Street safety depends on the fair enforcement of traffic laws, but enforcement is not always fair. The juxtaposition of two stories over the past week illustrates the incongruent enforcement of traffic laws in San Francisco. On Bike to Work Day last Thursday, SFPD organized a sting to ticket bicyclists rolling through stop signs on the Wiggle, a popular bike route. Meanwhile, it was announced on Tuesday that the driver who killed Amelie Le Moullac would not be charged with vehicular manslaughter even though the SFPD found him at fault for her death. Despite San Francisco’s recent commitments toward improving street safety, the message sent by these events is perplexing: bicyclists rolling through stop signs in San Francisco somehow face stiffer penalties than drivers who kill bicyclists.
The case of Amelie Le Moullac is a well-documented tragedy. Le Moullac, 24, was riding eastbound on Folsom at Sixth Street when a truck driven by Gilberto Alcantar struck her while turning right. The SFPD originally assumed Le Moullac to be at fault—Sergeant Richard Ernst even purposefully parked his car in the bike lane during a bicycle safety rally to make a point that Le Moullac was at fault. But a San Francisco Bicycle Coalition staffer uncovered surveillance video that clearly showed Alcantar making an unsafe abrupt right turn that killed Le Moullac, invalidating the entire investigation of the SFPD. The bungled investigation and unprofessional behavior by Sergeant Ernst ultimately prompted an apology from Police Chief Greg Suhr.
Despite the clear video evidence against Alcantar, the San Francisco District Attorney’s office chose not to prosecute the case because they were “unable to prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt.” We’ve already examined the pattern of inadequate prosecution of bicycle and pedestrian collisions in San Francisco: of the 25 deaths of people biking or walking in San Francisco last year, only six cases were charged by the District Attorney, George Gascon. While it’s hard to say what prompted this decision or others, it’s disheartening that Gascon chooses not to fight for justice for Le Moullac and others—even to pursue a plea bargain. In contrast, consider Gascon’s vehement approach in prosecuting Chris Bucchere, the bicyclist who killed Sutchi Hui: Gascon declared his goal to “send a message” to bicyclists to “hold them accountable to the same standard.” Does such a standard exist for drivers?
Alcantar received no punishment for killing Le Moullac—no jail time, probation, fines, suspension of license, or safe driving classes. He has not even been issued a ticket for a violation of the vehicle code.
While Alcantar has not been penalized for killing Le Moullac, a number of bicyclists faced stronger penalties during a SFPD sting last week on Bike to Work Day—an annual event intended to encourage bicycling. Bicyclists on the Wiggle (a popular east-west route which avoids many of San Francisco’s hills) were ticketed for rolling through stop signs, part of an enhanced enforcement campaign to ticket bicyclists and pedestrians. While it is legal in some states (such as Idaho) for bicyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs, in California, bicyclists must come to a complete stop. The Wiggle has six consecutive intersections featuring stop signs, and technically bicyclists must fully stop at each. Some bicyclists blast through them without regard for pedestrians, cars, or other bicyclists, but most slow down to a crawl without coming to a complete stop.
Although the SFPD asserts that they cannot selectively enforce traffic laws, in reality this is not true: ticketing bicyclists who slowly crawl through stop signs is equivalent to ticketing drivers for driving two miles per hour above the speed limit—yes, it is illegal, but there are many more egregious violations that may injure or kill people every day. It’s absolutely necessary to address bad behavior by bicyclists, pedestrians, and drivers, but there are very few incidents in which the SFPD enforces the vehicle code for automobiles with the same strict interpretation as it does for bicyclists or pedestrians, despite the exponentially greater danger posed by automobiles.
We’ve examined these two recent events together because it demonstrates the cognitive dissonance of the enforcement of street safety in San Francisco. While city policy prioritizes walking and bicycling, it remains acceptable for drivers to kill bicyclists and pedestrians without a proper investigation or prosecution. Conversely, as reckless, distracted, and drunk driving all continue to plague the city, the SFPD focuses precious resources ticketing bicyclists who roll through stop signs or pedestrians who jaywalk. It is clear that San Francisco remains a long way from equitable enforcement of its traffic laws in a manner that supports the city’s goals of safe streets for all.