January 19, 2014
A special joint meeting of the Board of Supervisors and the Police Commission was held Thursday at City Hall to address an alarming spike in pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in San Francisco.
The packed meeting in Board chambers was attended by Chief of Police Greg Suhr, SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin, Supervisors Eric Mar, Scott Wiener, Jane Kim, Norman Yee and David Campos.
The focus of the meeting was the simmering issue of traffic collisions leading to a six-year high of 25 fatalities last year – 21 pedestrians and 4 cyclists.
Although there were a large number of police officers and disgruntled accident victims and community leaders in attendance, Campos warned that the hearing should, “Focus on how we can move forward without pointing fingers.” Public outcry reached a fever pitch after Sophie Liu, 6, was killed by a motorist in the Tenderloin on New Year’s Eve.
Supervisor Kim, who has been championing the issue of pedestrian safety since her election to the Board, was keen to ensure, contrary to the current system, that guilty parties “are being prosecuted by the District Attorney.” She stressed that the “press plays a very important role in educating people about safety.”
Whilst Kim pushed for the adoption of Vision Zero, a policy which seeks to eradicate pedestrian road deaths altogether, Supervisor Norman Yee, who was himself seriously injured by a motorist in 2006, argued, “No one strategy will reduce fatalities. We need all three,” referring to proper enforcement of traffic laws; improved traffic controls and public safety awareness campaigns.
“There is a very poor culture of safety in San Francisco,” Yee stated, citing a multitude of drivers observed texting and talking on cellphones while in control of a motor vehicle.
The fact is, “two thirds of pedestrian accidents are the fault of the driver,” stated Supervisor Wiener. “When you are driving a vehicle, that vehicle, when it hits someone, is a deadly weapon.”
Jikaiah Stevens, who was struck by a motorist in September while using a crosswalk in Nob Hill, spoke passionately at the hearing stating she wanted to “show a face to a system that doesn’t support its victims.”
Walking to work at her hair salon, Stevens, 31, waited until the walk sign glowed and started to cross the road. She was hit by a motorist who failed to yield to her on the crosswalk. She is lucky to be alive, but suffered a traumatic brain injury which left her a loss of motor skills, chronic back and neck pain, memory loss, social anxiety, and a loss of taste and smell.
A hair stylist and photographer, Stevens lives paycheck-to-paycheck and cannot afford medical insurance. Four months since the accident, she has tentatively been able to go back to work, but risks losing her apartment due to a loss of income during her recovery. She incurred over $140,000 in medical bills, which she has no way of covering.
The motorist who struck Stevens was not issued a citation for failing to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk. Furthermore, the motorist carried the minimum amount of liability car insurance required by law – only $15,000. So Jikaiah is left to seek remuneration from the city to help pay her medical bills.
“What is their incentive to be a safer driver when [motorists] suffer no consequences?” Jikaiah asked the panel.
But this is the way it goes: police do not arrest drivers (until this week at the behest of the District Attorney, according to Commander Mikael Ali), and often do not issue citations. Ali said from now on, “when any fault is established at the scene of a non-serious injury collision, a citation shall be issued.”
Ali claimed that the fall in traffic citations in the last year was partly due to a record low number of police officers, citing retirees and a lack of police academies to train new officers.
Leah Shahum of the SF Bicycle Coalition, said the city’s avowed ‘Transit First’ policy, that should put pedestrians and bikers first, was “not getting down to all the line officers.” She stated that many victims who contacted her organization claimed that, despite department initiatives, police officers regularly failed to issue citations, apportioned blame to pedestrians and cyclists, and claimed that if victims didn’t need ambulances, then they weren’t “that badly injured.”
“We are hearing of people not being reported or given the required attention,” Shahum added.
Shahum then thanked the police department for committing to adopt Vision Zero.
Supervisor Eric Mar echoed Shahum’s comments when, having praised his predecessor Jake McGoldrick’s Pedestrian Safety Committee, claimed efforts thus far were “not making a difference.” He stressed that difference would be largely down to where and how the city spends its money.
“There has to be a lot more sensitivity towards victims,” Mar said. “Blaming victims is wrong.”
He was backed up by Wiener who cautioned that the city had “passed many resolutions… but the situation doesn’t improve.” Wiener went on to say that he was committed to “finally ending the era of negligence where we didn’t have any police academy classes. We need to make sure in two to three years time, we are not reducing traffic enforcement, which is always one of the first things to go during budget cuts.”
Natalie Burdick, Membership Director at WalkSF, pleaded with those in attendance to “End the carnage on our streets. These crimes cost the city millions each year, and untold costs in human suffering.”
“We must put an end to all traffic deaths,” Burdick added.
The Reverend Norman Fong of the Chinatown Community Development Center made an impassioned speech listing the number of members of his parish who had been killed, hit, or nearly hit by motorists in the last year. He warned how new regulations and requirements were not going to be popular, but that policymakers should “Go for it and slow down San Francisco.”
“I believe people’s licenses should be suspended and they should have to go to traffic school, and they should have to pay the bill,” Jikaiah told Fog City Journal following the meeting. Perhaps there should even be stricter driving tests and requirements too, so as to ensure that drivers are safe before they are allowed on the road.
Police Chief Suhr personally stated towards the end of the hearing that Jikaiah’s case would be reopened and the driver who hit her would be issued a citation. He also apologized for the department’s mishandling of several other cases, including a “poor police investigation” of the cyclist killed at 6th and Folsom in August. Changes are definitely now afoot for the safety of those on bike and foot.
You can see a documentary about Jikaiah and her accident here:
You may also donate towards her medical bills here:
See below for links to other articles: