Zero traffic deaths by 2024.
That’s the ambitious goal San Francisco has set itself, a mandate made under the late Mayor Ed Lee and championed by The City’s politicians and departmental leaders.
But as 2019 approaches, it’s a goal that is slipping away.
As of the end of November 2018 the number of traffic deaths on San Francisco streets for this year was at 22, four more deaths than at the same time in 2017, and two more deaths than at 2017’s end.
Those traffic deaths involve anyone killed in a vehicle, including passengers and drivers, as well as pedestrians and cyclists killed in collisions.
Officials have not released a traffic death count for December, but on Dec. 12 a 58-year-old woman was struck and killed by a driver while she walked in Nob Hill, pushing The City even farther from its achievements last year.
The year’s numbers so far also include one more cycling street death than in 2017.
“From what we know about fatal collisions about people on bikes, we’ve taken a slight step backwards from 2017,” said Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.
Wiedenmeier pointed to an influx of Uber and Lyft vehicles, which city studies have shown crowd areas of town already known to be dangerous to walk and bike in, as creating dangerous conditions on the road. He also said an increase in new residents makes reducing the total number of people killed difficult, though The City has made strides in making its streets safer.
“We’re seeing the result of trying to cram more cars in San Francisco every day,” Wiedenmeier said.
Though the San Francisco Police Department is responsible for enforcing the rules of the road, it is also slipping in its goal to ticket dangerous drivers.
SFPD’s plan to stop dangerous driving is called the “Focus on Five.” About 50 percent of all SFPD traffic citations must, under this mandate, focus on the five most dangerous driving behaviors: speeding, red-light running, failing to yield to pedestrians while turning, failing to give pedestrians the right of way and running stop signs.
Research shows those driving behaviors are the leading cause of pedestrian, cyclist and driver deaths. Yet, officers are slipping away from this 50 percent Focus on Five goal, despite meeting it for roughly a year previously.
From August 2016 to May 2017 roughly 50 percent of all SFPD traffic citations hit the 50 percent Focus on Five goal, but that number that slipped, slipped and slipped further away as 2018 neared. Those citations peaked again in May 2018, when the goal was again reached, but by September SFPD hit lows not seen since 2015.
About 38 percent of all traffic citations were in the Focus on Five categories in October 2018, the most recent month data is available.
“You see a reduction unfortunately in 2018,” SFPD Cmdr. Teresa Ewins told the Police Commission during a Dec. 5 presentation.
“That’s for many different reasons,” she said. “A lot of events we participated in. A lot of operations to reduce violent crimes in certain areas … our obvious goal in 2019 is to bring that number up to 50 percent.”
Though SFPD is lagging, Walk SF Executive Director Jodie Medeiros said more cops are not the answer. Instead, California needs to pass laws allowing automated speed enforcement technology, an effort that has so far stalled in the state legislature due to opposition from law enforcement groups who fear job losses.
“With the reality of growing vehicle traffic, The City needs to face the fact that even when they have sufficient numbers of traffic cops on the streets, it still won’t be enough,” Medeiros said in a statement. “Traffic officers can’t be everywhere at every moment of the day in our busy city. We have to get automated speed enforcement in San Francisco ASAP.”
A City Hall hearing held by Supervisors Rafael Mandelman and Sandra Fewer revealed SFPD is training 16 new traffic cops, the first personnel increase to SFPD Traffic Company in three years.
The unit primarily tickets traffic scofflaws, though police across The City are also responsible for ticketing within their districts and play a large part in the lagging Focus on Five numbers.
Valencia Street in particular, Mandelman told the Examiner previously, “is a traffic nightmare.”
Valencia is a known hot-spot of Uber and Lyft double-parking. At the Dec. 5 Police Commission meeting, Ewins said Uber and Lyft are “getting leeway right now” as they engage in talks with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency on developing methods to make their drivers safer.
San Francisco aims to reach its “Vision Zero” goal through three major efforts: traffic enforcement via SFPD, education efforts to help curb dangerous behaviors, and engineering streets to be safer with changes like new bike lanes and wider sidewalks.
On that last note, San Francisco is stepping up, officials said.
SFMTA Director of Sustainable Streets Tom Maguire told the SFMTA Board of Directors, who make traffic decisions every month, that The City has re-engineered roughly 80 percent of its streets to be safer since crafting its Vision Zero mandate.
“I would say we have almost certainly invested more in Vision Zero engineering than any city in the country,” he told them. “All of the streets reflect how aggressive you have been there,” in voting to approve safety changes.
But the SFMTA is far from done, he said.
At an SFMTA board workshop in January, “we will head a strategic conversation about things board and staff can do to make that final push to zero.”