Despite stay-at-home orders, 30 people died in San Francisco last year in traffic collisions, an increase from the year prior that has prompted concern from residents, advocates and transportation agency board members about The City’s failure to keep streets safe.
Transit officials have long touted the extensive street level changes The City has made to lower speeds, enhance pedestrian visibility and improve overall safety for road users as central to its Vision Zero pledge to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2024.
Still, over each of the last 15 years, San Francisco has lost at least 20 lives to dangerous streets.
Members of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors were vexed by the lack of progress and implored the agency to retool its approach at a two-day budget workshop this week.
Director Amanda Eaken said she was “heartbroken” and “totally disheartened” that 30 people died last year, up from 29 in 2019.
Expressing frustration, she emphasized the time spent by The City conducting outreach as opposed to executing comprehensive changes known to curb dangerous driving behavior.
“I feel like San Francisco expects us to fix those things, and not spend years on outreach,” she said. “Let’s go ahead and make those fixes if we know we can save lives. I just want to say that because I feel like we dance around this topic way too often.”
Red light cameras, for example, have helped cut the number of crashes related to blowing through a stoplight by one-third since the local program’s inception, but there are only 19 active cameras at 13 locations citywide.
But SFMTA has been slow to add more, instead opting for lower cost engineering alternatives that can be implemented more quickly and still considered effective, such as daylighting, signal upgrades, crosswalk improvements and protected bikeways.
Jeffrey Tumlin, SFMTA’s director, staunchly defended the work of his agency, pointing to notable upticks in fatalities and severe injuries in major urban areas across the country this year as evidence that San Francisco’s approach is actually working.
“That we are holding steady is miraculous, particularly when we have the full power of the state and federal government working against us,” he said of the modest increase in fatalities over the past year. “State government emphatically prioritizes motorist convenience over safety, and it has for years.”
SFMTA has long emphasized the lack of local authority to set its own speed limits — except in hyper-specific locations — and roll out automated speed enforcement cameras as reasons why its ability to truly calm traffic and enhance street safety has been limited.
Both require changes to state law to grant cities that power.
“We know we can’t get to zero deaths from traffic crashes without a transformative policy agenda, so we will continue to pursue state legislative changes to give us more authority over how speed limits are set in San Francisco and to see the ability to implement speed safety cameras for enforcement,” according to an agency blog post.
Director Steve Heminger probed SFMTA staff about whether enforcement should play a more prominent role in Vision Zero efforts, particularly given the current approach’s demonstrated lack of efficacy.
“I know you’ve been doing a boatload of engineering, but we’re not getting the output,” he said.
The San Francisco Police Department has committed to issuing at least 50 percent of its annual traffic citations to drivers exhibiting the five behaviors behind the wheel known to be the most dangerous — speeding, violating pedestrian right-of-way, running red lights, running stop signs and failure to yield — with a specific focus on The City’s most dangerous streets, known as the High Injury Network.
Called “Focus on Five,” this initiative intends to reduce the influence of documented racial bias, raise public awareness that these behaviors will lead to a citation and, ultimately, curb reckless driving.
However, 2020 showed a marked dearth in the number of traffic citations issued, even as unsafe streets were partly responsible for more than two dozen deaths.
SFPD issued 13,995 traffic violations. Of those, 52 percent of citations issued were considered part of the Focus on Five initiative, just exceeding its annual target.
That’s barely over 7,300 traffic citations total, even as Vision Zero Year-End Reports from 2016 to 2019 show the most cited collision factors each year were failure to yield at right-of-way at crosswalks, unsafe speed and failure to stop at a red signal, all of which fall into Focus on Five enforcement.
From October to December 2020, the deadliest three-month stretch of the year that took the lives of 10 people, only 2,252 traffic citations were issued citywide. Of those, 49.3 percent were given to a driver who violated one of the Focus on Five principles.
By comparison, 8,899 traffic citations were issued citywide over the same period in 2019, with 52.5 percent being given for infractions related to Focus on Five.
SFPD declined to comment despite repeated requests.
When pressed on why enforcement isn’t more readily employed as a tactic, Tumlin highlighted policing’s legacy of racial bias. San Francisco-specific data shows people of color do, in fact, remain disproportionately subject to traffic stops.
Acknowledging the need to root out racial bias in enforcement, Heminger still challenged the agency to figure out how to work with SFPD. He noted that for all the talk about the disproportionate impact of policing on communities of color, there’s far less talk about members of those same communities dying due to collisions at a higher rate than their white counterparts as well.
A slew of studies show that to be true: people of color account for a far greater share of those killed by traffic violence every year than their collective share of the population nationwide.
One report from the University of Pennsylvania found that, although Black people tend to travel fewer miles by automobile, they’re far more likely to die when they do so. Another from a journal article “Transportation Research” found drivers are more likely to yield for white pedestrians as opposed to their Black counterparts.
Still, SFMTA’s first formal communication after the impassioned Vision Zero board discussion included no real mention of how the agency would partner with SFPD to responsibly increase enforcement.
Rather, it largely focused on the same tools it has said for years will curb dangerous driving behavior: exercising existing local authority to lower speeds; advancing upwards of 10 Quick Build projects; accelerating the pace of daylighting across the High Injury Network; and lobbying in Sacramento for the right to change speed limits and use speed cameras.