It was a dark night in early October when Norman Tanner crossed the intersection at Oak and Broderick streets. As he walked, a driver in a blue Prius sped through a red light, knocking him over. The driver — said by witnesses to be a woman — stopped her car, got out, looked at Tanner lying in the street, then got back in and drove away. Tanner was taken to the emergency room, but his injuries were too serious to survive. He was taken off life support two days later.
Police shut down the intersection for hours that night, directing traffic up side streets as they scoured the scene for evidence. The car was said to have damage on its front end, yet nothing has turned up in any auto repair shops that linked anyone to the crime.
The case remains open, and it’s not the only one. Of the 10 fatal hit-and-run collisions in San Francisco in 2018, half remain unsolved. In 2018, hit-and-runs accounted for 39 percent of all Vision Zero fatalities on San Francisco streets, compared with 15 percent in 2017, and 17 percent in 2016. And they’re incredibly difficult to crack.
But it’s not for lack of trying.
“I have an investigations unit and a forensics technical unit that go out to every fatality, not only the hit-and-runs,” Captain Raj Vaswani of the police department’s traffic division, said at a Vision Zero hearing in October. The Traffic Collision Investigation Unit “basically treats it as a crime scene. We interview all the witnesses and involved parties, we look at forensics of the car and roadway. We look for cameras and individuals’ videos, and we develop leads that way for the hit-and-runs.”
Some cases have more clues than others. When Kevin Manning was hit by a driver while navigating his pedicab down Embarcadero in June, SFPD managed to find a blurry video taken from a Muni train of a suspicious, champagne-colored, four-door Honda Civic. It was distributed to the media, and while news on the case has been slim since then, Vaswani says the investigation hasn’t been abandoned.
“We’re still looking at leads on that,” he said. “We’ve been all over the Bay Area investigating that collision. We’ve interviewed people, we’ve investigated cars, but it is still an open investigation. We had a video team that went and looked at different routes that this person might have taken.”
Other times, SFPD doesn’t get even that far; a rough vehicle description could be given by a witness as in the case of Tanner’s hit and run, but with hundreds of thousands of cars in S.F, let alone the Bay Area, it’s like finding a needle in a haystack.
“In order to apprehend or investigate these collisions, the public is our best asset,” says David Stevenson, director of strategic communications for SFPD. “To get to the Vision Zero goal of 2024 of zero fatality deaths, our partnership with the public is essential. We ask that the public remain on scene of these collisions and be a good witness.”
Witnesses aside, one of the biggest potential fixes safe street advocates are pushing for to resolve these open cases is the implementation of speed-triggered traffic cameras. While the city does have cameras to catch people running red lights at 20 different intersections, they don’t run constantly, and only catch people moving through a red light. In contrast, Automated Speed Enforcement (ASE) cameras have sensors that go off when someone is traveling too fast. As we saw in the video of the suspect behind Manning’s death, drivers often engage in risky behavior before or after a hit-and-run collision, so cameras that could catch someone fleeing at high speed toward or away from the crime scene could help police zero on in on their suspects, and even deter people from fleeing in the first place.
But this seemingly simple solution is stalled at the state level. Despite being legal in 142 jurisdictions, ASEs are not yet approved for California. Assemblymember David Chiu attempted to remedy this in 2017 with Assembly Bill 342, the Safe Streets Act, which would have enabled both San Francisco and San Jose to operate a five-year pilot program with the cameras. It failed to make it out of committee.
“Enforcement of speed has to happen if we’re going to save lives and reach Vision Zero,” Jodie Medeiros, executive director of pedestrian advocacy group Walk SF, tells SF Weekly. She’s got preliminary numbers for this year, and notes that “speed enforcement — and enforcement of the top five most dangerous driving behaviors — was down in 2018.
“With the reality of growing vehicle traffic, the city needs to face the fact that even when they have sufficient numbers of traffic cops on the streets, it still won’t be enough,” Medeiros adds. “Traffic officers can’t be everywhere at every moment of the day in our busy city. We have to get Automated Speed Enforcement cameras in San Francisco ASAP.”
While we have numbers proving that fatal hit-and-runs were up and enforcement was down this year, we have no numbers on how many severe but not deadly hit-and-runs affected the rest of the population. For those who survive such an incident, having little or no path to claiming funds for medical treatments can be life-destroying.
“We get hit-and-run inquiries at least monthly,” personal injury lawyer Sally Morin tells SF Weekly. “The severity can vary — a lot of times, there are hit-and-runs where a car might swerve and cause a cyclist to swerve but not make contact, and so they don’t know the incident happened and take off. Those are tough, because you don’t have anyone that you can go after.”
Nevertheless, Morin’s firm has taken on a number of hit-and-run cases — and in some cases, even solved them. In one instance, a cyclist who was cut off by a car flew over her bike’s handlebars and fractured both elbows. Her injuries were severe; multiple surgeries were necessary, and she quickly accrued $150,000 in medical bills. After Morin’s legal staff canvassed the neighborhood and talked to witnesses, they were able to track down the driver and settle with his insurance agency for the victim’s recovery costs.
“I’ve had many cases where people have driven away and we’ve gotten witnesses,” Morin says. “S.F. is amazing for that. The community really comes together. People really try to look out for each other. I recall one case where a guy got clipped by a construction truck and witnesses chased him down.”
Other times, it’s sheer luck — like when a motorcyclist was hit by a driver who fled the scene, but during the collision, the license plate fell off their car. But most of her hit-and-run cases require some form of on-the-ground research.
“The more common way to get the third party is through surveillance footage because so many businesses and homes have them,” Morin says. “We do a lot of our own independent investigations.”
All too often, it’s that surveillance footage that can make or break a case.
As we look toward the city’s goal of reducing serious traffic injuries and reaching zero traffic fatalities by 2024, hit-and-runs remain one of the more complex challenges to overcome. The combinations of safer street infrastructure and increased enforcement of traffic safety laws are admirable, and major corridors like Valencia Street, where a near-fatal hit-and-run occurred earlier this year, are shortlisted for life-saving improvements. But no one approach is going to resolve the crisis on our streets, and for police, lawyers, and safe-streets advocates alike, the issue of how to prevent and solve the hit-and-run crisis on our streets is unfortunately going to be an ongoing challenge for years to come.