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

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Recent years have seen a drop in tickets for traffic offenses such as unsafe lane changes and “fix-it” citations for tail-lights. (Daniel Kim/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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Police have issued thousands fewer traffic tickets to drivers in San Francisco in recent years, despite a citywide push to ticket drivers who exhibit the most dangerous driving behaviors, according to a review of publicly available data by the San Francisco Examiner.

The San Francisco Police Department is fulfilling its promise to issue tickets to drivers for certain behaviors like speeding as part of The City’s traffic safety effort Vision Zero, but publicly available traffic ticket data shows tickets of other traffic offenses have dropped precipitously.

Those offenses, listed merely as an “other” category of tickets in SFPD records, range from “fix-it” tickets for tail-lights or expired registration stickers, to tickets affecting traffic safety such as unsafe lane changes, and more.

This drop also allows SFPD to more easily meet its self-made mandate of 50 percent of all tickets issued being in vital traffic safety categories, because the total number of tickets issued is far fewer.

All told, annual traffic tickets issued so far this year dropped by nearly 30,000 from the same time in 2015, according to public data.

Despite the drop, the SFPD said its ticketing efforts are working to keep streets safe from dangerous drivers.

“Currently, pedestrian and bicycle fatalities are down compared to last years totals,” SFPD spokesperson Sgt. Michael Andraychak said in a statement to the Examiner.

There have been 15 traffic deaths so far this year, according to city data, 11 of whom were pedestrians and cyclists — the most recent of which was a pedestrian struck and killed by a car at Sloat and 36th avenues on Oct. 31. Last year, 30 people died in traffic fatalities on The City’s streets.

Ticketing is seen as a major leg of The City’s Vision Zero effort to reduce traffic deaths to zero by 2024, which is a three-prong effort of enforcement, engineering and education.

Street safety advocates like Walk SF and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition pointed to the SFPD’s fluctuating ticket numbers as another reason to back a controversial bill by Assemblymember David Chiu to legalize a pilot of Automated Speed Enforcement cameras in San Francisco and San Jose. The effort has faced fierce opposition from state law enforcement groups.

“Such a substantial swing in traffic citations suggests that we should focus our efforts on more stable solutions for delivering safe streets,” Chris Cassidy, a spokesperson for the bike coalition, said in a statement.

While traffic tickets issued by SFPD remained consistent from 2013 to 2015, at just above 120,000 tickets annually, annual tickets issued dropped by 23,000 in 2016.

A look at year-to-date ticket data shows that trend continuing this year. By September 2016, police issued just 77,646 tickets to drivers in San Francisco. By the end of September this year, the most recent data available, police issued just 62,820 tickets to city drivers.

That’s a drop of 14,826 tickets this year alone. The biggest drop in tickets year to year occurred in September. Police issued more than 9,400 tickets in September 2016, but just 5,700 tickets this September.

The drop did not occur in SFPD’s mandated ticket categories for street safety, known as the “Focus on Five,” where police pledged to penalize scofflaws in the most deadly driving behaviors more heavily, such as speeding, running red lights, failing to yield to pedestrians at crosswalks, failing to yield while making a left or U-turn and failing to fully stop at stop signs.

“Focus on Five” ticketing remained fairly steady, data shows.

But the drop in the number of tickets issued did allow SFPD to more easily promote itself in city meetings for meeting its 50 percent “Focus on Five” ticketing mandate. The numbers it showed to the Police Commission in October were percentages — not totals.

The SFPD met its 50 percent “Focus on Five” goal in January, February, March, April, and May, records show, and hovered closely under its 50 percent goal in June, July, August and September.

In the most recent report SFPD’s Traffic Company gave to the Police Commission, on Oct. 4, former head of Traffic Company Cmdr. Robert O’Sullivan said the SFPD was prevailing in targeting unsafe drivers with tickets. O’Sullivan was transferred to another role in the department by the end of the month.

“We’ve seen aggressive improvement to attaining that goal,” he said of the 50 percent percentage of all tickets being “Focus on Five” citations. “I’m very proud to say we’ve been meeting that goal since September 2016.”

The largest increase in citations was against speedsters, O’Sullivan said.

“Why do we go out and do enforcement?” he said. “We want to reduce the total number of injury collisions. We want to cause and effectuate change.”

It’s unclear why the total number of tickets issued citywide has dropped in recent years. The new head of Traffic Company, Capt. Raj Vaswani, was not available for an
interview, Andraychak told the Examiner.

However, sources on background pointed to new policies in the department that, while considered necessary, may slow down the process of issuing tickets.

The U.S. Department of Justice recommended the SFPD expand its collection of demographic data in traffic stops using the eStop data collection program, which the department instituted in November 2016, according to a department bulletin. Also, the collection of data related to officer-worn body cameras introduced another step in filing police reports after a traffic stop, which were rolled out to at least 1,600 officers by February, the Examiner previously reported.

At the Police Commission meeting, Commissioner Thomas Mazzucco told O’Sullivan that SFPD’s “Focus on Five” percentages were promising, and praised the department’s efforts to make streets safer.

“I know it’s not easy for the officers,” he told O’Sullivan. “You never make a good friend when you’re giving a ticket. But it’s important.”

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