Note: This post first appeared on Dec. 22, the day after the pedestrian injury occurred. The following account is a revised version re-posted for those who might have missed it during the holiday rush.
On December 21st the local media reported that SFPD Spokesperson Lt. Lyn Tomioka described a collision near City Hall in which a driver struck and seriously injured a pedestrian as "not a criminal incident." The account in Streetsblog noted that Tomioka made the comment although "the exact location of the crash and the direction of the vehicle and pedestrian were not yet available." To many pedestrians, bicyclists and their advocates, SFPD officers sometimes seem too quick to conclude that motorists are not at fault when events like Monday's collision occur. And on occasion the comments by SFPD representatives appear to justify these beliefs.* The next day Tomioka explained what her characterization does and does not mean.
"When I said this was a non-criminal incident, I meant that the driver did not run a red light and did not leave the scene," Tomioka said. "It was not a hit-and-run and there appeared to be no drugs or alcohol involved." In such situations, SFPD can request voluntary blood draws of drivers to determine alcohol and drug use, according to Tomioka. While she said this particular driver "cooperated with all our requests," she did not specify whether a blood draw occurred.
She added that the description "non-criminal incident" does not necessarily mean that it was no one's fault. However, she indicated that SFPD officers spoke with witnesses Monday who stated that the driver was not at fault. Tomioka was not present when the collision occurred and she did not go to the scene. She emphasized that an investigation of all the factors involved will be undertaken.
"We don't know if the woman (the 54 year old pedestrian) stepped out into the street in the middle of the block" or otherwise endangered herself, Tomioka explained. "But it was a very serious injury that resulted."
Tomioko also spoke of the effect such collisions can have on motorists. "It is also horrible to be the driver who hits an individual under circumstances over which they have no control. In some cases, the one who caused the injury may not be the person at fault."
Tomioka countered the perception that SFPD lacks objectivity when it comes to incidents involving non-motorists. "People often think in a city like San Francisco that the police are biased against pedestrians and bicyclists, but I don't think that is accurate. There may be a few officers who say things they should not in these cases, but I think the general philosophy is there are two parties in an incident and unless we witness the collision we do not assume which one might be at fault. We don't want to say a person jaywalked and was hit and at the same time we don't want to point a finger at the driver."
We asked Tomioka about the common use of the term "accident" for occasions when motorists may not break the law (e.g. run red lights) but drive carelessly and hit, injure, or kill pedestrians and bicyclists as a result. "I think the more appropriate term in California is collision," she replied. "However, when you have someone at the scene who is very upset, you might use the word accident while trying to comfort that person as 'it was an accident, no one intentionally did this.'" She added, "I don't know the appropriate word always, but I don't think people are malicious when they suggest an incident or collision was an accident."
* On two recent occasions SFPD officers appeared to exhibit a rush to judgment (or at least an inappropriate comment) and bias; the first was reported here in BIKE NOPA; the second here by Streetsblog editor Bryan Goebel.