Wiener Drives Forward Highway Safety Bill

A new state Senate bill on highway safety is being pitched as a vital public health solution.

A new Senate bill draws attention to state highways disguised as city streets — like Van Ness Avenue, pictured above — and examines how to make them safer for everyone. (Courtesy Image)

On a February day in 2011, Judy Yu was crossing Park Presidio Boulevard, a six-lane north-south artery in San Francisco, when she was hit by a driver. Yu’s injuries were extensive: Her spleen was ruptured, her femur, humerus, and ribs cracked. But most devastating of all was the resulting traumatic brain injury, which has drastically affected not just her life, but her family’s as well.

“She now suffers severe post-traumatic stress disorder, and cognitive impairment,” her daughter, Jenny Yu, says. “She has headaches, confusion, emotional outbursts every single day. She is suicidal and has periods of time where she thinks her children are evil and plotting against her. My siblings and I live in a constant state of fear and hopelessness.”

In the wake of her mother’s injuries, Jenny Yu helped found San Francisco Bay Area Families for Safe Streets to advocate for better infrastructure, enforcement, and education. And on Monday, she stood up in support of a new Senate Bill introduced by state Senator Scott Wiener, which would institute new pedestrian and cyclist safety standards for the thousands of miles of California highways that run through urban areas — including Park Presidio Boulevard.

In San Francisco, several highways disguise themselves as neighborhood streets. Van Ness Avenue and the western half of Lombard Street make up a segment U.S. 101. Nineteenth Avenue is an extension of Highway 1, and Sloat Boulevard is part of State Highway 35. Although they are all within San Francisco city limits, these streets are managed by the California Department of Transportation (CalTrans), and as evidenced by the numerous serious and fatal collisions that occur among them each year, are very clearly made for cars, not people.

But Wiener plans to change that. Senate Bill 127, which he’s introducing this week, would require CalTrans to make safety improvements to these arteries and create “complete streets” that cater to pedestrians and cyclists, not just vehicles.

“When we think of state highways we think of a more traditional major freeway that no one would try to cross on foot or bike, “Wiener says. “But we have a significant number of state highways that are city surface streets. There are smaller towns in California where their only main street is a state highway.”

If passed, SB 127 would do two major things. First, it would change CalTrans’ priorities, bumping operation, maintenance, and repair of highways down the list, and shifting accessibility for all users — and the creation of complete streets — up.

In addition, it would flip a key piece of the process. Currently, CalTrans has to apply for a special waiver in order to add pedestrian or cyclist infrastructure to any stretch of highway it’s working on. Going forward, that infrastructure would be a requirement, and the waiver would only be used to request that the agency not include it.

Unlike most street-engineering press conferences, which usually consist solely of advocates and engineers, public health was front and center at Wiener’s announcement on Monday. Dr. Rebecca Plevin, a trauma surgeon at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, says that if passed, these changes could have a massive impact on the health of people who interact with city highways on a daily basis. The tragic results of these highways’ bad designs are something she’s intimately familiar with, as nearly all victims of traffic collisions are taken straight to General — the only Level 1 trauma center in the city. This constant influx provides trauma surgeons with valuable evidence on what’s working and what isn’t.

“We treat approximately 4,000 people a year due to trauma, and nearly half are injured in traffic collisions,” Plevins says. “That means a surgeon’s pager goes off five times a day, every day, to go to the emergency room and assess and treat a patient who is injured in a traffic collision.

“For us this public health crisis isn’t an abstract crisis,” she adds. “It’s a reality that we witness over and over again with our patients. Arterial roads with fast-moving traffic are particularly dangerous for our patients, as speed is the leading predictor of severe injury and whether or not somebody survives a traffic crash. Creating safer streets for everyone to walk and bike — the goal of this legislation — can save lives, improve health, and keep people out of our operating rooms.”

While Wiener’s bill could have a big impact in cities and towns across the state, we haven’t exactly been ignoring these major corridors in San Francisco. Van Ness Avenue is in the middle of a large-scale renovation that will improve bus boarding and pedestrian crossings, and flashing pedestrian lights have been installed on Sloat Boulevard in the wake of several fatal collisions. But getting these changes approved by multiple local and state agencies is time-consuming and difficult.

Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, knows this all too well.

“Last month, I received a phone call from a gentleman who wanted to let me know that his wife and son had been involved in a collision biking home from school on 19th Avenue,” he says. “That young boy received excellent care. … He is expected to make a full recovery, as will his mother. But the trauma that their family has experienced is going to have lasting effects. That father reached out to me, as an advocate, to plead ‘What can we do to improve safety on a busy street like 19th Avenue?’

“What I had to say back to him was ‘It is part of our state highway system, it’s under CalTrans’ control, and it’s complicated,’ ” Wiedenmeier adds. “That answer is insufficient. I am so happy that when SB 127 passes, we will have one more tool in our toolbox to address the kinds of street-safety improvements that communities like the Sunset District need.”

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