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Lesson from Slain Pedestrian: Stop Compromising on Safety

9:06 AM PST on March 1, 2016

SFMTA crews are improving crosswalk viability. Photo: SFMTA.
SFMTA crews are improving crosswalk visibility. Photo: SFMTA.

On Tuesday, March 1, at noon, advocates for vulnerable road users will hold a memorial for Thu Phan, a woman who was killed by a city vehicle while she was crossing the street at 7th and Market in her motorized wheel chair. The memorial will be held at UN Plaza, adjacent to the crossing where she was hit. Afterwards, participants will walk to City Hall to testify at 1 pm at the SFMTA Board Meeting. 38-year-old Phan of Berkeley was fatally struck on the morning of Friday, Feb. 5, by a white Ford sedan making a restricted left turn across the crosswalk.

The turn was restricted to commercial and Muni vehicles. Although the car was owned by the city and was driven by an employee of a city clinic, it was not permitted to make that turn, despite conflicting reports at the time of the incident.

“It has been confirmed that city drivers are not exempt from traffic laws,” said Jessica Lehman, Executive Director of Senior and Disability Action, an advocacy group. However, trucks, taxis, and Muni vehicles are held to a different standard at that intersection.

It's hard to imagine how a turn can be unsafe for private vehicles, but safe for everyone else. Is someone less dead if they're hit by a taxi or a truck? Also, in defense of motorists, the intersection is confusing. Imagine being in the lane behind a bus, which makes the turn, and a cab, which makes the turn, and a truck, which makes the turn. How can a driver at the back of that queue, ideally watching out for pedestrians and other vulnerable users, also be expected to read a list of allowed and not-allowed vehicles and figure out what applies? The sign is a driver distraction. Safe street advocates intend to use the memorial to demand fewer exemptions from that turning restriction.

“It's a ridiculous thing,” said Lehman, adding that she still does not think “confusion is an excuse for any driver making an illegal turn.” That said, both Lehman and Nicole Ferrara, her counterpart at Walk San Francisco, want the city to take a look at the engineering of that turn and how it can be made safer.

Physical barriers save lives. Signs that make exceptions for unsafe turns do not. Photo: SFMTA
Physical barriers save lives. Signs that make exceptions for unsafe turns do not. Photo: SFMTA

The announcement of the memorial came at the same time as a release from SFMTA indicating that they are ahead on their goals for Vision Zero. "In the 24th month of our goal of completing 24 Vision Zero projects in 24 months, we’ve completed 30, as Mayor Ed Lee announced this week," wrote the agency in a release sent to Streetsblog. The 30th set of safety improvements, according to SFMTA, was completed in the Excelsior at the Persia Triangle. At the intersection of Persia Street, Mission Street, and Ocean Avenue, new sidewalk bulb-outs and better street lighting have made pedestrian crossings safer.

The other five additional Vision Zero improvements completed since November are:

    • Safer signal timing at the top 20 intersections for broadside collision injuries.
    • Red curb zones for visibility (daylighting), safer signal timing, and bicycle safety measures at the intersections on Polk Street between McAllister and Union streets.
    • Signal timing changes and continental crosswalks at Ocean/Plymouth and Ocean/Miramar and a new crossing signal at Geneva/Cayuga.
    • Continental crosswalks at Kearny and Sacramento, and continental crosswalks and a leading signal pedestrian interval at Kearny and Geary.
    • Buffered bike lane, continental crosswalks, painted safety zones, advanced stop lines, and leading pedestrian signal intervals at Howard Street between 4th and 10th streets.

A full list of SFMTA Vision Zero projects is available here.

It's great to see so much progress resulting from the hard work of so many advocates and passionate, caring city officials. But given the issues highlighted by Phan's death and backpedaling on safety improvements on Powell and others, one has to wonder, how many other compromises are being made to placate business and city interests?

Phan's memorial, meanwhile, will be attended by friends and family, disability rights advocates, Supervisors Jane Kim, Eric Mar, and Norman Yee, members of the Vision Zero Coalition, and other advocates for vulnerable road users.

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