Safety first: SF studies effects of distracted driving outreach efforts

A blonde, curly haired woman driving a champagne-colored sedan rolls down Harrison Street to Sixth Street, her face planted firmly in her phone. Her eyes down, she scrolls the screen as her car coasts through the intersection.

“Got one!” says Juliet Wilson, a transportation planner with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

Wilson is standing on the sidewalk, clipboard in hand, making note of every distracted driver she sees as part of an SFMTA study and sting operation to measure the effectiveness of enforcement and education efforts.

SEE RELATED: SFPD issuing thousands fewer traffic tickets, despite crackdown on most dangerous driving behaviors

About 80 percent of traffic crashes involve driver distraction, according to the California Office of Traffic Safety, and talking or texting on a cellphone is the leading cause.

The SFMTA study, first announced in November 2017 and set to wrap in May, is funded by a $111,393 grant from the National Safety Council.

Wilson said the SFMTA is measuring distracted driving in two discrete places in South of Market. One is a traffic corridor where police are pulling drivers over and ticketing them throughout the study — and where an education campaign that includes billboards advertises safe driving. The other site is a corridor without enforcement or education.

Both streets are also along “high-injury corridors,” the 13 percent of The City’s streets where 75 percent of severe and fatal collisions occur, according to the Department of Public Health.

As if on cue, just after Wilson spots her distracted drivers, one of the five or so police officers working with her spots another. Blue and red lights flash, and Officer Jose Pubill, atop his motorcycle, pulls over a silver Tesla.

The driver is a gray-haired man in a blue button-down shirt. After he hands his information over to Pubill, the man pulls out his phone, again, and types out a text message.

Pubill said the man “was aware of the violation. He got cited.”

That’s a $162 ticket for a first offense, and $285 for a repeat offense — not counting the court fees.

Transportation planner Juliette Wilson makes note of distracted drivers during a sting last week. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez/S.F. Examiner)

There’s no pattern to whom he sees staring at their phone while driving.

“It’s anybody,” Pubill said. “I roll right up on ’em. I want to make sure I’m directly observing.”

A total of 16 citations were issued the day of the sting, SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin said at a public meeting Tuesday, and police have issued a total of 95 citations during similar operations with the SFMTA this year.

As of Feb. 15, there has been one traffic collision-related death in San Francisco, according to the DPH. In 2017, 20 people died in traffic collisions, down from 30 traffic-related deaths in 2016.

Amidst San Francisco’s Vision Zero push to end traffic deaths in The City by 2024, the trend shows efforts are working, officials have said publicly.

Yet, Wilson and the SFMTA hope their distracted-driving study can determine how effective enforcement and education are in a bid to save lives.

The SFMTA wants to make sure everyone gets the message to halt the unsafe behavior. While Pubill pulled over scofflaws, a “street team” handed out flyers warning that distracted driving is six times more likely to lead to a crash than driving drunk.

SFMTA Board of Directors Chair Cheryl Brinkman joined in the education effort the day the San Francisco Examiner observed the sting.

“It’s shockingly common” to see distracted drivers, Brinkman said.

Brinkman also handed out flyers to passersby. One man, who would only identify himself as “Citizen Pariah,” argued with Brinkman that the problem in San Francisco isn’t texting while driving, it’s the “tech people.”

Having your face in your phone, he said, “is just where the human species is right now.”

Brinkman retorted the SFMTA was seeing progress ticketing drivers.
Eventually, “Citizen Pariah” relented and admitted, “I was almost hit” just down the street.

Wilson, the transportation planner, perhaps had better luck than Brinkman. She spotted 23 drivers using their phones out of a total 140 vehicles passing her by — in under 25 minutes.

The only distracted driver who may have been safe was one Wilson spotted texting and driving earlier.

“He was a guy in a self-driving car,” she said.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of transportation planner Juliet Wilson’s name.

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez covers transportation for the San Francisco Examiner. He also writes the weekly political On Guard column. Reach him at Follow him on Twitter: @FitzTheReporter.

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Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez

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