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Death by Car

After years of Bloomberg-era declines, the number of traffic-related fatalities in New York has suddenly spiked. Why? Inside the imperfect science of traffic safety.

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A composite photograph of the corner where Sixth Avenue meets Houston Street, made from hundreds of frames taken between 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on November 16.  

Jessica Dworkin was an old-fashioned Greenwich Village character. Living in the same rent-stabilized apartment on Thompson Street for decades, she had been an artist during the Soho loft era and a music promoter during the Studio 54 years. At age 58, she no longer worked, but she had taken on the role of unofficial mayor of her neighborhood. Dressed in hippie garb, she’d spend her days chatting with friends at the Local café on Sullivan Street and greeting strangers en route to swim laps at Dapolito Pool—on a foot-powered scooter. Those who didn’t know her well called her the Scooter Lady.

On August 27, the Monday before Labor Day, Dworkin began her morning by feeding the sparrows at Vesuvio Playground on Thompson Street. Less than an hour later, just before 9 a.m., she approached the intersection where Houston meets Sixth Avenue and Bedford Street. She was trying to cross Sixth from east to west when an eighteen-wheel flatbed truck made a right turn onto Sixth from Houston, entering the same intersection.

A witness heard Dworkin scream, then saw her being pulled under one of the truck’s rear tires. Dworkin’s scooter fell onto the asphalt, but the driver, unaware that he had hit anyone, kept going. Dworkin was dragged two blocks, to the corner of Sixth and Carmine Street, before the truck stopped. A slogan printed on the vehicle’s cab read: GREG SMITH 7 YEARS SAFE DRIVING. When Smith emerged and saw what had happened, he placed his hands on his head as if to say, “What did I do?” Dworkin was pronounced dead at the scene.

In the days that followed, family members, friends, and much of downtown, it seemed, mourned the loss of Dworkin’. The monthly Community Board 2 meeting, on September 11, felt more like a wake, with some 100 neighbors and friends gathering to remember Dworkin and press for details about her death. Had the driver run a light? Was he texting? Had he broken any laws? The police didn’t have much in the way of answers. “I think,” said Martin Baranksi, the community-affairs officer sent by the Sixth Precinct, “it was just a terrible accident.”

Dworkin’s death was more than a neighborhood tragedy; it was a collective urban nightmare come true. Yes, Dworkin was an uncommonly beloved figure, and the circumstances of her accident were unusually grim, but most New Yorkers on some level fear being hit by a car. Walkers, motorists, and bikers are locked in a perpetual struggle for territory, frequently with untoward results. In the past decade, more New Yorkers were killed or seriously hurt in or by cars than were killed or seriously hurt by guns.

Dworkin’s death is also part of a broader trend: In September, just a few weeks after she was killed, the Bloomberg administration happened to release its Mayor’s Management Report, a twice-yearly document compiled by City Hall. Included in the report was the troubling news that in the previous year, from July 2011 to June 2012, traffic-related deaths had spiked upward by 23 percent, from 236 to 291. Of those fatalities, the majority, or 176, were pedestrians and cyclists; the rest were drivers or passengers. Although city officials were quick to point out that the number of traffic-related deaths had been decreasing more or less every year for the past decade, traffic-safety advocates were nonetheless alarmed at the sudden reversal. While advocates credit the Bloomberg administration for its efforts to redesign roadways, install bicycle lanes, and implement other new safety measures, they say problems remain, and note that some innovations have had unintended consequences. Safety advocates’ biggest complaint, however, is with the New York City Police Department, which, they say, lets drivers do whatever they want. “The NYPD is still stuck in the mind-set that some crashes are just inevitable—the price of living in the big city,” says Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a leading advocacy organization that campaigns for better bicycling, walking, and public transit in New York. “If you stay at the scene and you’re not drunk, you can pretty much get away with murder.”

Traffic-safety engineering came of age in the decades after World War II, when Western nations that had remade themselves with highways and unobstructed avenues to accommodate more and faster cars suddenly were confronted by an alarming number of crashes and deaths. “After fifteen or twenty years, they realized it wasn’t working out,” says Michael King, a street designer with a firm called Nelson\Nygaard, who helped pioneer what experts in the field refer to as “traffic-­calming” efforts in New York in the nineties. “Cities like Copenhagen and Munich said, ‘We have to start limiting traffic and make pedestrian-friendly streets.’ ”


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