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San Francisco cops stopped ticketing drivers and guess what happened? Not much.

It’s not Mad Max out there on city streets, despite a 96% drop in traffic citations, writes resident Chris Tolles. Left to our own devices, SF drivers are actually OK.

A car drives down a city street at dusk, with green traffic lights and streetlights glowing, leading to a scenic view of a lit-up city and distant hills.
AI illustration by Clark Miller for The Standard

By Chris Tolles

A few years ago, I started noticing that the San Francisco police had kind of left the scene on our city’s streets. Temptation beckoned.

If I wanted to haul ass around town, I could. I could finally drive the way the street designers made Junipero Serra Boulevard, Pine Street or Golden Gate Avenue to drive on! I could drive 50 mph in one of the countless ludicrously limited 25 mph zones in San Francisco. I could (hypothetically, of course) run red lights late at night when no one was around and I could (maybe less hypothetically) make illegal U-turns in business districts with near impunity. 

But, mostly, I didn’t. And, evidently, most of my fellow San Franciscans didn’t either. San Francisco has been running a huge experiment on policing ourselves and it’s simply not the SFast and SFurious out there.

When the San Francisco Police Department stopped issuing tickets a few years ago, (mostly) nothing happened. Seriously! The City of San Francisco now writes 96% fewer citations than it once did and the bad things that we track for were about the same as before. There’s a cottage industry in San Francisco of people trying to ban automobiles, but most of us actually drive and our overall safety record is a testament to us as a city.

I’ve lived in San Francisco for 30 years. I walk, bicycle, e-bike, motorcycle and drive here. I’ve commuted half a million miles and spent the equivalent of eight months commuting by car. I’ve gotten some tickets and had a few fender-benders that were my fault. I’ve also had my car totaled by someone running a red light, been sideswiped on my motorcycle and had friends die in traffic crashes, not to mention any number of near-misses with drivers checking their phones. I would have thought the near-absence of policing would have resulted in the evaporation of deterrence and a calamitous increase in carnage. So I’m actually a bit surprised at how things have turned out.

While we might all be outlaws now, the statistics show we’re driving pretty much like we always have. We’re squarely within the pack for traffic crashes and fatalities per capita for pedestrians and drivers and we’re in the top 10 safest cities in the United States.

While 2022, when 39 people died, was an outlier with the highest fatalities since 2007, (which, given its consistency across both California and the United States, we can probably chalk up to everyone learning to drive again after the pandemic), on average we have had remarkably similar outcomes since Vision Zero started tracking statistics in 2014, despite issuing citations at just 4% of the previous rate. In the most important measure, traffic fatalities, the city has been more or less flat since 2014. Injuries from traffic crashes are actually down from their peak during this time. And compared to San Jose or Sacramento, we’re a whole lot better, even without a police escort. Nationally, we’re pretty much in the middle of the pack. 

How you understand this data depends on what you want to hear: The coverage about the drop in citations has been correlated to a loss of revenue but I’ve never seen it connected to a drop in safety. If we cut the citation rate by 96%, including all the city staff time spent issuing tickets, and there was no noticeable change in safety, we should redirect our resources to other major issues facing San Francisco, such as the overdose epidemic (which kills 20 times the number of people annually compared to vehicle crashes) or addressing other vehicle-related problems, like car break-ins, where we’re the second-worst city in the country.

Perhaps counterintuitively, I believe much of the effort around Vision Zero has been useful despite the criticism it has received. Finding out that 60% of pedestrian fatalities occur on just 6% of city streets and focusing our traffic enforcement on those high-injury networks seems like a great way to triage limited resources. We can’t ignore the deaths of 20 to 40 people per year on our roadways. 

However, with regard to traffic citations, we’ve run the experiment and we have the results. We stopped policing traffic and there was no dramatic upturn in injury crashes. I’m going out on a limb here and suggesting that we’re likely to revert to the mean. We’re not the best drivers in the country, but we’re pretty good. 

This doesn’t mean our efforts to make streets safer have been a waste. It makes sense to continue focusing police on the areas and behaviors most likely to result in injuries or fatalities—speeding and running red lights in high-injury corridors—and examining the role that street design might play in crash-prone corridors. But it is clear that spending millions more dollars to hand out 10 times the citations is unlikely to do much beyond providing a bit of revenue for city coffers. 

San Francisco is an exceptional city and a great place to live. Perhaps, though, we should celebrate that we have the good sense to have kept the wheels on the wagon without a sheriff. Maybe we’re also smart enough not to spend money on things that don’t correlate to better outcomes, like handing out 300,000 citations in three years with no safety payoff. 

Be it in our cars, on our motorcycles and bicycles or on foot, it turns out we (mostly) know we’re all in it together, even without having the threat of a ticket hanging over us.  

Chris Tolles is a photographer, sometimes executive and full-time resident of San Francisco. He previously ran the news community Topix and cofounded the largest human-edited directory of the internet.

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