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Death by Car

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Safety advocates, however, argue that the city is still overlooking critical problems. Although the new bike lanes protect riders in some ways, for instance, critics say that sharing ever-narrowing roadways has created new hazards. The lanes cause a false sense of security, some say, and many bikers don’t abide by the law. Bike lanes, in this view, add to, rather than ameliorate, chaos. Just last week in Union Square, a 24-year-old skateboarder died in a crash involving a truck and, according to a witness, a cyclist. Cars still speed, drivers still drink, and jaywalkers still pay no attention, especially with smartphones to distract them. “I wonder if we’ve reached a critical mass where so many people are looking down and so many people are listening to headphones and so many drivers are texting that the probability of an inattentive walker and an inattentive driver is much greater,” says Sam Schwartz, a.k.a. Gridlock Sam, the transportation consultant and traffic guru.

The city can be slow to respond to complaints about dangerous intersections. In September, the New York Times reported that even a reasonably well-connected citizen, like New York State court-system communications director David Bookstaver, had to hassle the DOT for six years to get a signal installed at East End Avenue and 85th Street—the only intersection for blocks without one.

In 2010, in keeping with Bloomberg’s penchant for data-driven analysis, Sadik-Khan issued the results of a report the DOT had undertaken on pedestrian safety. The idea, she says, was to help the city learn “who gets hit, why they get hit, where they get hit, and how they get hit.” The prime culprit turned out to be speeding cars. The study noted that a pedestrian struck at 40 miles per hour is four times more likely to die than one struck at 30 miles per hour, who in turn is six times more likely to die than one struck at 20 miles per hour. The report also showed that 74 percent of the car crashes resulting in fatalities and serious injuries took place at intersections, not highways. The most likely way to die on the street in a car-related crash in New York, the DOT’s data suggests, is the same way Jessica Dworkin died—at the hands of a driver who was turning at an intersection. Most of those incidents do not appear to be the pedestrian’s fault: 57 percent of those crashes occurred while the pedestrian was crossing with the signal. The problem, in other words, is cars.

Safety advocates say the DOT needs to continue to look for new engineering solutions that can help slow down speeding vehicles. But the biggest problem, they say, lies with law enforcement. Analyzing DOT data and police reports, Transportation Alternatives has found that of all the crashes between 1995 and 2009 in which a pedestrian or bicyclist was killed and the cause of the crash could be determined, 60 percent were caused by illegal driver behavior. Despite the known dangers of speeding, most police precincts in New York only hand out about two speeding tickets per week. In 2011, cops gave out more tickets for drivers with cars with tinted windows (4,967) than they did for drivers who were speeding (3,779).

In New York, most serious car accidents don’t even warrant a police investigation. Although state law requires that serious physical injuries receive scrutiny, the department’s Accident Investigation Squad for years only looked into incidents in which people died or were deemed “likely to die” at the scene. In February, the AIS commanding officer, Michael Kelly, told the City Council that, in 2011, AIS investigated 304 crashes out of thousands of traffic accidents that caused serious injuries and 241 that resulted in deaths. Those investigations led to 52 arrests. The unit itself consists of just nineteen officers. “The joke is that if you run over someone here, be sure they’re dead because then there’s no witness,” Michael King says.

The NYPD may be remiss in even tracking traffic cases. There was a time—from about 2000 until 2010—when the police department brought the same attention to bear on car crashes that it brought to violent crimes. Under a program called TrafficStat, precinct commanders were called on the carpet for not handing out enough traffic citations. Coincidentally or not, the recent spike in traffic fatalities occurred after a new chief of TrafficStat seemed to stop looking so closely at the numbers. Some advocates suggest that this is the real reason the fatality number jumped up again last year.

The City Council is looking at several bills that would call for AIS to investigate serious injuries as well as fatalities. One measure would require the NYPD to have at least five accident-investigation officers trained in each precinct. Another way the police could do more to change the driving culture in New York would be to issue tickets to drivers when it’s obvious they are to blame. For years, only the Highway Patrol, and not regular officers, have ticketed drivers for incidents regular officers didn’t witness firsthand. But some crashes are so clear-cut—every single driver who rear-ends someone, for instance, could get a ticket for tailgating—that it’s a mystery why the police don’t bother. “Cops are told to ticket for seat belts and cell phones,” says White. “Why not the failure to yield? That’s what’s killing people.”


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