Commentary: a Face of Traffic Violence

Tuesday morning's vehicular manslaughter speaks to the acceptance of traffic violence--and our society's unwillingness to solve the problem

Monday this man was another reckless driver. Tuesday he became part of a tragedy. Image from twitter
Monday this man was another reckless driver. Tuesday he became part of a tragedy. Image from twitter

A worker from an apartment building near the intersection of Geary and Gough helped my coverage of a fatal crash that occurred on Tuesday by providing a photo of the intersection from the roof. He also sent photos of the wrecked vehicle, a description of the crash itself, and, sadly, pictures of Mark Berman’s tarp-covered body and blood on the street.

The photos were helpful in understanding the tragedy. The worker, who asked for his name to be withheld, had read that advocates were using the crash as another example of why the city needs red-light cameras.

“How would a red-light camera have prevented this?” he asked.

“It would not have, at least not in isolation,” I explained. “But from what you told me about the crash, it seems likely this wasn’t the first time the motorist ran a red light,” I continued. “If there were enforcement cameras throughout the city, he would have lost his license a long time ago. Or he wouldn’t have run the light in the first place, knowing a large fine was a guarantee.”

That idea was underscored later that evening when a tipster sent Streetsblog a link to the social media feed of the suspect, Raja Whitfield, a 26-year-old San Francisco resident.

The video is disturbing. It shows “rawji” proudly speeding to such an extent he apparently got his car airborne 15 seconds into the video. At 1:42, he boasts about being a “street racer” and going 100 mph in a 25 mph school zone. He even jokes about ‘incriminating himself.’

People sometimes ask what do advocates for safe-streets mean by the term “traffic violence.” Embedded in that tweet is the answer (Streetsblog preserved the video HERE in case the tweet is deleted); it is violence that results from motorists who have an utter disregard for the safety of others and street designs and policies that facilitate and even encourage such reckless behavior.

In other words, Whitfield was a deadly crash waiting to happen. And the fact that he felt at liberty to post such an awful video shows how broken American culture has become when it comes to traffic violence.

The motorists car, shortly after the crash. Photo credit withheld on request
The motorist’s car, shortly after the crash. Photo credit withheld on request

How can Whitfield and so many other proudly reckless drivers even exist? Maybe the prosecutor can ask if he was influenced by the thousands of films and TV shows, from Bullitt to the Fast and Furious franchise, that glamorize reckless driving. Maybe someday Hollywood should make an episode of the Fast and Furious that shows what happened to actor Paul Walker, star of the series: he was killed when the driver of the Porsche he was riding in was tearing through a residential neighborhood at 90 mph and slammed into a tree.

It also speaks to the absurdity of autonomous cars and how its proponents claim they’re about making roads safer. Really? Then why aren’t Teslas released with governors that prevent drivers from exceeding the speed limit, except perhaps on a private track? How about building cars that notify enforcement or the DMV when the driver runs a red light or does a reckless maneuver? Why not advocate for laws that make such technology mandatory on new automobiles, instead of pushing for permission to unleash fully autonomous cars in cities?

And why are so many cities filled with Geary-like streets that are super wide, multi-lane, super straight, ground-level freeways that facilitate speeding in the first place? Why aren’t city streets designed with narrowing lanes, diets, diverters, traffic circles, steel bollards, and concrete obstacles that make it all but impossible to drive at 90 mph?

The primary blame for Tuesday’s tragedy belongs to the motorist. But this is about more than one reckless driver. Changing an entire planning culture and societal attitudes is hard.

But the first step is clear: end the debate about automated speed enforcement and red light cameras, roll them out everywhere, and make sure all the Whitfields out there are stopped from habitually speeding and running red lights right now, instead of after they kill someone.

Editorial note: The tipster who originally sent us the social media link mentioned that if this isn’t the same Whitfield, “… then there is another person with the same name driving the same type of Porsche SUV in SF.” Streetsblog independently matched the name on the account to the police report. There’s only one Raja Whitfield in San Francisco and the age of the suspect matches as does the behavior, obviously. But if the person in the picture and tweet is somehow not the suspect in Tuesday’s crash, then we will correct it – as any responsible publication would do. That said, we can be certain the person in the video is not or was not an “accident” waiting to happen, but a killing waiting to happen.

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