A year ago, 17 year old Hanren Chang was hit and killed by a drunk driver while crossing Sloat Boulevard in San Francisco. Hanren, a student at Lowell High School, was walking home after celebrating her birthday earlier that night. Her death was one of 21 tragic fatalities by pedestrians in San Francisco in 2013, and the second in three years crossing the dangerous Sloat Blvd.
Kieran Brewer, 29, recently pleaded guilty to felony charges of vehicular manslaughter, driving under the influence, and driving with a blood-alcohol content higher than the legal limit. He was sentenced to six months in jail, six months in home detention, five years of probation, 300 hours of community service, and a nine-month treatment program for people who have driven under the influence. He was also ordered to pay Hanren’s family $4,700. Superior Court Judge Brendan Conroy struck down enhancements to the drunken driving charges that alleged Brewer inflicted great bodily injury under California’s “three strikes” law.
Involuntary manslaughter shootings usually result in sentences of years, not months. So why is a DUI vehicular manslaughter sentencing only six months? The answer is that drivers are generally not prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, even in cases as terrible as Hanren’s death.
An article last year by the Center for Investigative Reporting surveyed 238 pedestrian fatalities in the Bay Area and found that sixty percent of motorists found to be at fault or suspected of a crime faced no criminal charges. Drivers that did face criminal charges usually faced light sentences: licenses were rarely taken away, and less than 60 percent had their driver’s license suspended or revoked (a standard penalty in drunk driving arrests). Forty percent of those convicted faced a day or less in jail, while only 13 drivers were jailed for more than a year.
Drivers are often not prosecuted, or face lighter charges, because district attorneys find it difficult to convict since juries often sympathize with drivers. Jurors often see pedestrian deaths as tragic accidents; it is hard to assign culpability to a speeding or distracted driver who killed someone when a juror can admit guilt to the same misdeeds. As a result, penalties in traffic crimes are often diluted. In Brewer’s case, despite his clearly reckless, irresponsible actions, he received the same sentence as an Oakland man that was just convicted of recycling fraud. Comparing sentences is obviously problematic, but it seems hard to justify a six month jail sentence for killing a girl while driving drunk in the context of our legal system’s more punitive sentences for involuntary manslaughter, narcotics possession, or recycling fraud.
A key factor in creating safer streets is ensuring that penalties for reckless driving are an appropriate deterrent. In Sweden, home to the safest streets in the world, 0.02% BAC results in up to six months imprisonment, while 0.10% results in up to two years imprisonment. Vehicular manslaughter while under the influence carries a sentence of up to six years. These measures, combined with effective street design, have reduced traffic fatality rates to a level that is 74% lower than the US. In contrast, the message sent in the Bay Area and beyond is that it’s ok to kill pedestrians, even if driving recklessly or drunk, as long as you’re remorseful.
Cars are weapons. Every year in the US, more people are killed by cars than by guns. A crime should not be discounted because the weapon has four wheels, even if it was involuntary. For Hanran and her family, it made no difference. Tragedies like this are not inevitable; we choose to let them happen through the design of our streets and our enforcement of traffic laws. Rather than viewing Hanran’s death as yet another unfortunate accident, let’s hope we can learn from it to prevent more tragedies from occurring.