SFPD Explains: Driver Won’t Be Charged for Killing Cyclist at 14th & Folsom

A ghost bike at the corner where Charles Vinson was killed. Photo: GhostBike.org/Twitter

Three witnesses told SFPD investigators that Charles Vinson, 66, biked through a red light when he was killed by a driver at 14th and Folsom Streets on March 2, according to police officials.

An SFPD spokesperson told Streetsblog earlier this week that Vinson had been found at fault, contrary to an initial witness cited in the press who said the driver ran a red. The spokesperson declined to provide details at the time, since “the case is still open and active, we do not discuss open and active investigation matters.”

SFPD Sergeant Eric Mahoney later explained the department’s investigation, telling Streetsblog that Vinson may have misjudged the traffic signal timing at the complicated intersection. SFPD Traffic Company Commander Ann Mannix shared the same details with the SF Examiner yesterday.

Mahoney said Vinson was traveling eastbound on 14th and was hit by a driver headed northbound on Folsom. According to three eyewitnesses, Vinson began to ride against a red light. However, given the signal timing at the intersection, it’s also possible the driver blew through a red light. Police have yet to determine if that is the case.

“We’re not 100 percent sure what the vehicle did, but we’re 100 percent sure what the bicycle did,” said Mahoney. “The bicyclist, I’m thinking, assumed that as long as nobody’s going to make a left turn in front of me, I can keep going straight.”

Mahoney said the driver can’t be charged since it was established that Vinson had a red light. “Not saying that what [the driver] did or didn’t do was unimportant, but once we’ve established a violation here, we know that, even if we can prove [the driver had] a red light, the DA is not gonna charge that person with a crime because there’s a contributory factor.”

So there you have it: If you make a mistake on a bike, the law will give a pass to a motorist who strikes and kills you, even if there’s conclusive evidence of reckless driving.

SF Bicycle Coalition Policy Director Tyler Frisbee questioned the efficacy of the SFPD’s investigation, given the bias evident in cases like that of Amelie Le Moullac, who was blamed by police when a truck driver killed her. The SFPD’s version of events was refuted when an SFBC staffer found footage that showed the trucker was at fault.

“We appreciate the police looking into this report,” Frisbee told the Examiner, but “there’s certainly a history of reports being filed that don’t take a comprehensive look at the scene. [This has] huge consequences for the victim, the family, and everyone involved.”

Bert Hill, chair of the SF Bicycle Advisory Committee and a bicycle safety instructor, said that a major factor in Vinson’s crash was “obviously an engineering problem” at 14th and Folsom. Bicycle riders who are unfamiliar with the intersection’s unusual signal patterns may mistakenly proceed when they expect the light to turn green.

The intersection of 14th Street (east-west) and Folsom (north-south). During one signal phase, all traffic has a red light except for westbound traffic. Image: Google Maps

Folsom is a two-way street with bike lanes in each direction, while 14th is a one-way eastbound street with a bike lane, until it hits Folsom, where it becomes two-way street with no bike lanes. People on bikes heading east must merge into a lane with drivers on the far side of the intersection.

In an email, SFMTA spokesperson Paul Rose explained how the intersection’s traffic signals work:

This intersection operates on a split phase, where Folsom has a green in both directions, followed by a green for westbound 14th (red for eastbound 14th), then a green for eastbound 14th (red for WB 14th). The pedestrian signals for both crosswalks crossing Folsom allow pedestrian crossings overlapping with the split 14th St phases. In other words, pedestrians can cross Folsom any time either direction of 14th St has a green, but cars/bikes on EB/WB 14th St have to wait for their respective green before entering the intersection.

The SFMTA “conducted a field check of the intersection the day after the collision,” said Rose. “The intersection was found to have all necessary traffic control devices accounted for and functioning as designed. At this point, we’re not recommending any changes.” He said there was one bicycle collision in a recent five-year period, according to SFMTA records.

But Hill said “the MTA should examine the whole concept of having multiple directions [having a green light] when a person in the other direction doesn’t have any idea of what’s going on with it.”

“There are a lot of bicyclists who know the patterns, who know what’s going on with it,” he said. “The problem is with someone who is less experienced.”

  • mx

    “So there you have it: If you make a mistake on a bike, the law will give a pass to a motorist who strikes and kills you, even if there’s conclusive evidence of reckless driving.”

    I think there are some very real questions about this investigation and I hope SFBC gets real answers, especially with regard to seemingly conflicting witness statements, but I’m not quite sure this a fair characterization. If a driver runs a red light in their car, they likely won’t file criminal charges against the motorist who strikes and kills you, even if there’s conclusive proof he was, say, texting or eating while driving. It’s going to be extraordinarily hard to go before a jury and ague that someone else should be held criminally responsible when there’s evidence that the victim ran a red light.

    It sounds like they don’t claim to have enough evidence at this point to determine whether the driver committed any violations here. That’s a shame and I hope they are able to answer that question more definitively.

    All of this goes to show why fancy “gameable” traffic signal designs with countdown timers and split phases are bad ideas for our city. Pedestrians and bikes will continue to run red lights when they believe it is safe to do so. Drivers will continue to run red lights when they race to beat a yellow. Signal designs should acknowledge this and avoid creating traps for people who disobey the signals as much as possible. Of course, we should also all remember that red means stop and green means go, like our parents taught us.

  • I’ll withhold passing judgement until all the facts are in. Most important piece: What does Officer Ernst think happened?

  • murphstahoe

    By this standard, if Sutchi Hui entered the intersection before the walk signal turned on, then Chris Bucchere should never have been charged. I find it incredulous to think that did not happen based on the timing of that intersection.

    The SFPD and only asked if Bucchere ran the red, not if Hui had also broken the law.

    Bias.

  • djconnel

    You nailed it. Where do they get this stuff? Are they just winging it on the fly?

    In any case, with an Idaho stop law this would have been all much clearer. The cyclist yielded to all traffic with right-of-way, the driver killed him violating the red light.

  • p_chazz

    Eyewitness accounts have been shown to be very unreliable because of the subjective nature of memory. So it is impossible to get an objective account of what exactly happened or to bring charges.

  • TransBayTube

    If Vinson entered the intersection on a red (but noting no oncoming traffic with an east/west walk sign on) then the driver also blew the red. I’ve seen plenty of east bound cyclists at this intersection proceed through the red but on a walk sign with no oncoming traffic.

    Side note, it’s really stupid to have just this single block as two way traffic as 14th ends at Harrison.

  • HuckieCA

    Eye witness accounts may also have been unreliable if they did not understand the light cycle at that intersection. If you are on 14th street, and see a red for your direction, then you might assume that a car coming the opposite direction was running the red light. However, with the split phase, that would not be the case.

  • njudah

    why is the SFPD so hostile to cyclists? there have been so many documented incidents of them expressing outright hatred to cyclists , and I don’t understand why they’re so angry and so willing to automatically take sides against anyone Not In A Car. seems strange.

  • Anthony R

    defending what?

  • Anthony R

    Its all subjective man. The only objective truth is that drivers are always faultless and people on bikes get in the way of their speed and mass and more important things to do.

  • @murphstahoe – In Bucchere’s case the SFPD’s narrative shifted a few times. They made a public statement that he had a yellow light. Then they dropped that. The prosecution produced an eyewitness who testified that Bucchere had run a red, but the material evidence showed that the light was still yellow when this eyewitness (and Mr. Hui) entered the crosswalk, in advance of the walk signal.

    @djconnel – Again, a shifting narrative from the SFPD. The originally claimed to have a witness who saw Bucchere “flying through red lights and stop signs on Divisadero,” which is a stretch of street that’s uphill and has no stop signs. At the trial, and presumably after coaching, this statement switched to a downhill stretch of Castro that has no red lights (except the one at Market).

  • • Earlier statements by the SFPD suggested that they were using skid marks and similar forensics to determine that Vinson ran a red, which didn’t make sense. Now suddenly there are eyewitnesses (and the eyewitness who saw the motorist run the red light at high speed goes unmentioned). Sure.

    The Examiner piece ends with a quote, “I stand by what my investigators have determined,” … but, “we can’t definitively determine fault.” Yet even when they don’t “definitively determine fault” they declare the motorist not at fault and publish stats blaming bicyclists. Watch for it next year.

  • keenplanner

    We need the Amsterdam law here: Driver is always at fault if a pedestrian or cyclist is hit.

  • Dark Soul

    The cyclists mostly run through stop signs and red lights even with people on the crosswalks.. Its always incorrect that drivers is always the fault.

  • Earnest Flambeau

    What is the method by which SFPD moves around the city it patrols? There is your answer.

  • With greater danger to others comes greater responsibility.

  • jd_x

    it’s “always incorrect” that drivers are at fault? Wow, now that is an impressively bold, and entirely ridiculous, statement. Thanks for reminding us that motorists *never* make mistakes.

  • Prinzrob

    “I often see motorists running red lights but do a better job at the stop signs.”

    Well, most drivers slow at stop signs, but very few I see actually stop. And when they do it’s usually past the stop line, and on top of the crosswalk. That might be good enough by the cops’ standards, but it certainly doesn’t do a pedestrian in said crosswalk any good.

    What I see is a double standard for driver and cyclist compliance, with a lot of convenient “exceptions” for all the ways drivers constantly break the law and a lot of finger wagging for the ways cyclists break the law regardless of the safety impacts. That’s not to say that people on bikes don’t also need to up their game, but the obsession with “scofflaw cyclists”, who cause exponentially less danger than all of the unnoticed scofflaw drivers, is either oblivious or hypocritical.

  • AntiSlice

    If they both ran a red, I still don’t see how the driver gets away without even a goddamn ticket for running the red.

    I ride EB on 14th through that intersection most mornings, and I’ve never seen a cyclist run the red when Folsom has a green. With the walk sign & no oncoming traffic, yes.

  • Althaea

    I’ve bicycled that intersection and it does always seem scary to me. It is insane if you’re heading eastbound on 14th approaching Folsom and planning to turn left. It seems like no matter where you place yourself you take a risk because the motor vehicles come up behind you and barrel into the intersection, some turning left and some going straight.

    One major thing that I think America needs to implement, which is in Germany, is that at every intersection bicycles have an area to queue up in front of cars – across the entire width of the lane.

    That means when the light turns green the bicycles always go first and initially take the intersection. Then as they are clearing the intersection they shift again to the bicycle lane on the right side of the roadway.

    I’ve read other people’s comments here and other places about the need to “establish” oneself in a lane before the herd of motor vehicles come up behind one. This is exactly what the law in Germany solves and makes legal.

    With all these serious problems here I don’t understand why transportation people don’t take trips to places like Germany and see firsthand how its done there. I suspect its because there’s an agenda in the US to block bicyclists rights from attaining a level equal to what they enjoy in Germany.

  • Bruce

    I’m not usually one to defend motorists in car vs. bike crashes but there’s a double standard inherent in the article.

    Aaron writes “If you make a mistake on a bike, the law will give a pass to a motorist who strikes and kills you, even if there’s conclusive evidence of reckless driving.”

    But the evidence here seems to support the theory that both Mr. Vinson and the driver ran a red light. If one made a mistake, then so did the other, or else both were reckless. We shouldn’t automatically assign greater blame to the motorist if both parties broke the same law in the same way.

  • Bruce

    As someone who mostly gets around by bike (and who was once hospitalized after being hit by a reckless driver), I disagree. Bicyclists need to be held accountable for bad behavior. It is true that the police are often biased against people on bikes, but that doesn’t mean people on bikes are never at fault.

  • murphstahoe

    The standard is not “Driver always at fault” – it’s “Driver presumed at fault, subject to proof otherwise”

  • Bruce

    I’m cool with that.

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Driver Kills Cyclist Charles Vinson, 66, at 14th and Folsom

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Update: SFPD issued a response below. Charles Vinson, 66, was struck by a driver at 14th and Folsom Streets in the Mission yesterday and died from his injuries today. A witness saw the driver of a Honda Civic “blow through a red light and strike the bicyclist as the bicyclist waited for the light to turn green,” according to the […]