By Kristen Taketa
The San Diego Union-Tribune
SAN DIEGO — San Diego city employees were responsible for more than 1,400 preventable vehicle accidents over five years, and agency supervisors have failed to take steps needed to prevent unsafe driving by employees, according to an audit released Monday.
Such accidents have been costly for the city and taxpayers: The city has paid out $31.2 million to settle claims regarding accidents that involved city vehicles, according to the report by City Auditor Andy Hanau.
One of the largest such payments was in 2021, when the city paid $16 million to a woman who lost a leg after a police officer drove into her while she was riding a motorcycle. The same year, the city paid almost $10 million to the families of two men who died in a freeway crash caused by an off-duty police officer.
A portion of those settlement claims were covered by liability insurance, but some of them were paid directly with city tax dollars.
The audit found that there were 1,458 preventable accidents involving city vehicles from fiscal 2017 through 2021. That’s out of 2,853 total accidents during that time that involved a city vehicle.
During that five-year period, the annual number of preventable accidents fell most years. In 2021, there were 238 preventable vehicle accidents, down from 345 in 2017.
The police department was responsible for more preventable accidents than any other city agency during the overall period, the audit found, accounting for 451. Public utilities was responsible for 238 preventable accidents, and fire-rescue for 192.
Those three departments along with the transportation and the parks departments were collectively responsible for the vast majority of preventable vehicle accidents committed by city employees during that time, the audit found.
Most of the preventable accidents happened because a city employee was not driving defensively, according to the audit.
For 39 of them, an investigation was never completed. Seventeen of those incomplete investigations involved environmental services employees, more than any other department.
Employees found to be at fault in an accident can face several consequences, including driving training, discipline or termination if they have committed multiple offenses.
City supervisors have failed to take several steps to prevent such accidents, the auditor said.
The city has no process to ensure that department supervisors regularly review data about how safely their employees are driving, such as speed and seat belt usage data — even though a city policy requires them to.
What’s more, more than half of the city’s 11 driving-related policies are left out of new-employee training materials, including a policy about unsafe backing of vehicles — one of the most common causes of accidents involving a city driver, according to the audit.
New hires are required to review only five of those policies, and they have to confirm that they have read only three of those, according to the audit.
Finally, the audit found that the city’s driver safety data system lacks several features that could help identify unsafe drivers and correct their behavior before accidents happen.
For example, the city’s current system does not tie vehicle data to specific employees, does not automatically require unsafe drivers to take remedial driving courses and does not equip city vehicles with cameras that could automatically detect distracted driving.
In a written response to the audit, Chief Operating Officer Eric Dargan disagreed with two of the audit’s four recommendations.
Auditors urged the city to create procedures dictating how supervisors would regularly review their employees’ driving safety data. Instead of doing that, the city is considering a centralized process to review safety data, Dargan said.
The city also disagrees with the audit’s recommendation that it add features to improve the driver safety data system.
Dargan said the city is instead working on a new program that would review driver scorecards and assign training. His response to the audit did not provide details or say when such a program will be completed.
Dargan agreed with the audit’s recommendation to look into why 39 unsafe driving investigations were not completed. He said the city has been reviewing issues that may have contributed to the problem, such as department turnover and vacancies, delays related to the COVID-19 pandemic and “confusion over the discipline process.”
And finally, the city said it is adding its policy on unsafe backing to its new employee orientation materials.