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Traffic Enforcement

California Assembly Hits, Kills Traffic Justice Bill

2123272545_ddbd4c95aa.jpgThe intersection of Market and Octavia -- one of the most dangerous in San Francisco for cyclists. Flickr photo: sfbike

Safe
streets advocates often ruefully say, "if you want to kill someone and
get away with it, do it in a car." In fact, unless alcohol is involved,
very few
motorists who kill vulnerable road users -- like pedestrians and
cyclists -- are charged with a crime, even when they break traffic laws
in the process.

Even the word "accident"
drives traffic justice advocates to distraction, since it implies a
lack of agency, as though drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians in
crosswalks and mow them down aren't culpable for their actions.

Despite the fact that more people in America die from car crashes than
from handguns, few policy makers or law enforcement officials are willing to equate the danger of car death with gun death.

Now, that hesitance has stalled a bill that could make California's streets safer.

In an attempt to deter dangerous driving, California Assembly Bill 1951,
introduced by San Francisco Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, would
significantly bolster penalties for dangerous driving and would give
district attorneys greater discretion in pursuing traffic justice
cases. Currently, unsafe operation of a motor vehicle carries a fine of
$70 if it results in bodily injury, and $95 for "great bodily injury."

Under
Ammiano's bill, DAs could charge unsafe driving as either an infraction
or a misdemeanor for bodily or great bodily injury and could seek
"imprisonment in a county jail for not less than 5 days and not more
than 90 days, or by a fine of not less than $145 and not more than
$1,000, or by both a fine and imprisonment."

But Ammiano
couldn't get the bill out of committee yesterday, where, perhaps
ironically, the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) voiced
its opposition. That gave committee members an easy out, said the
bill's supporters.

Ammiano's
spokesperson Quintin Mecke said opposition from the CDAA was
disappointing, particularly because the bill doesn't mandate penalties
but would have given DAs more leverage in cases where they felt drivers
were dangerous. He also contended that the CDAA's position didn't
reflect the stance of many individual DAs, especially in cities, where
there are proportionally more pedestrians and cyclists.

"I
bet if we went around to county DAs, we'd find support from a lot of
them," said Mecke. "The disconnect is with the lobbying arm."

Mecke
said Ammiano's office was committed to pushing forward and organizing
support among lawmakers and law enforcement officials around the danger
of unsafe driving. According to Mecke, committee members said they were
hesitant to criminalize driving, and one member of the committee said
about collisions, "Well, isn't that why we have insurance?"

"We need to move beyond this
notion that 'accidents' are a neutral value occurrence," said Mecke.
"That is such an ingrained notion"

Bicycle groups had
pushed hard for the legislation, arguing that other potentially
dangerous activities tend to come with greater expectations of caution.

"When
you put the key in the ignition, you accept a lot of responsibility to
make sure this two-ton vehicle doesn't hurt someone," said California
Bicycle Coalition spokesperson Jim Brown. "If you're picking up your
registered, loaded handgun, you know that you have the responsibility
to protect the public."

Corrinne Winter,
Executive Director of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, said the
bill would be a step in the right right direction for road safety.
"Motor vehicle crashes kill more than 40,000 people and injure several
million in the United States each year -- this is a social problem of
epidemic proportions," she said.

A study [PDF]
by the San Francisco Injury Center for Research and Prevention at SF
General Hospital found that injuries are costly, too. Between 2004 and
2008, pedestrian injuries in San Francisco cost a total of $74.3
million. Less than a quarter of that cost was covered by private
insurers; the rest fell on public funding and patients themselves. In one
case, an uninsured patient was billed $505,952.

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