The Center for Investigative Reporting wanted to find out what consequences drivers face when they kill a pedestrian in the five largest Bay Area counties. It’s a difficult question to answer because the relevant data is scattered among numerous and disparate agencies: police departments, district attorneys’ and coroners’ offices, and the Department of Motor Vehicles – to name a few. We made multiple public records requests and sifted through thousands of pages of documents to find the answers.

In the end, we compiled a database that shows which pedestrian deaths in the Bay Area resulted in criminal charges against drivers from 2007 through 2011. We were able to determine the type of sentences given to convicted drivers and, in the majority of cases, whether drivers charged with crimes lost their licenses.

Here are the steps we took:

California Highway Patrol: We queried the Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System for pedestrian-involved collisions in the Bay Area from 2007 through 2011, the state’s most recent data. All local police departments must report to the Highway Patrol every collision for which they write a police report. The CHP then enters the details into its traffic records database. This dataset provides details of each collision, including the date, location, primary collision factor, any traffic violation, sobriety, hit and run or not, and whether it was fatal. But it does not include the names of the drivers or victims. Names in collision reports are not public under state law unless an arrest is made or charges are filed. 

County coroners: We also made public records requests for a list of pedestrian fatalities to the coroner of each of the five counties we evaluated: Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara. This gave us victims’ names and revealed that some pedestrian fatalities were missing from the state traffic records database for various reasons, including reporting errors or victims dying much later from their injuries. Coroners’ offices in Alameda and San Francisco counties were unable to search their databases for pedestrian fatalities, so we submitted the dates of pedestrian deaths from the available state data, and they supplied the coinciding names.

County district attorneys: To figure out whether criminal charges were filed against drivers who killed pedestrians, we made public records requests to district attorneys’ offices in the five counties. None of the offices’ computer systems categorizes pedestrian fatalities separately. In most cases, we received lists of every vehicular manslaughter case filed during the five years, which included drivers killing passengers, other drivers, motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians.

Local courthouses: We visited nearly every county courthouse in the Bay Area – 15 in all – combing through each case in which district attorneys filed charges to find out whether a pedestrian had died, then gleaned details about sentencing and disposition. Because vehicular manslaughter isn’t the only possible charge, we sent a list of the remaining fatalities for which the drivers were deemed responsible or suspected of a crime, like hit and run, back to each district attorney to double-check that no charges had been filed. 

Department of Motor Vehicles: The courts and the DMV have the authority to revoke or suspend the licenses of drivers who kill pedestrians, another potential punishment. To obtain license information from the DMV, a news organization must have the name, as well as the date of birth or driver’s license number. In most instances, we were able to find that in the court file. San Francisco County does not release that information, however, so we could not check this aspect there.

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Zusha Elinson covered bikes, buses, Bay Area Rapid Transit and other transportation issues for The Bay Citizen. He previously was a legal reporter at The Recorder, a legal/business newspaper based in San Francisco, and an editor at Marinscope Community Newspapers. Zusha started his career at The Oakland Post.