San Francisco has fallen behind other jurisdictions in the country when it comes to prosecutors responding to traffic deaths. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

On-call prosecutors for traffic fatalities: the next step toward vision zero SF

By Leif Dautch

Our City suffered another tragic traffic fatality this weekend, the 22nd death of the year on our streets. That nearly equals the total figure for all of 2018.

These near-weekly fatalities underscore how far San Francisco is from achieving our “Vision Zero” target of eliminating traffic-related deaths by 2024. One critical partner that could be contributing more to that effort is the District Attorney’s Office. As a candidate for that office, I am proposing the District Attorney have on-call prosecutors respond to the scene of every traffic-related fatality in San Francisco. This model is used in other jurisdictions throughout the country and will ensure that every pedestrian, cyclist, and motorist death is investigated and prosecuted with the same level of seriousness as any other death.

First, some background. In 2014, San Francisco set out to eliminate all traffic deaths within ten years. “Vision Zero,” as the initiative became known, imagines an end to preventable and unnecessary fatalities through the combined efforts of policymakers, law enforcement, and community leaders.

The numbers, however, have headed in the opposite direction. After achieving a 5-year low of 20 deaths in 2017, the numbers have risen steadily. San Francisco streets are now on track for the deadliest year since the program began, and despite efforts to implement reforms and raise awareness, it is clear that drastic changes are required.

In speaking with advocates for pedestrian and bike safety, it has become clear that the Police Department and District Attorney’s Office is not investigating or prosecuting traffic fatalities with the necessary level of seriousness. All too often, there is a perception that pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorists “assume the risk” of death or serious injury when they take to the roads or sidewalks. In fact, one of my fellow candidates in the DA’s race recently said during a debate: “They’re called accidents for a reason.”

This lackadaisical approach to traffic incidents contributes to the culture driving the spike in deaths on our streets. Instead, the District Attorney’s Office should be treating traffic-related deaths and injuries seriously and ensuring there are prosecutors with sufficient training, experience, and bandwidth to handle these cases.

To accomplish that goal, I am proposing a rotating team of prosecutors who will be on-call to respond to the scene of criminal traffic deaths. Having an experienced prosecutor on the scene of incidents such as DUIs, hit-and-runs, and red light violations will ensure that police investigate the incident properly and will help the prosecutor convey details of the incident to the jury at trial.

It is also important to lead by example, so I vow as District Attorney to handle at least one shift each year as this “on-call” prosecutor for traffic-related deaths. This will send a message from the top-down that these cases must be treated more seriously.

Ironically, though San Francisco often touts our “first-in-the-nation” status, we have fallen behind other jurisdictions around the country on this issue. In fact, the idea for on-call prosecutors came from a recent conversation I had with a law school classmate who serves as a prosecutor in Florida. She spends one week per month as the on-call prosecutor for fatal traffic incidents and explained the benefits of the model.

By adopting best practices like on-call prosecutors for traffic deaths, combined with parallel efforts around education and environmental design, I am confident that the District Attorney’s Office can help the city finally achieve its Vision Zero’s goal of safe streets for all.

Leif Dautch is a prosecutor, former City Commissioner, and candidate for District Attorney of San Francisco. His views are his own.

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