A week ago, we lost a 25-year-old resident Diego Castanon to another tragic roadway fatality. According to news accounts, Diego rode his Yamaha motorcycle off Story Road near Capitol Expressway and collided with an electrical box and light pole on the curb.
Our families have lost loved ones in traffic-related deaths at an unprecedented rate in recent months–23 such deaths in 2022 alone. San José consistently has had less than half the rate of fatal and injury crashes as the rest of the nation, yet the horrific toll in recent months demands our attention.
Why now? Some point to our sparse police enforcement, but San José’s thinly staffed police department has only grown in recent years, as we’ve added a net gain of nearly 200 officers since 2016. There are larger forces at work, to be sure; traffic fatalities jumped nationally in major cities during the pandemic, and much has been written about the troubling spike in fatalities despite a decline in driving through the pandemic. The causes of this national trend–higher rates of intoxicated driving, growing distraction from smartphones, and pandemic-driven mental health issues – do not submit to simple solutions from City Hall.
Yet we must take whatever local action that we can to prevent preventable tragedies. What kind of action? Calls for simplistic solutions can masquerade for real problem-solving, particularly when communicated through press releases, campaign emails and in front of TV cameras.
Of course, we need more cops enforcing traffic laws. The Council recently approved my March Budget Message, calling for a substantial budget increase for more police officer hiring, for everything from walking beats to traffic enforcement. Yet merely throwing more resources at complex problems, without a clear strategy, accomplishes little beyond exhausting those scarce resources faster.
We need to be focused, not flailing.
A focused approach to public safety becomes particularly imperative for San José, which has the most thinly staffed police department (and City Hall) of any major U.S. city, and has an expansive, 2,800-mile network of roads to manage. Our stretched police department faces an increase in violent crime, and a need for more officers in critical units such as patrol, sexual assaults and domestic violence investigations. Like all major cities, San José has endured plenty of crises threatening public safety in recent years–a pandemic, floods, civil unrest, drought, grid shut-downs, mass shootings, wildfire smoke and the like. Rather than merely reacting, we must focus public safety dollars on actions that provide the most life-saving benefit.
Focus requires using data to help us better understand how to deploy enforcement, street improvements, technology and other resources to maximize safety. Here’s some data–some surprising– that should inform our strategy, based on fatalities we’ve tracked since January of 2021:
- Almost half (49%) of the citywide auto-related deaths occur on only 17 roads–typically high-volume connectors like Almaden, Hillsdale, McLaughlin, Monterrey, Senter, Tully, and White Roads–on which we have dedicated resources and enforcement as “Priority Safety Corridors.”
- About three-quarters of roadway deaths in San José have occurred at night.
- Also about 75% of pedestrian fatalities occurred while the victim crossed a road outside of a marked crosswalk.
- Speeding appears associated with about 30% of our fatal collisions
- Men overwhelmingly (73%) are the drivers in fatal collisions
- Traffic collisions victimize seniors far more than anyone else, including children. The average age of a pedestrian victim in San José is 56, and of a cyclist victim is 59.
Additionally, here’s what we more we know from studies nationally:
- While very focused enforcement can impact driver behavior and reduce crash rates, national studies–including a multi-year study that reviewed 161 million traffic stops in dozens of states – suggest that merely deploying more officers to engage in traffic stops, without more, does not reduce traffic fatalities.
With this and other data focusing our efforts, I’ve publicly articulated five strategies we’re implementing to improve roadway safety, several of which emerged in the March Budget Message that the city council unanimously approved:
1.Fill SJPD’s Vacant Traffic Enforcement Positions
The police’s understaffed traffic enforcement unit has a dozen vacant positions; before we spend budgetary resources to merely add vacancies, let’s accelerate the filling of those vacancies to get officers out on the street, and we’ll focus on our 17 priority safety corridors where we can save the most lives. Click here to read more.
2. Innovate Enforcement with Automated Speed Cameras
On March 28, I’ll testify before the California Assembly in support of legislation to eliminate the state's prohibition on the use of automated speed enforcement, which 14 other states and numerous cities use to more effectively reduce speeding and reckless driving. Click here to read more.
3. Reconfigure and Redesign Streets
Focusing roadway improvements on our 17 priority safety corridors can protect pedestrians, prevent dangerous maneuvers, and slow speeding. Using quick-build designs that we’ve piloted in recent years can reduce cost, accelerate implementation, and scale safety improvements citywide. Click here to read more.
4. Improve Lighting
The conversion of yellow sodium street lights to LEDs will improve visibility for drivers and other road users at night; with more than 50,000 lights converted, we will complete the remaining 14,000 this year. Click here to read more.
5. Incentivize Safer Behavior
The rapidly developing field of behavioral insights can help us learn how to induce better driving–and safer walking. We’re deploying familiar tools, like programmable radar signs and trying new approaches, using automated speed detection and driver notification. Click here to read more.
Through these and other focused strategies, we can make San Jose safer, but it’s not all up to the cops. Rather, it will take all of us–as drivers, cyclists and pedestrians — not to mention parents, teachers, and many others to change the behaviors that put everyone at greater risk
Sam Liccardo is Mayor of the City of San Jose. This opinion piece has been updated to correct the number of added officers.