Eleven people have died on San Francisco streets already this year. And it’s only May.
Statewide legislation to pilot speed cameras, a proven tool in cities nationwide in the ongoing fight to slow vehicle speeds and curb reckless driving behavior, died in the Sacramento statehouse last week, making it the latest failed attempt to pass what many advocates call “common sense” reform.
Lovisa Svallingson was the most recent person whose life was taken by traffic violence.
The 29-year-old software engineer was walking near the intersection of Polk and Hayes streets on May 18 when she was struck and killed by the vehicle of a driver who allegedly ran a red light while traveling at excessive speeds, according to the San Francisco Police Department investigation.
The driver also hit 30-year-old Danny Ramos. He remains in critical care at a local hospital.
Advocates and city officials alike say that automated speed enforcement — more commonly known as speed cameras — could have helped to prevent the tragedy.
San Francisco doesn’t have the legal authority to install these cameras, but speed is overwhelmingly cited as the single-most determinant factor in whether a person will live or die in a traffic collision.
AB 550, introduced by Assemblymember David Chiu in March, would have piloted the use of automated enforcement systems to capture the license plates of speeding vehicles in five cities across the state, including San Francisco.
It’s been hailed for months as The City’s best shot to reaching its Vision Zero goal of ending traffic fatalities by 2024. San Francisco signed the pledge five years ago. Since then, more than 200 people have been killed in traffic incidents on city streets and another 20,000 have sustained severe injuries.
“Honestly, we were deepy disappointed, really frustrated, and frankly baffled. We know that speed cameras are a proven tool,” Tom Maguire, Director of Streets at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, said of the legislation’s demise. “You almost wonder how many people have to die in traffic before we use this common sense tool that so many cities have access to.”
Why the legislation was held in committee isn’t totally clear. An unlikely statewide coalition formed to craft a proposal that helped to address some of the concerns that derailed a similar speed technology bill in 2017, including a ban on facial recognition, equity parameters and a mandate that the program be overseen by local transportation agencies rather than police departments.
Maguire concedes that ending traffic fatalities within three years seems unlikely at this juncture.
He says the cities that have seen success in making streets safer have always had the dual power of enforcement and engineering in their arsenal.
“We thought AB 550 was going to be the thing that helped us get back on track. Again, that’s why you hear so much frustration from us,” he said. “Vision Zero is the right goal. We’re all committed to it, but it feels like we’re trying to reach this monumental goal without all the tools that we need to get there.”
When Chiu’s speed safety bill failed four years ago, it spurred the SFMTA to create the Quick-Build program, which uses lower cost, easily implemented changes to street design and engineering to improve safety such as protected bikeways and transit boarding islands.
Between 2019 and 2020, the agency completed projects on 19 corridors with at least 12 more in the pipeline, a lighting speed pace of project delivery and doubling of investment in street safety, according to Maguire. Vehicle speeds slowed and collisions decreased as a result.
Supervisor Matt Haney represents The City’s most dangerous district in terms of traffic violence, including the site where Svallingson was killed near Civic Center. He recognizes the significant work SFMTA has done in the past two years, but he wants a comprehensive plan for what it would take and what it would cost to get the job done.
“When a city sets a goal like Vision Zero, it really has to mean something,” he said. “We’ve been moving in the wrong direction, and pretty quickly, so if that doesn’t lead to some really significant proactive action, then this policy and this goal isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”
Advocates are also looking towards another piece of legislation that would close a wonky technocratic loophole in state law that currently forbids cities from setting their own speed limits in most areas. A bill to give municipalities more flexibility to set their own in certain neighborhoods sailed through committee and now awaits a floor vote in the coming months.
There’s also talk of expanding community ambassador campaigns and block-by-block outreach and education programs to improve traffic safey, according to Janice Li, Advocacy Director for the San Franciscs Bicycle Coalition.
Though the path toward Vision Zero remains an open question, those who have fought for street safety say their commitment remains stalwart and hope is not lost.
“The conversation that was had in the last eight months is really, really incredible,” Li said. “There is an acknowledgement that traditional speed enforcement and traffic enforcement is not working, and there is a clear voice from California cities and mayors that we need new tools. …”