S.F. Transit Agency, Police Launch Effort to Protect Cable Car Operators

San Francisco officials are launching an effort to protect cable car operators after two of them were severely injured this year. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

San Francisco officials are launching an effort to protect cable car operators after two of them were severely injured this year. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

By Alex Emslie

Being a conductor on San Francisco’s cable cars is physically demanding, but it shouldn’t be so dangerous, city authorities said Tuesday as they announced a plan to keep operators of the iconic vehicles safer as they contend with traffic.

The change comes two months after cable car operator Reynaldo Morante was hit by a motorcycle rider who faces drunken driving charges and four months after operator Santiago Montoya was hit by a car. Both vehicles were passing the cable cars illegally when they hit the operators, police said.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and police unveiled several safety improvements, including large “Do Not Pass” signs on the backs of cable cars, hand-held stop signs for operators who often try to slow or stop traffic for off-boarding passengers and stepped-up traffic enforcement courtesy.

“Unfortunately, change only comes by the way of human sacrifice,” said Eric Williams, a former cable car operator and president of Transport Workers Union Local 250-A. “This is not a joke.”

Williams said Montoya just finished his first stretch of physical rehabilitation and “his life will never be the same.” Morante, who was not expected to survive, is “fighting for his life,” Williams said, declining to go into further details about the operator’s injuries per their families’ wishes.

“After an incident, after an accident, everything is reactive,” Williams said. “There was no proactive program in place, at all.”

Police Chief Greg Suhr said officers had written more than a dozen $238 tickets for illegally passing cable cars in the last week. He said it is “absolutely crazy-unsafe to pass a street car.”

“It is so dangerous,” Suhr said. “We don’t take any pleasure in writing a ticket, but there will be no quarter given. Stop a reasonable distance behind street cars.”

SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin tied the issue of operator safety to the city’s broader Vision Zero goal of eliminating traffic-related fatalities by 2024.

“The city’s saying enough is enough,” Reiskin said. “People shouldn’t be dying in our streets. People shouldn’t be getting seriously injured in our streets just trying to get around town, and that extends to our own employees and the people who ride the cable cars.”

Pedestrian traffic fatalities in San Francisco decreased last year, from 21 to 17. But pedestrian safety group Walk SF notes the 96 traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries to pedestrians last year soared past the city’s goal of 82.


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