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Memorial for Wilbert Williams Calls on Caltrans to Fix SoMa’s Freeway Ramps

Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Ferrara speaks with safe streets advocates  near Fifth and Harrison, where Williams was run over in his sleep. Photo: Walk SF
Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Ferrara speaks with safe streets advocates near Fifth and Harrison, where Williams was run over in his sleep. Photo: Walk SF
Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Ferrara speaks with safe streets advocates near Fifth and Harrison, where Williams was run over in his sleep. Photo: Walk SF

One year ago yesterday, 62-year-old Wilbert Williams was sleeping in a tent next to a Highway 80 off-ramp at Fifth and Harrison Streets at about 1 a.m. when he was run over and killed by a drunk SUV driver who veered off the road.

Wilbert and Yvette Williams. Photo courtesy of Yvette Williams
Wilbert and Yvette Williams. Photo courtesy of Yvette Williams
Wilbert and Yvette Williams. Photo courtesy of Yvette Williams

"That morning, I woke up and got ready to see my husband," wrote Williams' widow, Yvette Williams, in a statement:

I turned on the television, and heard the story of a man hit by a car in his sleep. The car drove straight through the 5th Street offramp into an adjacent park. I saw my husband's friends talking to the camera. As I searched for Wilbert on the screen, all I could see were his belongings -- a sign written in his handwriting, his hat, his pillow and his wagon. My heart began to drop. I raced over to the scene as quickly as possible. As I was driven to the morgue -- not the hospital -- I prayed I would not find my husband... that it was someone else.

That day, my hopes were shattered and my life forever changed. I lost the love of my life. And on top of it, I faced prejudice.

Safe streets advocates held a memorial yesterday near the site where Williams was killed, highlighting the dangerous driving encouraged by the freeway ramps.

The Vision Zero Coalition, led by Walk SF and the SF Bicycle Coalition, called for urgent action from Caltrans, the state agency that controls highways and the city streets where freeway ramps touch down. With a decades-long legacy of gouging highways through cities, the agency still tends to disregard the burdens that grade-separated limited-access roads impose on urban neighborhoods like the South of Market District.

"Caltrans is notorious for focusing their engineering on facilitating vehicle traffic, and regularly misses the mark on safety goals," said Walk SF Executive Director Nicole Ferrara in a statement. "Today, we’re asking Caltrans to stop with business as usual, and start building roads to protect the lives of people who travel on them."

Caltrans recently pledged a new focus on safer streets, and took a first step by "piloting a pedestrian safety program, which uses injury data to inform investments," according to the coalition's press release. But "waiting for a potential program to help address the dangerous conditions freeways have created on our local streets is no longer an option," said Ferrara. "Caltrans needs to prioritize safety and take steps to make corrective improvements now."

The data collected by the SF Department of Public Health in recent years reinforces what's already known by just about anyone who walks in SoMa: The city's most dangerous streets are those designed for speed, and they're the deadliest at freeway ramps.

"Freeway ramps in San Francisco are where fast moving traffic merging on and off freeways literally meets our local streets -- and the people walking and biking along them," said SFDPH's Megan Wier, co-chair of the city's Vision Zero Task Force. "This can be a fatal combination. Tracking these deaths and where they occur helps us to recognize patterns and opportunities to save lives."

The block between Fourth, Fifth, Harrison, and Bryant Streets is mostly occupied by four Highway 80 freeway ramps. At the corners where they touch down, 17 people were injured by drivers while walking between 2005 and 2012, according to CA Highway Patrol data. Twelve of those crashes involved "unsafe speed" as a primary factor.

A city planner told Streetsblog in 2013 that those freeway ramps make for "horrible intersections," and that "they’re not something that would be built today."

At the nearby intersection of Sixth and Brannan Streets, where Highway 280 ramps touch down in both directions, 29 pedestrians were injured by drivers traveling at unsafe speeds within the same period. On Sixth Street, which funnels freeway-bound drivers through one of the city's densest neighborhoods, drivers injured 123 people on foot within those seven years.

Supervisor Jane Kim's District 6, which is comprised mainly of SoMa and the Tenderloin, has "the highest number of pedestrian fatalities in the city and the majority of the freeway on and off-ramps," she noted.

"Although the issue of pedestrian safety has always been a top priority for me since I took office, I continue to be reminded of the very real human cost of not acting," Kim said in a statement. "My most agonizing moments on this job have been trying to console families devastated by the loss of a loved one, attending the funerals and grieving with the friends and families of residents killed by collisions that are 100 percent preventable."

High-speed crashes at freeway ramps in SoMa regularly make headlines. On Saturday, an allegedly drunk driver barreled off the ramp at Seventh and Bryant Streets, just outside the Hall of Justice, and smashed into three parked cars. The driver was traveling fast enough to send two of the cars into Caffe Roma, narrowly missing a car with a woman and child inside.

The driver, 41-year-old Marc Nagata, was hospitalized with life-threatening injuries and arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence.

On the ramps near Fifth and Harrison, where Williams was killed, three motor vehicle occupants were also killed in 2014, including a 25-year-old driver whom police said was not impaired, but probably speeding, when she went over the side of the same ramp where Williams was killed. The driver who killed Williams, 27-year-old Jaime Juarez, was charged with gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and two counts of DUI causing injury.

"As [Williams'] case illustrates," said District Attorney George Gascón, "a lapse in judgment can result in very dire consequences for all parties involved."

"When recent history shows how deadly certain sections of our roads are for people biking and walking, there's no excuse for inaction," said SFBC Executive Director Noah Budnick. "Vision Zero is more than an opportunity for government officials to cut ribbons and earn headlines. It's a moral obligation to take immediate action and make our streets safer and more comfortable for everyone."

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