It’s one of the fastest-paced cities in the world, but Mayor Bill de Blasio hopes to slow it down. In line with Vision Zero, the recent city initiative to reduce traffic-related injuries and deaths, on June 23 Mr. de Blasio signed 11 new traffic bills into law which are designed to tighten traffic enforcement and traffic data collection efforts. In an article published on the City of New York website, Mr. de Blasio promises to “use every tool we have to make streets safer. Today is another step on our path to fulfilling that promise, and sparing more families the pain of losing a son, a daughter, or a parent in a senseless tragedy…” One of the most aggressive initiatives among the new traffic policies will be reduction of the speed limit in New York City to 25 mph from the current 30 mph. 120 new traffic cameras will be installed near schools and will target any drivers who travel at least 36 mph, according to the Transportation Department, down from the current 41 mph threshold.
However, advocates of pedestrians and drivers are skeptical that there will be significant safety gains from the new policies, given that many other issues have not been addressed, such as adjusting the timing of traffic lights throughout the city. And the success of any new law depends on how vigorously the police enforce it. John Corlett, the legislative committee chairman for AAA (American Automobile Association) New York, questions how vigorously the N.Y.P.D. enforces the 30 mph limit on local streets according to the current rules.
While Michael Bloomberg was mayor, traffic fatalities in the city decreased almost 30%. There were 286 traffic deaths in the city in 2013, compared with 701 in 1990. This represents a major accomplishment, brought about largely by raising public awareness and by infrastructure improvements, such as pedestrian countdown signals and bicycle lanes. As a result, New York currently has a much lower traffic death rate, both in terms of drivers and pedestrians, than the average of other large US cities. What motivates the new effort by Mayor de Blasio is the hope that serious pedestrian accidents in New York City can be further reduced by modifying driver behavior.
WNYC is tracking all fatal crashes in New York City in 2014 and this year’s toll is already 127 deaths. [Sokhna Niang, 49, the most recent accident victim as we publish was struck while trying to cross Flatbush Avenue in a rainstorm on July 14.]
A story titled Struck on the Street: Four Survivors in the NY Times, displays the realities of these traffic accidents, as directly experienced by employees of the paper itself. Years after she was hit, Denise Fuhs, a design editor, says “I still cannot cross very many streets without looking both ways about four times… If a car gets too close, or if I think a driver turning my way doesn’t see me, I panic, sometimes freeze.”
The pedestrians that are lucky enough to survive in such accidents are still suffering, while consequences for the drivers are minimal. In her accident and the 3 other accidents that the story mentions, the drivers who hit pedestrians were not charged by the police. This raises the question of whether current rules are too lax to deter the kind of driving that endangers pedestrian safety. In a Freakonomics Radio Podcast from May 1, Stephan Dubner describes hitting a pedestrian as the perfect crime, i.e. a way to kill someone without any punishment. He says that if you run over a pedestrian in New York, chances are good that you’ll barely be punished. Lisa Smith, a former prosecutor, states that just 5 percent of the drivers who are involved in a fatal crash with a pedestrian are arrested in New York. Given that pedestrians always lose out in a collision with a vehicle, it’s tempting to view tightening laws for drivers as an effective solution to the problem.
Yet, Robert Noland, the director of the Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University brings up an important question: is it the drivers or the pedestrians who are actually at fault in most accidents? In a 2010 report on traffic accidents, the city found that among the 6,784 pedestrians who were seriously injured by motor vehicles from 2002 to 2006, 2,500 involved pedestrians who were crossing illegally at intersections. Should we pay attention to improving pedestrian awareness and compliance?
But given that over half of the pedestrians in the 2010 report were crossing legally, the overall solution lies in a multi-faceted approach, one that does not target or penalize the majority of law-abiding drivers and pedestrians. Lower speed limits and an increase in traffic cameras might slow traffic down in some target areas, but with an average speed of 9 mph in the city, most people who have driven in New York’s snarled traffic know that speed is not the overriding problem.
Poor driving by unlicensed motorists may be an issue. According to another article in Streetsblog, of nine fatal crashes in December 2013, two of the drivers involved were unlicensed, while three had fled the scene, so their credentials could not be checked. A more visible police presence, including regular checks for unlicensed drivers and expired registrations, might deter such people from driving or at least improve their behavior. As pointed out earlier, the legal consequences of fatal motorist and pedestrian accidents are relatively minor for the drivers involved — in the nine fatal crashes in December 2013 no motorists are known to have been charged so far. Prioritizing investigation and prosecution of fatal accidents would send an important message that there are serious consequences when pedestrian lives are lost.
While rates of car accidents are going down, cyclist related injuries have increased over the past five years. While New York City has made strong efforts to encourage bicycle use, by creating new bike lanes as well as a bike share program, cyclist safety seems to have been neglected.
Many cyclists do not follow traffic laws and bike through red lights or weave in and out between cars. New York City’s bike lanes require expansion and further research and planning. In addition, cyclist behavior and awareness needs to be addressed. When cyclists, like motorists, break laws and put themselves and others in serious, but avoidable, danger they should receive some repercussions. For their own safety, it may be time to put in place a mandatory helmet law for cyclists, or at least create public awareness about how to safely bicycle in a densely populated city.
Finally, as a New Yorker who spends a lot of time navigating city streets on foot, I can’t help noticing the large percentage of people who cross streets illegally or while distracted by cellphones. If it is illegal for a motorist to be texting while navigating a street, shouldn’t the same apply to pedestrians who are looking down at their phones while jaywalking? Furthermore, it’s fair to say that traffic and crossing signals don’t always seem to be well coordinated and can endanger pedestrians. These dangerous situations could be improved by adjusting the timing of the lights. Some adjustments could include “No Turn on Red” signs which would allow for more pedestrian walking time, or ensuring that there is no “Walk” signal while there is simultaneously a green light for a car to turn right, into a crosswalk.
As New Yorkers take on a more environmentally friendly, healthy lifestyle and walk and cycle more, our traffic policies will need to adapt to keep up with the changes.
New York City departments (DOT/NYPD/TLC) have come together to form neighborhood street teams that are targeting dangerous intersections in New York City. Check out this map to see what factors are affecting the safety conditions.