In high school science classrooms, students are taught that data becomes fact only when it can be tested. Experiments are set up with control groups and variables, and through testing and retesting, one ends up with valid and reliable information.
Unfortunately, when it comes to public policy, such experiments are often unfeasible. In a state of 38 million people, there are so many variables associated with any piece of legislation that it is rare that we get a neat determination of how laws affect human behavior. However, in January of 2009, one such experiment began on San Francisco’s 19th and Van Ness Avenues, and now it is up to us to learn from it.
In a city with an already abnormally high rate of pedestrian traffic accidents, 19th Avenue was one of the most dangerous streets, with nearly 600 pedestrian collisions taking place from 2003 to 2007, resulting in 10 deaths and hundreds of injuries.
Through the years, we have successfully changed the speed limit on 19th Avenue from 35 to 30 mph, installed pedestrian countdown signals at traffic lights, improved signage, and added bulb-outs to shorten the distance for pedestrians at several crosswalks. Despite all these changes, we continued to have an unacceptably high fatality rate on 19th Avenue.
In 2008, after five years of hard work, we were finally able to get a double-fine zone on 19th Avenue when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed SB 1419 — a bill I crafted with the help of several San Francisco community members. The combination of the fines and the improvements resulted in a substantial drop in traffic accidents along 19th Avenue, and there was not a single pedestrian death in 2009 — a result of which all San Franciscans can be proud.
As part of the compromise to get the double-fine zone on 19th Avenue approved, the Senate Transportation Committee insisted that we also include a double-fine zone on Van Ness Avenue, another dangerous corridor in our city. However, thus far, the improvements that have been made on 19th Avenue have failed to materialize on Van Ness Avenue, and as a result we have not seen a similar statistical change.
The fine increase cannot be used as a magic bullet, but rather as a piece of a larger strategy to improve traffic safety. It is my hope that the successes we have had on 19th Avenue can be repeated on Van Ness, and my expectations are that we would then see similar progress.
Good public policy is never made in a vacuum. It is carefully crafted with input from the community that will be affected by it, and when it fails to meet the needs of that community it should be retooled until it does. While it may be too early to say anything with absolute certainty regarding this law, what we have seen thus far is encouraging and that increased fines are an important piece of the puzzle needed to help save lives.
Leland Y. Yee is assistant president pro tempore of the California State Senate. He represents District 8, covering western San Francisco and the northern Peninsula.