SF pedestrian deaths rise as police staffing and enforcement decline 

click to enlarge pedestrian
  • S.F. examiner file photo
  • 2013 saw the highest number of pedestrian fatalities since 2007.
A growing population, people increasingly walking while distracted and higher vehicle speeds have been credited for the spike in pedestrian fatalities in San Francisco last year, but police revealed another driving factor: a decline in both staffing and traffic citations.

In a presentation to Police Chief Greg Suhr and the Police Commission on Wednesday, Cmdr. Mikail Ali broke down a graph illustrating a department-wide staffing decline from 1,937 in fiscal year 2009-10 to 1,644 last fiscal year. Another graph showed traffic citations drop from 118,985 in 2009 to 87,629 last year.

Conversely, pedestrian fatalities rose from 16 in 2009 to 21 last year — the highest number since the 24 in 2007.

“Currently, we have a downward trend as it relates to citations and it’s in accordance with staffing down,” Ali said. “As we go on the upward trend relating to staffing, I am very optimistic that we’ll see a commensurate increase in citations.”

The 1,600-some officers on staff last fiscal year marks the lowest total in at least two decades, but help is on the way. A couple of weeks ago, the department graduated a class of 42 recruits and is starting another similarly sized class. On Monday, training started for 10 motorcycle officers, who focus their efforts on traffic enforcement.

Since hitting the low, the department has upped its force to about 1,700 officers, Ali said, and, “The goal is to hire over the next 5½ years 150 officers a year, with the recognition that we still have our normal attrition rate.”

Police expect more traffic citations with more officers on the streets.

“There’s no way that we’re not going to see more tickets,” Suhr said. “There will be more enforcement, especially in intersections that are dangerous.”

Revenue from traffic tickets feeds into the general fund. While waiting for staffing to go up, Suhr said he met with Mayor Ed Lee to discuss having some of the revenue generated from traffic citations go to fund additional hours of enforcement.

“I don’t know the feasibility of that, but that’s certainly a consideration,” Suhr said.

Of pedestrian fatalities last year, two-thirds were primarily the driver’s fault, with nine failures to yield to the pedestrian right of way at crosswalks as the leading cause. The remaining one-third were primarily the pedestrian’s fault, with three of those being jaywalking instances.

Commission Vice President Joe Marshall said it will be easier to ramp up enforcement than change people’s behavior overnight. Pedestrian nowadays are “oblivious to traffic, period,” he said.

“I learned ‘look both ways when you cross a street’ when a kid,” Marshall said. “I don’t think people think about that anymore. I am surprised if more people don’t get killed.”

Bicycle fatalities also jumped from one in 2012 to four last year, with three being the bicyclists’ fault.

The City’s transportation infrastructure plays a huge part in the pedestrian safety puzzle, said Tom Radulovich, executive director of transit advocacy group Livable City.

“I think the other issues are at least as important and possibly more important than officers, because officers can’t be everywhere,” he said. “We can’t have an officer at every street corner, so we need to have better street design.”

Aside from increasing the police force, Ali said the term “vehicle collisions,” rather than “accidents,” is most appropriate to identify the unintended coming together of bodies on the roadways.

“We want to create a mindset within the department as well as with the public that these occurrences aren’t acts of God,” he said. “There’s an element of negligence on the part of one party or the other and so we can’t continue to look at them as something beyond our control.”

Primary cause of collision that resulted in pedestrian fatalities (2013)

Driver’s failure to yield to pedestrian right of way at crosswalks: 9

Jaywalking: 3

Pedestrian’s failure to obey control signal: 2

Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol: 2

Unsafe driving: 1

Red-light violation: 1

Stop-sign violation: 1

Pedestrian suddenly runs or walks into path of a vehicle: 1

Pedestrian outside of a crosswalk: 1

Source: SFPD

About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong covers transportation, housing, and ethnic communities, among other topics, for the San Francisco Examiner. She covered City Hall as a fellow for the San Francisco Chronicle, night cops and courts for the San Antonio Express-News, general news for Spanish-language newspapers La Opinión and El Mensajero,... more
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