Law enforcement vehicles in San Francisco were some of the last to receive black boxes tracking speeding, gasoline usage and other metrics. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

New legislation could curb dangerous driving and excessive car rentals by city departments

Officials estimate claims, repairs and other unnecessary expenses cost $10.5 million each year

An existing program to track San Francisco’s vehicle fleet might soon get a makeover that would increase oversight and accountability within individual departments.

It could also save The City as much as $10.5 million annually in claims, repairs and unnecessary vehicle purchases and maintenance brought on by a number of concerning driving and utilization behaviors.

A proposed ordinance sponsored by Supervisor Norman Yee would “tighten up” existing legislation around The City’s telematics program, which uses black boxes installed in city vehicles to track speeding, gasoline usage and other metrics, in order to discourage dangerous driving behaviors and costly car rentals as well as promote public safety.

A 2016 law, also sponsored by Yee, requires about 80 percent of The City’s vehicle fleet to carry these black boxes. As of August 2019, about 52 percent of the 7,930 were outfitted.

But a report from the Budget and Legislative Analyst, required by the 2016 legislation, found “simply having telematic technology installed doesn’t mean The City is benefiting from it.”

Findings suggest the system is “underutilized,” and lacks the ability to effectively monitor or correct ongoing problems in a number of critical areas including driving safety, environmental impacts, and cost-saving opportunities such as utilization and rental or take-home use.

The legislation, which the Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee unanimously voted to send to the full board for approval on Monday, hopes to remedy some of these shortcomings and give the program more teeth.

It would require departments to submit a written monthly report of telematics data to the City Administrator’s Office, develop a corrective plan for dangerous behaviors exposed by the findings and provide a detailed justification of the costs and anticipated use of any vehicle that would be leased or rented for more than 30 days at least five days prior to obtaining the car.

The BLA report released last month revealed that between September 2018 and the end of September 2019, at least 148,034 speeding incidents were logged by vehicles fashioned with black boxes. Of those, 16.3 percent went between 20 to 28.9 miles per hour over the posted speed limit, which is considered exceptionally dangerous to pedestrians, cyclists and other vehicles.

Jodie Medeiros, executive director of the pedestrian safety organization Walk SF, described the “excessive, recurring, dangerous speeding” by city officials in vehicles paid for by city resources as “infuriating,” and she called on the committee to hold its own employees accountable in leading San Francisco’s charge towards their Vision Zero goals, which include zero traffic deaths by 2024.

It also found a total of $2.6 million was spent on rental cars — which escape the black box watchdog — for 79,354 days across all city departments.

As the Examiner previously reported, the Police Department, Public Utilities Commission and Department of Elections were the three city departments that rented cars for the greatest total number of days over the same 13-month period.

Law enforcement vehicles were some of the last to receive the black boxes, and they had until June to comply, expecting to add 1,000 more devices to city vehicles.

A spokesperson from the San Francisco Police Department declined to give specifics on the status of that deadline but told the Examiner “we are in the process of developing a policy regarding the use of telematics and establishing the appropriate level of monitoring vehicles while securely maintaining the data provided by telematics.”

It’s not that the initial legislation didn’t accomplish anything. In fact, over 100 underutilized vehicles have been retired since 2018, high speed incidents have reduced by two-thirds, and roughly $79,000 annually of savings have been generated due to smog check waivers, for example.

But there’s still “a lot of work to do,” officials said Monday.

Yee said he hopes the reporting mandate will organically shift culture, and eventually lead to more responsible driving behavior, more diligence toward fleet efficiency and more prudent use of resources on car rentals.

Ideally, he said, departments will “do this on their own” because they know the City Administrator and, ultimately, the Board of Supervisors, will be watching more closely, making top-down enforcement mechanisms unnecessary.

The legislation will next be heard by the entire Board of Supervisors for approval.

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