recall seeing any survey that puts traffic safety anywhere near the top of the list for why families leave SF. I’m pretty sure housing costs and schools beat that by a mile.

  • Dave Moore

    No doubt. But I don’t think the way to change that can be accomplished through whatever penalties are issued for cases like this. It’s not because the drivers put such a low cost on human life that they do these things. It’s not like they’re blowing through red lights thinking “Who cares if I hit someone, I won’t go to jail”. They don’t think about the risks in what they’re doing at all. So making the penalties higher seems unlikely to change their behavior, A better way to get people to stop these behaviors is through enforcement and penalties for the actions themselves. If people thought there was a higher risk of fines / points / license taking / jail for those actions regardless of whether they killed someone or not they might change their behavior.

  • Petra Linke

    Wow! I am really impressed! My son was one of the DUI victims and died in the streets of SF. Just to compare: In Berlin, Germany, we have 3,3 million inhabitants and 44 traffic victims in 2013, in SF 800 000 inhabitants with 20 victims….Instead of putting the blame on the victims, try something new. We have larger areas with a speed limit of 20 mph. We have lanes blocked for bikes (14% of individual traffic by bike!) drawn on the streets.

  • ladyfleur

    Where did I say anything about what penalties should be issued and under which circumstances? I was stating that the typical “pedestrian safety” tips are rarely directed at drivers and that’s a big problem.

    But since you brought it up, the solution includes: (1) educating people that driving slowly–at or under the speed limit–is the #1 way to make streets safer for all; (2) reconfiguring streets so that driving slower speeds seems natural; (3) enforcing speed limits and other safe behaviors (4) reconfiguring high-speed turning corners so drivers must slow before turning; (5) putting in advance WALK signals so drivers can see people in the crosswalk and don’t turn right into them when the light turns green.

    And lastly, quit responding to pedestrian deaths and injuries with “pedestrian safety” tips that don’t include any tips for drivers, the people piloting machines that can kill in a split second of inattention!

  • Rod_North

    Mario, you mentioned 20mph as a “safe” speed but that really isn’t much below the 25mph speed limit that prevails on most streets in the city. It seems to me the problem isn’t that the limit is too high but that it isn’t enforced.

    Another problem, which I was reminded of earlier today while driving south on Masonic. I hit a green on every light from Geary to Haight. I’m not sure I could prescribe exactly how to do that but it involved speeding in a couple of places (and slowing in a couple of others). The phasing of lights should not encourage speeding.

    In particular, I noticed that if I get through the green on Fell just as it is turning red, then I can (just) make the green on Oak before it turns red. But only if I am going about 30mph on a block with lots of bikes and joggers crossing. That can’t be right.

    Seems to me there are some fairly easy fixes we could do now.

  • Dave Moore

    The entire article was about Aaron’s offense at the police response to the recent deaths, and how “finally” people are being arrested for collisions like this. I think he’s focusing on exactly the wrong things. Punishment after the fact of people being hurt isn’t going to have any impact. And I maintain that I see nothing wrong with statements telling pedestrians to take caution. Sure those could come with comments about drivers, but I don’t see either meaning very much.

    I agree with much of your order, but I think the thing that has to happen is a reversal of the general tendency to push to get through intersections at all costs. This helps everyone (motorists, cyclists, pedestrians). I don’t think education to the risks is likely to succeed. Some of the road reconfigs you suggest seem appropriate, at least in some parts of the city. I also think people getting nailed for running reds and turns through crossings and telling their friends is likely to have an impact.

  • gneiss

    The idea that there isn’t much of a difference between 20 and 25 mph is an obvious windshield perspective. I’ll direct you to the NHTSA literature study which compiled statistics from Florida crash statistics and found that the fatality rate for people hit by vehicles at speeds between 1-20 mph is 1.1%, while at 21-25 mph is 3.7% http://www.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/research/pub/hs809012.html, a more than quadrupled rate of death. And for speeds between 26-30 mph, the fatality rate goes to 6.1%.

    So, every time you are going 30 mph, you are 6 times more likely to kill someone you hit with your car than if you traveled at 20 mph or less. If you were really concerned about not hurting people when you drove, you’d slow down and take a breath before you decided that it would be appropriate to ‘catch up’ to that next light, despite the timing you’ve discovered.

  • Prinzrob

    Agreed. I take no issue with safety PSAs directed at pedestrians, but feel that each person’s responsibility on the streets should be directly proportional to the amount of damage they are capable of inflicting. As such we should be seeing dozens of messages (or more) directed toward people behind the wheel of a car, truck, or bus, for every one that is directed toward people on foot. Instead, our car-centric culture sees fit to flip that equation, at best.

    Especially in the context of a collision which occurred when the pedestrian (6-year-old Sophia Liu) was behaving legally and the driver (adult Uber employee) failed to yield the right of way, yet another statement about recommendations on how pedestrians can avoid being hit by anticipating the stupidity and inattentiveness of road users is counter-productive and offensive.

  • murphstahoe

    is it any wonder that people want to leave – if only so they can give
    their kids a safer place to play? When we can’t even allow our children
    to walk with us because we’re afraid they’ll get killed by cars when
    crossing the streets

    Leave where? The United States? I live in Mayberry, USA right now and it is exactly the same if not worse than San Francisco.

    Even on a bike. Exactly the same as in San Francisco. I approach an intersection and see a pedestrian preparing to cross. The pedestrian does a double take and backs off. I stop to yield right of way. The pedestrian gives a quizzical look and when finally assured that they won’t be run over, they run across the street in terror. And no – this isn’t a “bike thing”. They do the same with respect to a motor vehicle. Pedestrians should not have to live in fear.

  • murphstahoe

    “There’s nothing inherently wrong with telling people to take prudent precautions.”

    Instinctively this sounds correct. But it’s a fallacy.

    So you are saying there is nothing inherently wrong with telling black people to stay out of areas in the Southern US populated primarily with white people? With telling women not to wear short skirts?

    There is. It tells drivers “the pedestrians in this town are crazy and they get what they deserve” and diminishes the thought that the onus is on people driving a car to not kill someone. Instead it is “look, that ped was on his cell phone so it’s not my fault he got nailed” which means you don’t have to even think about caring about that person.

  • murphstahoe

    “I’m pretty sure housing costs and schools beat that by a mile”

    FYI – Anyplace in spitting distance of SF where the schools are better than SF’s, the housing is even more expensive than SF. It’s not like you can just move to Pacifica and magically the schools are great because you aren’t in scary spooky San Francisco. Trust me – I am living it now with a worse school situation despite living in a place that gets written up by the New York Times as some sort of magical nirvana.

    Especially if you include the ancillary costs (transportation/life) or those areas. In theory you can live in the upper hills of San Carlos for less than San Francisco, but you can’t even walk to get a gallon of milk. And if you want to bike to get a gallon of milk, you have to ride up hills that would make San Francisco’s blush. Anything on the Caltrain line is $$$$$$$

  • Dave Moore

    It tells drivers “the pedestrians in this town are crazy and they get what they deserve” and diminishes the thought that the onus is on people driving a car to not kill someone

    That’s pure opinion. You’re entitled to it but I disagree. It presents an argument to the extreme and assumes every person reading the statement is a sociopath. Maybe some people are slightly affected in the way you describe but do you really think that all or even the bulk of drivers care so little for human life? Those are normal people going about their day. What happens is at the moment they make the bad decision to run a red, or take a corner too fast they believe that the risk of something bad happening to someone else is small. And you know what? They’re right. The risk is small. Almost all of the time nothing bad happens. No one is hit, let alone killed. So the next time maybe they’re a little more likely to do it again. And one in a million of those bad decisions goes terribly wrong.

    To counter that there are a lot of things that can and should be done. But it all amounts to increasing the risk of something happening to *them* when they make the bad decision.

    So yeah, I think reminding pedestrians that this is the state we’re in has more potential to save human life and is more positive than some hypothetical negligible impact on drivers is negative.

  • Dave Moore

    All may be true. I’ve raised a kid here, and have plenty of friends who’ve done the same thing. I know some who’ve left and been less than happy with the choice. My point was that in every survey I’ve seen on the issue of families leaving those were #’s one and two, with homelessness and general dirtiness way up there too. I can’t remember ever seeing traffic safety on the list. And I can’t think of a parent friend who’s ever mentioned it. I know I taught my daughter to find the eyes of any person driving a car approaching the crosswalk she’s in that might put her in danger and if she can’t then to assume the worst.

    If I’m not mistaken the risk of a child dying in SF because of a traffic collision (in a car or as a pedestrian) is overall considerably lower than in the suburbs simply because they’re in cars less, and the speeds in general are lower. So leaving because of traffic safety issues seems a poor choice, even with no changes.

  • Rod_North

    gneiss, I wasn’t advocating higher speeds but simply pointing out that traffic light phasing appears to encourage it in some key locations. And if there exists an incentive to speed, some people will do that even if you and I do not. Easily fixed, I would have thought.

    And yes, I feel sure that the severity of accidents increases exponentially with speed. The question is where do we trade off lower limits and greater safety against the economic cost of greater journey times? A 5mph limit would probably mean zero fatalities but that’s not realistic

  • Bruce Halperin

    I may be in the minority here, but I don’t see that tweet as victim-blaming or as the result of a “windshield perspective.” As someone who rides a bike, walks, and drives in the City (in descending order of frequency), and having recently been hospitalized due to the actions of a reckless car driver, I see it as common sense to remind people to be aware of their surroundings. Although a pedestrian in a crosswalk is (almost always) not responsible for being hit, they may have at least been able to avoid it had they not assumed the car or bike saw them and would properly yield the right of way.

    Let’s be honest: although the driver of the two-ton hunk of steel has the responsibility to at all times operate such a machine in a duly cautious manner, distracted pedestrians and those who rush out into traffic to cross the street (we’ve all seen people do this) are sometimes hit by car drivers. If people would just look up from their iPhones once in a while and have a little patience while waiting for the green crossing signal, there would be fewer pedestrian injuries.

  • Bruce Halperin

    That comparison is hyperbole. There is a HUGE difference between a two-ton machine barreling down on you and a white Southerner whom you simply assume to be violently racist.

  • coolbabybookworm

    There’s no data link between pedestrians using phones and higher injuries, only anecdotes. Have any of the pedestrian fatalities this year been on the phone? It certainly wasn’t in the news reports, although I haven’t seen the police reports. They were legally using the cross walk in almost every instance though.

    For every time I hear pedestrians admonished for using phone (which is perfectly legal to use) I rarely hear a follow up admonishment for driver’s using phones (against the law). That gets old fast when I hear pedestrians admonished so frequently in this city, and especially when it comes from the police and DAs office.

  • jonobate

    The Liu family crash has become very personal to me, as we realized at the weekend that the boy involved in the accident was a pupil in the kindergarten class taught by my partner. His sister Sofia (spelt with an F) was in first grade at the same school. The other kids in the class are having bereavement counselling this morning. Utterly tragic.

    An often overlooked aspect of pedestrian safety in the Tenderloin and Soma is the unnecessary amount of one-way streets (the driver in this crash was heading west on one-way Ellis before turning right onto Polk). Any one-way street with more than one traffic lane has been designed that way to speed drivers through that area, to the detriment of pedestrian and cyclist safety, and also to the detriment of the ability of local drivers and cyclists to get where they are going. Drivers are a lot less likely to turn or change lanes without looking when the possibility exists of a head on collision with another vehicle, and this makes for a calmer street and safer environment for everyone. There is no reason to have any one-way couplets in a residential area.

  • Bruce Halperin

    If we want all road users to receive respect, then they all must bear responsibility. It is illegal for drivers to use handheld devices, for good reason. Just a few months ago an entire train of Muni passengers failed to notice a man pull out a gun on a packed LRV, wave it around, and later kill an innocent bystander with it after exiting the train (http://www.sfgate.com/crime/article/Absorbed-device-users-oblivious-to-danger-4876709.php). Why? Because they were completely engrossed in their iPhones.

    While official statistics may be hard to come by, it is common sense that we all could be a little safer if we just paid more attention to our surroundings.

  • murphstahoe

    Yeah well, that’s just like, your opinion man

  • murphstahoe

    It is illegal for drivers to use handheld devices, for good reason.

    Similarly, pedestrians should not be allowed to use a handheld device because they might deviate from their path and bump into someone.

  • Bruce Halperin

    I didn’t say pedestrians should be banned from using cell phones. I simply said they should look up once in a while to protect themselves from irresponsible drivers, and obey the rules of the road that apply to them.

  • coolbabybookworm

    But statistically that wouldn’t lower our pedestrian death rate since cell phones weren’t used in any of those cases. You haven’t addressed anything that would make pedestrians safer.

  • murphstahoe

    How about we yank the licenses from irresponsible drivers to protect those pedestrians? Too draconian?

  • Bruce Halperin

    Not at all. I would welcome it.

  • murphstahoe

    My opinion on this thread is that this opinion is not shared by Gascon or Suhr. So this is why they need to be called out on it. If they were reasonably focused on a response to irresponsible driving, the message would not ring so hollow.

  • Edward Palmer

    I’ve been witness to many accidents where the blame was shared evenly among each incident. Growing up in the avenues, my grandmother taught us to assume that the driver is going to hit you if they don’t look at you, so it’s better to just wait to let them go by. Basically, treat walking and crossing the street the same as if you were a car. If you don’t want to get hit, then make sure the driver sees you. This lesson seems lost on people amid the confusion on both sides regarding pedestrian right-of-way.

  • jd_x

    @brucehalperin:disqus What you are saying is true (that of course pedestrians need to pay attention), but that isn’t the point. The problem is, whenever a car hits a pedestrian, if the police are going to be making any broad, sweeping statements, the first thing out of their mouths should be, “Drivers: pay attention! You are driving 2 tons of metal with hundreds of horsepower and you can easily maim and kill pedestrians.” Instead, they use the opportunity to “remind” pedestrians to pay attention. This is classic bias because it’s emphasizing the wrong thing.

  • mikesonn

    So what if you hit me while taking that stunning “hat on the dashboard of a moving vehicle” avatar picture. Guess that’s my fault for not knowing you are a selfish a-hole, huh?

  • IHeartPandas

    Exactly. The tweet feels like victim-blaming (to me) because pedestrians are being told to pay extra attention in situations that are clearly designed for the benefit/convenience of speeding cars and not for pedestrian life. There are many cost-effective solutions that we can implement to improve safety for pedestrians — e.g. bulb-outs — and we should implement those ASAP.

  • IHeartPandas

    If we want all road users to receive respect, then we should really design our roads for ALL users — on foot, on bike, and in cars. This means bulb-outs at corners so that pedestrians are more visible, and so that turning cars are forced to slow down. This means leading pedestrian walk signals, or better cross walk striping, or even raised cross walks to reinforce the idea that a cross walk is a place for people on foot, and not a space where a car can zoom past the limit line and then optionally stop.

    I completely agree with you that pedestrians need to pay attention, too. But I think a big part of the problem is that people on foot (and on bike too) are placed in situations where they are at a clear disadvantage and where the road system is not designed for their safety.

    Take the cross walk at Buchanan and Webster, for example. I am always on high alert when I cross there, because the long line of parked cars along Bay makes it hard for drivers to see pedestrians on the corner. If it were truly designed fairly, for ALL users, there would be a bulb-out there, there would be better lighting, and Bay wouldn’t be designed so that drivers speed along at 35-40 mph before rolling through that stop sign.

  • Bruce Halperin

    I agree that our streets must be redesigned to safely accommodate all road users, especially those most vulnerable. But this is a long process that will not happen overnight, and given that our streets are so dangerous it is only prudent for those not encased in two tons of steel moving 30 mph or more to keep an eye out for those that are when crossing the street.

    And by the way, that stretch of Bay (which I use all the time on my bike) is due for a much-needed redesign late this year.

  • Dave Moore

    That is advice not blame. You can choose to ignore it, and risk being blamelessly dead. We can even put “He was right” on your tombstone.

  • Dave Moore

    Probably both things should be said but I wonder which has more impact. Basically are you more likely to save lives by warning pedestrians to be more careful not to get hit or drivers not to hit pedestrians? I’m not positive but it seems like the former is a bit more likely to be effective, although I’m pretty sure that any such statements are close to meaningless. They’re not telling anyone anything they didn’t already know.

  • guest

    Your speech is a form of bullying, Dave. Easy to say from behind a windshield.

  • 94103er

    And that just shows you still don’t get the reason why we’re irritated here. It’s that kind of mentality–basically Stockholm Syndrome–which comes solely from decades of SFPD’s indifference to the culture of bad driving; bad road design that emphasizes needlessly wide streets and one-way expressways; and a collective shoulder-shrugging at every tragedy that happens without enough push from our city politicians to really start changing things around here.

    That’s really great and super that the OP has been taught so well to fear the almighty car. He’s safe as kittens crossing the street. But that sure sounds like oppression to me. Oh, and BTW, crap like this can still happen while you’re ‘safely’ on the sidewalk.

  • NoeValleyJim

    Why o why do we have such a mediocre Chief of Police?

  • Dave Moore

    I guess I see these things as distinct. There’s a situation that you don’t like and you can try to change it constructively while at the same time taking care to avoid being the victim of it. The offense people take to comments like “be careful” strikes me as hypersensitivity.

  • p_chazz

    I’m confused. Buchanan and Webster don’t intersect; they run parallel to each other.

  • IHeartPandas

    Oops my bad — I meant Bay and Webster. Bay and Buchanan sucks too.

  • murphstahoe

    Dave – if you look at the cases we keep running into over and over in SF, you see a trend.

    Failure to yield to pedestrian on right turn on red.

    Eliminating right turn on red would be much more effective.

    If we aren’t willing to make that change, we aren’t serious about safety.

  • murphstahoe

    Dave – it appears you popped out of the womb and had an empathy-obotomy.

    I understand that you see these things as distinct. I am 46 years old, but when I was 18 years old I would have gravitated to your thinking on this topic as well. I have been through an arduous process of garnering the ability to look at problems through others eyes.

    My question for you is – do you understand why some of the commenters here do NOT see these things as distinct. You might still disagree, but currently you are just being dismissive.

  • Dave Moore

    It seems that you reserve this “empathy” you speak of
    for those you already agree with. Or perhaps you only discovered it recently.

    murphstahoe • 6 days ago

    Maybe someone can park in front of that hydrant and then light your house on fire. Then they can calmly tell you “Hey, I’m not blocking your driveway, quit complaining”

    I agree with you that blocking a driveway is better than blocking a hydrant, but I can understand the person’s frustration with it. Is that empathy?