Octavia Boulevard Accident Raises New Questions About Dangerous Intersection (VIDEO)

SAN FRANCISCO -- At 6:40 this morning, a big rig towing a trailer carrying cars collided with a UCSF shuttle at Octavia Boulevard and Oak Street. The force of the impact threw Dr. Kevin Mack from the bus, killing him instantly.

In addition to the one fatality, three others (including the driver of the shuttle) suffered non-life threatening injuries, according to SFPD spokesman Lt. Troy Dangerfield. The shuttle was reportedly carrying employees of the UCSF and SF General Hospital, with no students on board.

"I get complaints about Octavia all the time," said Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi. "I was just elected supervisor when they inaugurated the street after the freeway came down and it was really exciting."

Mirkarimi, currently the front-runner in the race to replace long-time Sherriff Mike Hennessey, was a big supporter of removing the Central Freeway and replacing it with the Parisian-styled Octavia Boulevard. "But now the street is confusing," he added, "especially for people who aren't familiar with San Francisco or are using GPS."

Mirkarimi, who lives in the neighborhood, said he usually gets a direct phone call when something like this happens so he can immediately head over to the scene; however, in this case, he was alerted to the incident by the fleet of news helicopters hovering overhead and went outside to see what was going on.

The supervisor said he plans on brining up the safety issues on Octavia, as well as the possibility of enforcing seat belt laws on mass transit shuttles, at the next Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday.

A 2007 SFMTA report labeled Octavia and Oak as the city's single most dangerous intersection for traffic accidents and, as a result, SFMTA installed traffic red light cameras to catch offenders. Across the board, these types of cameras generally cut the rate of accidents at a given intersection in half, said SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose.

In addition to the cameras, the city has improved signal timing, provided upgraded signal hardware and added more striping and better signage. Injury accidents at Oak and Octavia have since decreased from an all-time high of 14 in 2006 down to four last year, and the agency has taken the intersection off of its "most dangerous" list.

Concern in the area has largely moved a few blocks down the street to the intersection of Octavia and Market. According to a SFMTA report, the latter intersection saw seven collisions in 2009, only two shy of 16th and Potereo, which the report labeled as the city’s most dangerous intersection for traffic accidents.

Rob Anderson, one of San Francisco's most outspoken driving activists, blogged about the Octavia in the wake of the 2007 report:

Octavia Blvd. now performs the same function the Central Freeway used to perform---feeding eastbound city traffic from Oak St. to the freeway and moving westbound traffic to Fell Street---except that the traffic---45,000 cars a day, according to DPT---is now on a surface street in the middle of the neighborhood, not on an overpass.

In addition to Octavia’s heavy traffic flow, a number of other factors contribute to the difficulty of driving on the street. As drivers get off the highway and move onto Octavia, they’re often still psychologically primed to be going at the rate they traveled the highway and, as such, have a tendency to speed. Also, on either side of Octavia, raised medians separare two narrow feeder lanes, which are only passable at the street's intersections. While still technically part of Octavia, these feeders act like separate roads with drivers merging between them and the main portion of the street at high speeds.

A 2008 KRON-4 segment showed another reason for the intersection’s tendency toward trouble: the propensity of drivers turning onto Octavia from Oak to run red lights and stop in the middle of crosswalk (scroll down for video).

Despite its dangerous reputation, Rose said the intersection probably isn’t among the worst in the city. "This intersection has heavier traffic than a lot of others," he noted, "so it’s naturally going to have a higher likelihood of collisions than ones that don’t see a much traffic just based on sheer volume. Even though this intersection may have more accidents than others, it’s probably not actually the most dangerous."

San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association Executive Director Gabriel Metcalf called Octavia a work in progress. "We are in the early stages of reinventing the culture of public space in American cities," said Metcalf, whose organization was instrumental in the Central Freeway's removal. "It's going to take us a while to work out the kinks to create roadways that work for mobility as well as public space."