It’s happened again.
On Wednesday evening, around 5:15 p.m., 90-year-old David Grinberg crossed the busy intersection of Fell and Baker streets and was hit by a 28-year-old woman driving a car westbound on Fell Street. Grinberg was rushed to the hospital, but his injuries were too severe. He passed away six hours later.
Twitter user Skip Pile, who witnessed the event, said that “He had made it across two lanes into the third when the light changed to green. The driver accelerated across the intersection and hit him.” The collision, as he pointed out, was tragic for everyone involved. “The younger woman who was driving, got out and started crying. She was totally distraught. So two lives were damaged today.”
Senior and Disability Action has confirmed that Grinberg was a resident at Mercy Family Plaza, a massive low-income senior housing facility in the historic Southern Pacific Hospital that sits on the corner of Baker and Fell. The proximity of the senior home to the Panhandle is obvious to residents who live nearby. [Full disclosure: I do.] On any sunny afternoon, benches along the northern end of the park are filled with elderly Russian and Ukranian women gossiping, and Asian seniors doing exercises under the trees. But in order to get there, the dozens of seniors who live at Mercy — many of whom are in wheelchairs or use walkers — must cross four lanes of Fell Street, which has a speed limit of 30 mph.
Grinberg’s death is the third pedestrian fatality in the past month, and adds another depressing line of data to the list of seniors killed on San Francisco’s streets. The topic is one we at SF Weekly have discussed in depth before: Seniors make up 15 percent of the city’s population, but they accounted for 44 percent of traffic deaths in 2016. They are also four times more likely than people under 65 to be killed in a traffic collision.
With the pedestrians who’ve been killed by drivers so far this year, that statistic is on track. Forty-four percent of victims in 2017 were over age 75. On Jan. 11, Jeanie Yee, 76, was run over by a truck and trailer. A 93-year-old man was killed by a cable car at Filbert and Mason streets in March. Ten days later, Meda Hacopian, 77, died after being hit by a driver at Lake Merced and Font boulevards. At age 90, Grinberg is the fourth.
But of all the year’s traffic fatalities so far, it was the death of Gus Vardakastanis, 57, which has received the most press. Vardakastanis, a much-loved community figure and owner of Noriega Produce, Haight Street Market, and Gus’s Market, was killed in the early hours of Sept. 22 as he crossed a street in the Bayview, on the way to buy produce for his stores.
His death resulted in several memorials, speeches from city supervisors, and a statement from Mayor Ed Lee. But what was missing in all of these was any mention of efforts to make streets safer, or a pledge to track down the driver. Instead, in their press releases, Lee and Sup. London Breed merely sent “thoughts and prayers” to Vardakastanis’ family.
With these reactions, it’s becoming even harder to take City Hall’s commitment to Vision Zero seriously — particularly when Lee’s last public appearance related to the dire situation was to awkwardly hold a shovel of asphalt at a highly-publicized speed hump installation in Golden Gate Park last November. The move was a reactionary one by the SFMTA, who only took steps to install the speed humps after Heather Miller, 41, was killed by a speeding driver on John F. Kennedy Boulevard five months prior.
Cathy DeLuca, interim executive director of advocacy group Walk San Francisco, says that these deaths are preventable, but that infrastructure needs to be in place first. “The city has the tools and the funding to make our streets safe,” she points out. “They can implement engineering treatments that slow traffic, increase visibility, and save lives. When will the city decide that building effective, life-saving projects — with solutions like speed humps, traffic circles, and corner sidewalk extensions — are more important than parking preferences or congestion concerns? To make Vision Zero a reality, the city must decide whether to value people’s lives over perceived convenience.”
And there are advocates working specifically on Baker and Fell streets. The neighborhood group near where Grinberg was hit — the North of the Panhandle Neighborhood Association — has worked for years to make Oak and Fell safer. They’ve been vocal proponents of reduced speeds, shortened crosswalks, new LED lighting in the panhandle, and the daylighting of intersections (when parking spots on corners are removed to aid visibility). Recently, the group conducted a neighborhood survey, polling residents about the implementation of a parking-protected bike lane along Fell Street. The plan is in early stages, but if approved, it would eliminate one lane of traffic along the busy thoroughfare, and shorten the crossing distance for pedestrians — both methods that have been proven to reduce injuries and fatalities.
Regardless of the solution, Grinberg’s death proves that without any action, “thoughts and prayers” will not get the city any closer to achieving zero traffic fatalities by 2024.