On a recent Thursday evening, David White was on his yellow Italian scooter, making his regular short commute home along Dolores Street from his Yellow Moto Pizzeria, when he was cut off by the driver of a white SUV.
In a split second, White was flat on the pavement with a broken arm, and this wasn’t your typical traffic spat involving finger-flipping or honked horns. The driver, heading south on Dolores Street, had pulled a sudden U-turn in front of White as he drove north through a green light.
There was no time to react. “I plowed straight into the car,” White said. His arm broken, witnesses rushed to help. He didn’t even register the driver fleeing the scene.
The person responsible for White’s injuries has not been found. And, chances are, they never will be.
White, at least, made it out alive.
On Sunday, a driver hit and injured a pedestrian near 16th and Capp streets, then fled the scene only to hit another car blocks away, at 16th and Potrero. The victim in the second collision died of his injuries. Later that same day, another driver left a pedestrian with serious injuries at Van Ness Avenue and Bay Street.
Three weeks into 2023, three people have lost their lives to hit-and-run collisions with cars — one on foot, and two in cars. Others have been hit and survived. Last year was San Francisco’s deadliest year since in 2014, when the city adopted its “Vision Zero” plan.
Earlier this month, Supervisor Dean Preston’s office released a new traffic fatality tracker, using preliminary crash information from the SFPD, that includes data on which fatalities result from hit-and-run collisions.
Eleven of the 37 traffic deaths in 2022 were hit-and-runs.
More powerful vehicles, more distracted drivers, and faster drivers are all factors that can contribute to more crashes, said Walk SF’s Marta Lindsey, but she said speed was the main issue with hit-and-run collisions.
“It’s happening so quickly, the driver’s out of there so fast, the witnesses can’t keep up with what’s happened,” said Lindsey, who said she started noticing increasing levels of hit-and-runs before the pandemic, around 2018. “Most people never get the whole story, and no one is ever held accountable; it adds an extra level of devastation to the whole thing.”
Limited research on the subject shows that hit-and-runs are more likely to occur in urban areas with high pedestrian traffic, on roads with lower speed limits, and at night, when there is less visibility and drivers may be intoxicated.
Another contributing factor may be that few are held accountable. In nearly 70 percent of San Francisco’s reckless driving or hit-and-run incidents, police never find the driver. In some sense, it is the perfect crime, albeit by accident.
Leaving hit-and-run crimes unresolved puts the public at risk, Lindsey said: “That means this person is still out there driving, the person who would do that — and may very well do that again.”
White, a 51-year-old father of three, doesn’t have high expectations that the police will track down the driver of the white SUV. He has already been through the wringer just trying to obtain existing video footage of the collision from the police department.
“I keep getting the runaround; one department sends me to another department,” White said.
Finally, the traffic collision investigators told him to go straight to the building, or go to court to obtain the video. “Who the hell wants to do that?” White asked. “I just don’t have the time or the will to go down and deal with more bureaucracy at 850 Bryant.”
He now has a 4-inch metal plate in his arm, and just got his stitches taken out late last week. He’s severely bruised, and says his leg “feels a bit funny” from his hip hitting the asphalt, but he says he’ll be fine after several more weeks of recovery.
White isn’t wrong to have doubts about his case’s outcome. The majority of San Francisco’s hit-and-run perpetrators are never caught.
“The resources don’t seem to be there to help ordinary citizens,” White said, adding that he gets the feeling his case isn’t high on the priority list for the police department. “That’s not to say that police are bad people. I’m just really questioning how the city’s being managed.”
On his own time, White has begun asking nearby businesses and building managers for their camera footage. When we first spoke, on White’s first day back at Yellow Moto, he was trying to be positive, despite the lack of support.
“All things considered, I was very fortunate to walk away from it,” White said. “If it was a split second later, he might’ve hit me head-on. I’ll take it.”
Also trying to make the best of her traumatic injury at the hands of a reckless driver is Alexandra Tamez, 33, who was hit by a driver blasting through an intersection nearly a year ago.
Tamez was in a coma for about six weeks and suffered a broken jaw, collarbone and ribs, and she was approved months ago to receive tens of thousands of dollars from the California Victims Compensation Board.
So far, she hasn’t gotten a cent. Her victim “advocate,” Tamez said, doesn’t take her calls anymore.
Tamez has taken to calling every day and waiting on hold while she has been staying with her mother in Texas, but is ready to get back home to San Francisco. She has a job lined up, and a plan to go back to school.
“If they sent me a check today, I would be back tomorrow,” Tamez said. “I’m so ready, I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for them.”
Until now, Tamez has gotten by with help from her family, and a GoFundMe started by her employer that raised about $50,000. This at least helped pay for her $30,000 replacement of several teeth that was not covered by her insurance.
Though Tamez had nothing but positive things to say about the police who worked on her case, like White, she struggled to get much information about the incident. She just saw the footage of the incident for the first time this month, nearly a year after the incident.
As is often the case, the surveillance footage that the department acquired of the incident didn’t show the license plate of the car. And so, the person who nearly killed Tamez will also likely walk free.
Despite having endured brain swelling, spinal damage, and a tracheotomy, Tamez still said watching the video of herself was “shocking.”
“This car just came flying down the road, and my helmet came off completely,” Tamez described. “My bike went flying. I landed on the windshield of the car, and I went flying off the car.”
Others in this situation often depend on community support: The elderly owner of Laku on Valencia Street, Yaeko Yamashita, raised more than $13,000 to help support her after she was hit by a driver the day before Thanksgiving, and forced to close her shop during much of the holiday season. Yamashita’s son lives out of town, so a customer-turned-friend drives her to doctor appointments and the grocery store.
The driver who left Yamashita with a broken leg in a dark intersection was caught within a few days. But Yamashita’s son, Laku Pellici, said he’s been unable to get any information from the police department.
“I can call them and they’ll talk to me, but I cannot get the police report,” Pellici said. “I don’t know, it takes forever.” He has hired a lawyer to help get his mother compensation from the driver’s insurance company.
Not everyone has the capacity to hire lawyers like Pellici did, do their own detective work like White, or call the Victims Compensation Board every single day, as Tamez has been doing to get the money she was promised.
The family of Bessie Chui, who was surrounded by witnesses when she was hit and killed by a driver on New Year’s Day, is based in Asia. Witnesses said the driver exited his car and spoke with victims and witnesses before suddenly fleeing. No one, it appears, got his license plate.
When she returns to San Francisco, Tamez plans to lobby for better car and bike safety infrastructure and guardrails like cameras — not for issuing tickets, but to ensure license plates of dangerous drivers can be tracked down.
“If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody, and I don’t want anybody to go through what I went through,” she said.
Though she knows the person who nearly killed her will probably never be found, Tamez said if she did find them, she would “sue the shit out of them, and make sure that they were never going to drive again.” Ironically, Tamez’s own driver’s license was suspended when she suffered her brain injury; she still needs to figure out how to get it reinstated.
“I think that, because I was ‘a victim of violent crime,’ I think that my voice has a lot more weight to it now, and so I just want to be able to change my community for the better,” Tamez said. “There need to be changes.”