San Francisco police officers dishing out fewer tickets

The average San Franciscan’s driving record is looking a little better these days.

The number of traffic citations dished out by the Police Department is down 18 percent from last year — and those handed out by officers in the traffic bureau dropped 44 percent from last year, according to police data comparing the first five months of 2011 to the same period in 2010.

But how likely you are to get a ticket may also have to do with where you drive: Some of The City’s 11 police districts have had significant drops in how many tickets were given out. Meanwhile, others’ numbers are soaring.

The reasons for the overall decline are multifold, said Capt. Al Casciato, who leads the traffic bureau.

First, all the rain this year has kept motorcycle officers indoors more than they were last year. Two trainings of new officers took some of Casciato’s troops away from their jobs for a while, and several retirements and transfers from the department took more. The department also has lost grant funding that helped pay for enforcement campaigns, he said.

Casciato noted that when he first joined the traffic bureau in the early 1990s, it had more than 100 officers — and that was a reduction from earlier days. Today, the figure is around 50 officers.

“We’re going to have to do the work more than 100 people did with what we have now,” Casciato said.

But the reduction in force doesn’t explain the drop by itself, he said. It’s possible drivers are simply following the rules more than they used to, a “sign of success” that The City’s three-pronged engineering, education and enforcement tactics are working.

“People’s attitudes change and culture changes,” Casciato said. “Red-light cameras have really changed how people behave at red-light signals.”

The department also has changed its enforcement philosophy, focusing on the thoroughfares that have proven most dangerous, such as 19th Avenue, Geary Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard.

“What we’re doing is targeting enforcement to high-risk corridors, which in a way doesn’t increase the number of citations, but what it does is reduces the number of accidents,” Casciato said.

He pointed to lower numbers of accidents on these streets since the strategy went into place as proof that it is working.

The number of tickets handed out is not without a fiscal effect. The state and The City divide the revenue from traffic tickets, and over the past fiscal year, about $8.8 million flowed into various San Francisco funds and agencies. More than half went to The City’s general fund, and about $1.7 million went to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

Some of the individual stations have made enforcement a higher priority than others. The Ingleside police district gave out 6,582 traffic citations in the first five months of this year, compared to 4,240 in the same period last year.
District Capt. David Mahoney said his station has taken a proactive approach to enforcement campaigns, including sting operations for drivers who don’t stop for pedestrians or who run lights. He said they especially have targeted the five most dangerous sections of road in the district in an attempt to change behavior there.

And it’s worked, he said.

“We know the accident rate is less than it was, and that to me is one of the best benchmarks of a successful campaign,” Mahoney said.


Motorists more savvy with phones

Drivers have apparently put their cellphones down — or are simply better at looking out for cops.

Last year, San Francisco police cited 7,258 people for texting or using their cellphones while driving.  But in the first five months of this year, they have only handed out 795 tickets — and at that rate, they’ll  cite fewer than 2,000 by the end of the year.

Asked the reason for the drastic drop, SFPD traffic bureau Capt. Al Casciato said drivers may have become more compliant with the relatively new distracted-driver rules. They also may be looking out for police better, he said.

“One thing’s for sure: When they see us, they comply,” Casciato said. “That’s always the challenge of catching someone; we’re more of a deterrent than we are enforcement. If we catch somebody, that means they’re really not paying attention, because they didn’t see us coming.”

But at least one study suggests distracted drivers have not gone away. This month, the Automobile Club of Southern California released a report saying the number of drivers texting or manipulating an electronic device has nearly tripled since the texting ban went into effect at the start of 2009, from about 1.4 percent of drivers at any given time to 4.1 percent.

However, drivers are apparently better behaved about making calls from handheld cellphones: The percent age of drivers making those calls has dropped from 9.3 before the practice was banned, to 3.2 percent, according to the study.

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