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Politics & Policy

Traffic deaths jumped as San Francisco police made fewer stops. This lawmaker wants answers

Bessie Chui, 50, was killed in a hit-and-run accident at the intersection of Potrero Avenue and Alameda Street on New Year’s Day, marking the first traffic death of 2023. Cars and pedestrians pass through the intersection on Jan. 6, 2023. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

San Francisco Supervisor Rafael Mandelman has called for a hearing on the continued decline in traffic enforcement since 2013 in the face of rising traffic deaths. 

According to a city dashboard, traffic deaths in San Francisco jumped precipitously in 2022 with 39 fatalities. As of August, there have been 16 traffic deaths this year. Meanwhile, the number of traffic citations dropped by 97% between 2014 and 2022. 

“As I have said before, if it seems like there is no traffic enforcement in San Francisco, it’s because there largely isn’t,” Mandelman said at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. “We know this, our constituents know this, and it drives them up a wall, especially when it contrasts with the city’s extraordinarily reliable parking enforcement.”

The hearing, to be held later this month, will follow up on a letter of inquiry Mandelman sent in May asking the San Francisco Police Department to describe what barriers there were to restoring traffic enforcement to 2014 levels.

The letter also asked police to “present a plan to restore overall traffic enforcement to 2014 levels,” with an emphasis on “Focus on the Five” violations. Those are considered violations most likely to result in crashes, including speeding, running red lights and stop signs and not yielding to pedestrians.

“The City’s failure to make good on Vision Zero over the last decade would seem to be closely related to the decline in traffic enforcement by the San Francisco Police Department during that same period,” Mandelman wrote in the letter. 

San Francisco adopted a “Vision Zero” policy in 2014, when the city suffered 31 traffic deaths. The goal of the policy was to eliminate all traffic deaths by 2024. 

In its response to Mandelman’s letter, the police department cited staffing issues and increases in administrative burdens associated with ongoing reform policies along with new laws as obstacles to restoring traffic enforcement. SFPD also noted that the department is developing “an updated data collection dashboard/application” that could solve the administrative issues. 

Jabez Wesly holds a sign on the corner of Eddy and Larkin streets during a vigil for people killed by drivers in San Francisco on June 20, 2022. | Constanza Hevia H. for The Standard

Mandelman said in an interview Tuesday that police may be “reluctant to put a ton of resources into an activity” that would “only generate probably a handful of more citations than they’re doing now” under current conditions. 

The September hearing will be the latest in a series of hearings on traffic enforcement, with three others held on the matter since 2014. 

Mandelman hopes that once police can come up with a plan, implementation can be monitored with regular hearings in the future. 

“I think if we want more enforcement out of our department, we’re going to have to be incredibly clear that we want this, and right now, we’re far away from that,” Mandelman told The Standard. 

“I’m always worried about politicians telling more informed people how to do their jobs, but I do think that politicians can force the more informed people to come up with better ways of doing their jobs,” he said.