A Fatal Left Turn

Nearly two years after disability activist Thu Phan was killed on Seventh and Market streets, the driver heads to trial.

Thu Phan was 38 years old but only 37 pounds when she was hit and killed by a driver on Seventh and Market streets on Feb. 5, 2016. Phan — a disability rights advocate who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease — had been on her way to work, at the U.S. Department of Labor.  She was thrown from her wheelchair by the driver of a white, city-owned Prius and died from her injuries the next day.

Her death sparked an outcry from Vision Zero activists, her parents, and her five siblings. A large public memorial was held at the intersection several days later. In February 2017, the city awarded her family $2.875 million after they filed a lawsuit. And then, as these things often go, her name slowly disappeared from the headlines.

But charges against the driver are still moving forward. James Harris, a 68-year-old Antioch resident, appeared in court Tuesday for the first day of his trial. According to the police report, he was making a left turn heading north from Seventh Street on to Market when he hit Phan. He claims he didn’t see her, which in many ways is believable — she was small, seated low in her wheelchair, and witnesses of the collision first believed she was a child.

While no traffic collision can really be considered an “accident,” this one definitely slid closer to that categorization than most. But its effects were catastrophic for Phan’s family, friends and fiance.

“It is a tragedy and really sad, but I really want something good to come out of it,” her sister Holly Michna told Human Streets earlier this year. “The day that she passed away, I felt like she was just getting into a happy place. She was talking about moving in with her boyfriend, and figuring out her direction. She was just getting started, and she could have lived so much more.”

Harris now faces misdemeanor involuntary manslaughter charges. Complicating the case is the determination over whether or not the left turn he made was illegal. Prohibited for normal traffic, the left turn is legal for taxis, buses, and city-owned vehicles like street-sweepers, who need to make the left for city-related business. Harris had borrowed the car from his employer, a mental health services clinic in SoMa.

On Tuesday, Harris sat with his attorney, Dana Drusinsky, in Judge Linda Colfax’s courtroom. Dressed in a dark blue button-down shirt, he made no comments during the day’s proceedings, but took occasional puffs from an inhaler. Aside from a couple members of the media and Matt Gonzalez from the Public Defender’s Office, the courtroom’s public-seating section was empty.

Prosecuting attorney Kara Lacy from the District Attorney’s Office argued that Harris drove into the intersection as a number of pedestrians were crossing Market Street. A witness driving behind him said he was honking his horn and appeared to be in a rush.

“I anticipate that this case is going to come down to the concept of ordinary negligence,” Lacy told the jury, claiming that Harris had failed to use “reasonable care” to avoid harm.

Drusinsky claims he was in fact exercising caution when entering the intersection, and that he should legally have been allowed to make the turn — as he was a driver for the mentally disabled, and the car should have qualified as a paratransit vehicle.

Phan’s death, Drusinsky claims, was due in part to “gross medical negligence” on behalf of the hospital staff, who allegedly gave her small frame too much liquid after the collision, causing a swelling in her brain that eventually killed her. She plans to introduce expert witnesses on this fact to the jury.

Jessica Lehman, executive director for Senior and Disability Action and a friend of Phan’s, told Bay City News that while the collision was traumatizing for the victim’s community, “We don’t think someone else going to prison does anyone any good.

“At the same time, it is important that individuals and the community as a whole are held accountable when something like this happens,” she adds. “What that means for me and for us is that the city needs to make the streets safer.”

After the collision took Phan’s life, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency did respond — a little. Larger “no left turn” signs were installed — though it remains unclear as to what kinds of city vehicles are allowed to do so. And that’s it. Pedestrian advocacy group Walk San Francisco fought to extend the pedestrian countdown and install a “leading interval” — where pedestrians have a few seconds to enter an intersection before vehicles get a green light — but the SFMTA wouldn’t budge over fears that a longer crosswalk timer would slow down bus traffic.

Harris’s trial will continue this week, with closing arguments tentatively scheduled for next Tuesday. In the meantime, the chaos at Seventh and Market is not difficult to spot.; Stand on that corner for five minutes, and you’ll see countless private vehicles making that left turn. Google Maps even captured one, and in the frame, there’s not a traffic cop in sight.

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