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The Balancing Act between Budgets and Street Safety in San Francisco

 In Education, Enforcement, Engineering, Media, Opinion, Public Policy, Vision Zero

Post by Sally Morin, Sally Morin Law

Our Car-Centric Mentality Leads to Preventable Deaths

The efforts to end deaths on San Francisco streets has come up against numerous hurdles along the way, not the least of which is San Francisco’s car-centric culture. There are roughly 900,000 vehicles on San Francisco streets every day. That’s 3,800 cars per square mile (more than 1 car for every man woman and child in the city). That volume of cars creates a tremendous amount of traffic, competing for limited space on city streets.

Whether I’m driving, riding my bike or walking in San Francisco, I see motorists treating every inch of the road and surrounding area as if it “belongs” to their cars. They keep on the lookout for other motorists who might turn in front of them, or pulling out of parking spaces or driveways, but they rarely think about these spaces in terms of how pedestrians, cyclists and even motorcyclists use them. This is a very dangerous mentality. Motorists in San Francisco (many of whom are also cyclists and all of whom are also pedestrians) need to view the City streets as a way for everyone to get from place to place – whether they are in a car, on a bike, scooter or motorcycle, or hoofing it by foot.

There are so many cars in San Francisco that traffic crimes involving pedestrians outpace violent crimes in San Francisco. While fewer than 500 people were victims of violent crime in 2013, roughly 800 people are injured in pedestrian crashes across the city. In 2013, 21 people were killed by cars while walking on  our streets. Frustratingly, most (if not all) of these so-called “accidents” were preventable. These numbers are simply unacceptable.

Thankfully San Francisco has acknowledged the problem and is currently taking steps to minimize (or even eliminate) the threat to pedestrians on city streets. In 2013 the Mayor’s Office partnered with Walk SF to create San Francisco’s Pedestrian Strategy with the goal of reducing pedestrian deaths by 50% by 2024. Then last year, San Francisco pledged to back a new Vision Zero goal to completely eliminate all traffic deaths within a decade. These are significant steps in the right direction.

However, to reach these goals, the City will have to spend a significant amount of money redesigning its infrastructure, changing legislation, reorienting San Francisco Police Department priorities, and educating the public about the dangers on our streets. As you can imagine, the funds for this effort are limited.

Big Changes on a Budget:  The Need to Focus Efforts and Magnify Impact

To make the most of the monies available, San Francisco must be smart about its pedestrian safety measures. Throwing money at a problem won’t fix it. Neither will spending in a scattershot approach. Vision Zero funds should be focused on the precise points where they can make the most difference. So where should San Francisco start?


Just 12% of city streets account for 70% of all car crashes. The majority of pedestrian-involved crashes happen on just 6% of city streets. It’s clear that there are some well-defined danger zones within the city. These hotspots should receive the most attention when it comes to reengineering street design. Check out the City’s interactive pedestrian-vehicle injury map which shows the most dangerous areas in the City for pedestrians.


Labeling car crashes “accidents” essentially absolves the “at fault” party for their responsibilities and eliminates culpability in the crime. Legislation needs to place an emphasis on a driver’s responsibility to pedestrians and cyclists, giving SFPD the backing it needs to pursue criminals, giving prosecutors the resources they need to make charges “stick,” and giving civil lawyers an incentive to assist more victims.


The overwhelming majority of pedestrian-involved crashes are never investigated by the SFPD beyond the initial reporting. That’s in spite of the fact that drivers are deemed at fault in 65% of those crashes. Worse yet, only 65% of drivers who cause physical harm to a pedestrian during a traffic crime are ever prosecuted. This needs to change.

Specific Actions the City Can Take to Reduce Pedestrian Injuries

Multiple cities, states, and countries all around the globe have jumped on the Vision Zero band wagon, some with amazing amounts of success. Sweden (where the program originated) has decreased traffic fatalities by 50% and nearly eliminated child fatalities. Washington, Minnesota, and Utah have used Vision Zero measures to decrease traffic fatalities by 40%.

In New York, pedestrian fatalities have already fallen to their lowest since 1910. The program does work. How can it be instituted most effectively in San Francisco?

Slow Speeding

Speed is the number one killer in traffic crimes. Not only does speed increase the likelihood of a crash, it also increases the severity of injuries associated with those crashes. New York City has cut to the root of this problem by establishing multiple Slow Zones across the city and deploying Automated Speed Enforcement cameras. Dropping the speed limit to 20 MPH could curb fatal traffic crashes by over 30%.

Reduce DUI Occurrences

Alcohol is involved in 44% of all car crashes in the United States. While educating drivers about the dangers may help curb this threat, stronger policing, harsher punishments, and tougher laws are the fastest way to fewer DUI deaths.

Eliminate Texting While Driving

Data from the Centers for Disease Control shows 9 people are killed every day by distracted drivers, and at least 25% of all the motor vehicle collisions nationwide, involve texting while driving. Despite this danger, 33% of Americans (and 40% of teenage drivers) read or compose texts while behind the wheel. Clearly, a tougher stance on distracted driving, which includes increased education, stricter laws, and increased enforcement, is crucial for reducing the number of collisions in San Francisco.

Reengineer Problem Streets to be Pedestrian Safe

Problem streets in San Francisco are responsible for a disproportionate number of traffic injuries. How can the City make them safer?

  • Increase signal times (decreases traffic and allows pedestrians more time to cross streets).
  • Install road diets to narrow vehicle lanes and slow traffic.
  • Add countdown signals and Leading Pedestrian Intervals at crosswalks
  • “Daylight” (i.e., remove parking at intersections) to help increase visibility between drivers and pedestrians.
  • Extend sidewalks with bulb-outs to decrease the distance pedestrians have to travel and slow turning vehicles.
  • Implement Pedestrian Scrambles to eliminate all vehicle and pedestrian conflicts, where appropriate.
  • Restrict turns to reduce failure to yield crashes.

While Vision Zero has been shown, there is no cookie-cutter solution to end traffic-related crimes in San Francisco. The only viable solution for our city will be created when legislation, policing, street design, and public consciousness all align.

– Sally Morin, principal at Sally Morin Law – an all-woman San Francisco personal injury law firm that exclusively handles pedestrian, bicycle, motorcycle and auto accident cases.