Officers from the San Francisco Police Department’s Traffic company appeared at a community meeting last week at Mission Station with a warning and some advice for residents. In response to a study of pedestrian and cyclist injuries and deaths in the last two years, police have identified several problematic intersections and behaviors to root out the common causes of traffic fatalities and improve safety on Mission streets. And they intend to do something about it.
Sergeant William Murray, a veteran of both Oakland Police and Mission Station, returned to the neighborhood to tell community members about the force’s three-part initiative to reduce fatal or severe collisions that includes education, enforcement, and an impact study. The initiative is a response to a Department of Public Health study which found that in the last two years, 38 pedestrians, seven bicyclists and 18 motorists were killed in San Francisco — in recent months, collisions have sent at least six people to the hospital. The program is also guided by the principles outlined in the Focus on the Five program, encouraging officers to issue citations for the five behaviors most likely to cause severe accidents.
Officers are visiting schools, senior centers, and community gatherings to teach everyone how to stay safe as a rapidly increasing population is leading to more traffic congestion and accidents.
Murray didn’t hesitate to educate the Mission residents at the meeting. He said pedestrians are at fault for roughly half of all serious accidents. To prevent being hit by a car, he said, it isn’t enough to just be alert when crossing the street. The key is making eye contact with the driver to make sure it’s clear who intends to do what.
“Stop, look and listen? Forget about it. That’s antiquated,” Murray said. “Don’t rely on the motorists to obey the law.”
That law can be confusing at times in terms of right of way and the ten-foot bubbles motorists are supposed to give pedestrians. But it is clear that that pedestrians have the right of way in a crosswalk as soon as they enter it, regardless of who got to the intersection first.
According to Murray, “As soon as you get your big toe in the intersection, you own that crosswalk.”
That’s a point cyclists as well as motorists would do well to remember, it seems—residents and traffic officers alike brought up the tendency of bicycle commuters to ignore stop signs on major bike thoroughfares. Officer Mike Ellis, a traffic officer accompanying Murray to the meeting, has been observing cyclist behavior. Ellis said that when he stopped cyclists who had run stop signs, they often claimed not to have even known they were required to stop. Murray said the SFPD has been working with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition to come up with ways to encourage traffic law obedience among cyclists and arrange for better education.
Murray said the initiative has included an increase in the number of tickets written, but that it’s not just about punishing people. For one thing, the approach is targeted. Pedestrians will no longer enjoy quite as much leniency from traffic enforcers, who are now more likely to ticket people who walk through a red light or commit other infractions on foot. Descriptions of traffic violations have also been posted in areas where cyclists tend to ride unlawfully on the sidewalk, to give beat cops walking the street more authority to ticket them.
The Bicycle Coalition’s Policy Director, Tyler Frisbee, had some reservations about the effectiveness of giving out more tickets to pedestrians, and said the enforcement campaign has slightly different priorities than the Focus on the Five campaign. That campaign is one of the strategies to reach Vision Zero, a goal adopted by the mayor, the SFMTA and the SFPD to reduce traffic deaths in the city to zero by 2024.
“In San Francisco in particular, frankly, there’s a lot of areas where it’s really hard to change people’s behavior. People in the Tenderloin are going to continue to walk unpredictably in roadways, changing that is not something that’s going to be done through ticketing pedestrians.”
Frisbee pointed out that all five of the most dangerous traffic behaviors are motorist behaviors — running red lights, running stop signs, violating pedestrian right-of-way, turning violations, and speeding. She also noted that pedestrians actually have the right of way when they are crossing streets at any intersection, whether there is a designated pedestrian crosswalk or not.
But Murray said the traffic enforcement initiative is more about creating the atmosphere of a crackdown than actually ticketing every single person who commits an offense. Murray said the perception that one might get a ticket is a significant deterrent to potential risk-takers, and his colleague said usually just stopping a cyclist for an infraction is enough to change their behavior. Their research has also shown that an officer who parks his cruiser visibly in a busy intersection reduces traffic incidents significantly more than a more subtle colleague who parks in a more hidden spots and hands out more tickets.
Murray has apparently observed that phenomenon firsthand: “Sometimes I’ll just go and park my bike and eat a sandwich and everyone will be a little angel for a while,” he said.
The traffic enforcement initiative is supported in part by a grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety and runs from October 2014 to the end of September 2015. The San Francisco Bicylce Coalition also hosts free education sessions for riders, and recently released a brief traffic safety video.