How San Francisco Successfully Got Drivers to Yield to Pedestrians

Auto Accident

By David Carnes, Staff Writer

2014 was a dangerous year for San Francisco pedestrians:

  • The police department estimates that nearly a hundred pedestrians were killed or seriously injured in pedestrian-vehicle collisions.
  • Furthermore, discrepancies between hospital records and police reports suggest that even this figure might even be too optimistic.
  • Even more disturbingly, a September 2015 study conducted by the city concluded that the driver was at fault in over 60 percent of these collisions.

The bright side of this dark statistic is that it suggests that focusing on changing driver behavior might be the key to reducing pedestrian—vehicle collisions.

Vision Zero: The Solution

In response to the carnage, the city of San Francisco established the Vision Zero project with the initial goal of cutting deaths and serious injuries in half by 2021. In typically San Francisco fashion, the project is data-driven--it relies heavily on gathering information about pedestrian injuries and deaths as a way of formulating policy goals.

Consequently, the first stage of Vision Zero was a 43-week study that measured the effectiveness of various policy initiatives designed to change driver behavior toward pedestrians. The study’s methodology involved implementing these policies on some of the six percent of San Francisco intersections that collectively experience most of the city’s serious pedestrian-vehicle collisions.

The project team then attempted to measure the effectiveness of these policies by comparing the results to collision statistics for a control group of intersections for which no policy changes were implemented. The policy initiatives implemented by Vision Zero included:

  • Placing the text “It Stops Here: Pedestrians Have Right of Way” in city bus advertising spaces and on billboards lining the streets leading to the targeted intersections.
  • Pamphlets were distributed, and community groups were recruited to raise local awareness of the problem.
  • Officers began strictly enforcing the local right-of-way law by ticketing all offending drivers. 

Not all of these policy initiatives were implemented at every targeted intersection—instead, Vision Zero experimented with different combinations of policies to determine which combination would be more effective in modifying driver behavior.

The results of the study consistently indicated that the rate of drivers yielding the right-of-way to pedestrians increased three to four percent at the targeted intersections during the duration of the study (ironically, the driver yielding rate declined slightly at the control intersections). This result may seem statistically insignificant to the untrained eye, until you consider the sheer size of San Francisco. The Vision Zero team concluded that even this small increase would result in over 400 more yielding drivers per hour at critical rush hour intersections.  

Pedestrian Accidents: Verdicts and Settlements

Verdicts and settlements in pedestrian-vehicle accidents tend to be high, because injuries tend to be serious or fatal. Following are some examples of recent verdicts and settlements in pedestrian-vehicle collisions:

San Francisco’s experience seems to indicate that through careful and deliberate action, it is possible to put more than just a dent into a seemingly intractable problem. If Vision Zero is ultimately successful, San Francisco could become a model for the entire nation.

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