Monday, June 28, 2010

Bicyclists Beware: Golden Gate Park Exit a Double-Risk; Collisions & Injury and Be Found at Fault By SFPD Too

Arguello Blvd entrance to Golden Gate park at Fulton; where left-turn drivers yield right of way

Is this boogying? Bicyclists enter Fulton intersection with Arguello

Motorist yielding before making left turn onto Fulton from turn lane

Not great barriers but standard in city. Drivers: approach slowly

Looks like a street, striped like a street, motorists drive it as a street, and named a boulevard

Bicyclists who exit Golden Gate Park on Arguello Boulevard risk collisions with motorists and a judgment by SFPD that they are at fault if a crash does occur. That’s what happened to Kelly Johnson last month when he concluded his bicycling in the park to get coffee at the popular Velo Rouge café on Arguello at McAllister Street. He told his story to BIKE NOPA with the hope that others can avoid the trauma, injuries, and threat of financial hardship that he has dealt with since the crash.

On Sunday May 23rd at about 2:30 in the afternoon, Johnson prepared to leave Golden Gate Park by way of Arguello which is part of the official bicycle route #65. That section of Arguello has a moderate grade as it drops to the intersection with Fulton Street. The intersection there is governed by traffic signals. Biking down the grade on his gray Raleigh, Johnson saw that the signal was red and he stopped for it to change. When the light turned green, he approached the intersection with his eye on the motorist in the oncoming, southbound left turn lane of Arguello. The motorist stopped in the intersection, apparently waiting for Johnson to ride through before completing his left turn onto Fulton.

Johnson recalled what should have been a straightforward crossing of Fulton Street with what he presumed was his right-of-way. “I proceeded forward, travelling at about 10-12 mph. As I entered the intersection, an SUV suddenly made a left turn from the right side of the vehicle I had been watching. The vehicle struck me with severe force. My memory is groggy after this.”

Only later, after reading the SFPD Traffic Collision Report, did Johnson get the full picture. According to the report, a 26-year-old male driver of a green Ford Escape was travelling southbound on Arguello in the outside lane. He intended to enter Golden Gate Park but found that the Arguello entry was barricaded. (This entry is closed to vehicles on Sundays, 6 am to 6pm, April through September). He later told an SFPD officer that he was stuck in the intersection and had to turn left. He noticed that the motorist in the left turn lane had stopped, so he proceeded to turn left onto Fulton (not using the turn lane). He was paying attention to a Muni bus on the south side of Fulton, he reported, and had nearly cleared the intersection when he glimpsed a bicyclist exiting the park. He said he tried to stop but, according to the police report, “the bicyclist hit his car…(and then) …the bicyclist fell to the ground and the bicycle continued across Fulton Street.”

It might still seem a straightforward but unfortunate incident:

  • a man on a bicycle entered the intersection with the right-of-way
  • one motorist waited for the bicyclist to clear the intersection before making a left turn onto Fulton
  • another driver was surprised to find he couldn’t enter the park and then made an unanticipated wide-left turn without yielding the right-of-way to oncoming traffic (the bicyclist)

An SFPD officer from Park Station determined it otherwise. In the traffic report, he held Johnson responsible for failing to comply with California Vehicle Code 21804(a) that states the driver of any vehicle (bicycles are included) about to enter or cross a street “from any public or private property, or from an alley shall yield the right-of-way to all traffic…close enough to constitute an immediate hazard.”

Although the officer referred in the traffic report to “Arguello Street south of the intersection,” he wrote that Johnson was exiting “public or private property or an alley” when he was actually leaving the park on a street. But, the officer evidently believed Johnson should have yielded not just to the motorist in the left-turn lane but also to the sudden, unexpected turn of another driver in the intersection.

This interpretation by one SFPD officer has troubling implications for the hundreds of cyclists who exit the park at this location, especially on the weekends. Most expect motorists turning left to yield as part of the rules-of-the-road. Now they won’t know whether to exercise the right of way or wait until the intersection is clear of all confused drivers who may be making sudden turns. And, in fact, virtually all motorists turning left do yield to the oncoming bicyclists. A half-hour's observation yesterday, on a Sunday closure day, revealed all the drivers yielding to people riding their bikes into the intersection.

If SFPD now expects bicyclists to yield and motorists not to yield at Fulton and Arguello, then it seems the department will cause confusion and more risk at the intersection with no user understanding why the rules of the road don't apply. Drivers familiar with Arguello expect to yield a right-of-way to people leaving the park on foot, bike or vehicle already. Very few road users know about CVC 21804(a) or consider Arguello anything other than a street.

The SUV driver who collided with Johnson may have been confused by the street closure and the not-always-visible signs. No one would fault him with that. But to make an unexpected turn without traveling carefully enough to notice all circumstances of the road and then to collide with someone on a bike is something else.

For Kelly Johnson, the SFPD finding will likely make it much more difficult to obtain damages from the motorist’s insurance company for the injuries he sustained. The SF Fire Department fitted him with a neck brace and took him to SF General Hospital after the crash. There, Johnson was treated for a dislocated toe, wounds requiring sutures, massive swelling on the left side of his face including around his eyes, and severe scrapes and cuts on his face and left side of his body. He was released that evening and returned to his home in the North Panhandle where he has lived for the last seven years. He has since received bills from the hospital and Fire Department that total $18,000.

Johnson does not recall speaking with an SFPD officer, but the traffic report notes that another officer spoke with him at the hospital. The report narrative states that Johnson said he was coming out of the park, crossing Fulton with a green light, when a cur turned in front of him, and, according to the police report, Johnson said “he hit the car and fell to the ground.” Johnson told BIKE NOPA that he believes he was “hit by a vehicle that made a left turn from the wrong lane,” in violation of the vehicle code, CVC 22100 (b), that stipulates left-turns should be made from the inside left lane.

No witnesses who saw the collision were interviewed, other than Johnson and the driver of the SUV. However, the reporting officer later contacted a woman who was at the intersection. According to the report, the woman said “she saw the bicyclist boogying out of the park not wearing a helmet and just knew something bad would happen.” But she said she did not see the collision itself. Boogying? Difficult to say what the woman meant other than, presumably, that she thought he was moving quickly. (BIKE NOPA's first report of this collision included an observation from a cyclist who arrived after the crash that other bicyclists often "fly through the intersection" with the right-of-way). That he wasn't wearing a helmet is irrelevant to right-of-way determinations or to how he was biking.

But in a recent communication to SFPD, Johnson describes his bicycling, and himself, this way: "I am a 19-year resident of San Francisco. I have spent ten of those years living in the Park Station district. I am a responsible, property tax paying and voting citizen. I am an avid cyclist having been riding a bicycle for the last 24 years as my main mode of transportation. I don't take risks on the road or flaunt the law because I'm too old (47 years old) and I don't have health insurance."

Last week Johnson asked SFPD to review and reconsider the determination that he was at fault in the collision.


  1. wow, this is unbelievable. The driver makes an illegal left turn, and I would say also was driving recklessly, and it's the reported as the cyclist's fault!

  2. A message from Jim who encountered problems registering comment with Blogger:

    "Would this CVC section (primarily meant for alleys and private driveways, it seems) also apply to cars coming out of GGP on three lanes of State Highway 1 at Park Presidio and Fulton as well? Mmmm...."

  3. The police usually get things wrong. And sometimes they will even lie about the situation. It doesn't matter. The insurance company will understand the liability and have to pay damages. With $18k in medical bills this one is worth using a lawyer for. They can easily deal with the problem with the police.

    And yes, I say this from direct experience.