Omar Sahak was biking down Columbus Avenue in San Francisco's North Beach last month when a car door swung open in front of him, sending him over the handlebars and onto the street.
Sahak, 27, said he was badly hurt and his arm was swelling quickly but didn’t want to call an ambulance because he doesn’t have health insurance. Sahak did want to get a police report, but the police refused to come to the scene and write one. The reason they gave: they’ll only write a report if an ambulance is called.
Sahak picked himself off the pavement, got the driver's information, put his aching left arm in a makeshift sling made out of his shirt — and then walked to the San Francisco Police Department's Central Station a few blocks away. The police still wouldn’t write a report, but they gave him a case number. After urging from the cops, Sahak then took a cab to the hospital where it was determined that he’d fractured his radius.
The data in our newly launched Bike Accident Tracker app are from crashes for which police have written reports. But Sahak’s case shows that far from every bike accident is recorded by police. In some cases, it’s because the police refuse. In others, it’s because cyclists or motorists don’t want to report the crash.
In an effort to get a full picture of bike collisions, we’ve engineered the Bike Accident Tracker to allow cyclists or motorists to submit their own crash data. Our hope is that this, combined with statistics from the police, will provide a better idea of where and why crashes are taking place.
Since launching the Bike Accident Tracker, we’re received about 30 reports, and we’re adding them to the map. The self-reported accidents are of all types. One woman got caught on the F-Line tracks while turning left onto Valencia Street from Market Street. One man was trying to cross Geary Boulevard when a car stopped in the intersection and a passenger flung open a door in his path, sending him flying. Like in Sahak's case, the police refused to take a report because the cyclist didn’t want to go the hospital.
Police in other cities are more likely to file reports for collisions, said Officer Eric Chiang, a spokesman for the SFPD. He confirmed that officers do not file reports unless an ambulance is called.
“We’re a larger city, so we don’t have the resources to take a report every time there’s a fender bender,” said Chiang. “The upside is that it frees us up to respond to other emergencies.”
Chiang also said that police do not issue a citation unless the accident was witnessed by an officer.
The no-report policy has received at least one rebuke from an official city body: the Office of Citizen Complaints.
Kate McCarthy, 31, was biking up Mission Street when a recreational vehicle going the opposite direction made an illegal left turn right in front of her. She swerved, but still collided with the giant vehicle, crashing her bike and cutting her face. After a police officer showed up, he refused to cite the driver, even though there were several witnesses, according to McCarthy. The officer also refused to write a report assigning fault.
McCarthy — who works for the San Francisco Bike Coalition — filed a complaint with the city’s Office of Citizen Complaints. Three months later, the body ruled that the police department should have issued a report.
McCarthy called it “troublesome” that not all incidents are reported by the police department, especially when such reports could be used to improve bike safety.
Police reports are also used for insurance purposes. In McCarthy's case, the RV driver called his insurance company and took responsibility for the accident. But other cyclists are not so lucky. Sahak said the driver of the car he collided with refused to provide his insurance information. Sahak said he instinctively asked for a police report.
“It’s just the message that’s been ingrained in me from being a cyclist: I know I don't have too many rights,” he said.