Death by Car

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.Photo: Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao

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.’ ”

European cities cracked down on speeding cars—bringing the speed limit down to 30 kilometers, or 20 miles, per hour, and down even further in some areas to something called “walking speed.” Many of those cities also worked to maintain a balance between cars on the one hand and pedestrians and cyclists on the other, in terms of who dominated the roads.

But in America, where the car is king, such measures have been adopted only reluctantly. For years, efficiency trumped safety in New York: “Vehicle level of service” was practically the sole metric by which the city measured the success of its streets, and one of the greatest enemies of that metric was “pedestrian interference.” Quickly and without much opposition, cars came to rule our streets. In the sixties, a New York traffic commissioner named Henry Barnes introduced what became known as the Barnes Dance—intersections where the traffic was brought to a standstill in all four directions to give groups of pedestrians the chance to cross at once, sometimes even at diagonals (elsewhere, the arrangement is known as a scramble). But such innovations were short-lived here. While crashes and injuries plummeted as a result of the Barnes Dance, gridlock shot up. Today just one Barnes Dance seems to be left here: where Broadway meets Battery Place and State Street in lower Manhattan.

In the seventies and eighties, engineers in New York and elsewhere began focusing on new ways to improve traffic safety without stifling the flow of cars. They separated pedestrians from cars, either physically—with barriers like wide tree-lined sidewalks such as the ones along the West Side Highway—or temporally, with new pedestrian-crossing signals. Over the years, myriad ­signal systems have been introduced, including the “leading pedestrian interval” that gives walkers a head start in crossing the street against turning cars (an innovation of the Koch years) and “split phasing,” in which a light that once was a solid green signal now alternates between a green forward arrow and a green left or right arrow.

During the Giuliani administration, seemingly every major quality-of-life measure in New York was tackled by police—broken windows, squeegee men, public drinking. But traffic-safety management remained largely about accommodating as many cars as possible, the faster the better. What steps Giuliani took—setting up pedestrian barricades in midtown and enforcing the ban on jaywalking—were mainly directed at managing walkers, not vehicles.

Mike Bloomberg’s technocratic management style seemed ideally suited to improving traffic safety. During Bloomberg’s first several years in office, he worked to ease gridlock by limiting turns on most streets in midtown (which has largely been viewed as a success) and pushed for congestion-pricing tolls on the East River bridges (which famously failed). In 2007, Bloomberg released his “PlaNYC,” an ambitious blueprint for remaking New York as an ecofriendly, ­quality-of-life mecca. Traffic improvement was a significant part of the plan, and that same year Bloomberg appointed Janette Sadik-Khan, a progressive-minded former city and federal transportation official, as transportation commissioner.

Sadik-Khan immediately embarked on an ambitious program of reforms, implementing expansive pedestrian plazas in traffic-choked spots like Times Square and Herald Square; new “Select” express-bus lanes in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island; and some 200 miles of new on-street bike lanes. To a greater degree than at any time since before World War II, the city’s streets were being shared equitably by cars, walkers, and cyclists. In large measure, the changes have worked. New York’s traffic-fatality rate is far better than many other big cities’—less than two thirds of Chicago’s and half of Los Angeles’s, while San Antonio has over triple our rate. New York still lags internationally, compared to cities with similar densities such as London, Sydney, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Paris, and Berlin, although that gap has been closing. In the past ten years, Sadik-Khan says, “traffic fatalities are down 40 percent. Pedestrian fatalities are down a full quarter. And last year we had the lowest fatalities in New York City since we started keeping records. What’s happening on our streets today is nothing short of historic.”

What are we to make, then, of the September mayor’s report showing an almost 25 percent leap in the fatality rate? Sadik-Khan says the number may be a fluke. She notes that New York’s downward trend in deaths has never been consistent year-to-year. “In fact, every other year since 2005 has seen a slight uptick in fatalities—2006, 2008, and 2010—compared to the record lows in the intervening years when the number nose-dived.” She remains a believer in the overall decline in the traffic-fatalities rate, noting that the mayoral report’s number was for the fiscal, not calendar, year. “You should put significant caveats on this, but 2012 could still be one of the five safest years in New York City history,” she says.

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.”

Although Sadik-Khan supports her colleagues in the NYPD, the DOT endorses a legislative agenda that includes expanding the number of red-light cameras authorized in the city, establishing the city’s first speed-camera-enforcement program, and increasing the penalties for motorists who violate work zones. At the same time, Sadik-Khan says she is working to bring countdown-clock pedestrian signals, an innovation introduced here in 2006, to 1,000 more intersections and implement thirteen more neighborhood slow zones—roughly quarter-square-mile areas where the community agrees to reduce the speed limit from 30 to 20 miles per hour—by the end of next year. Expect more neckdowns, too—bulging sidewalks that narrow roadways at intersections, giving more room to pedestrians and forcing drivers to keep their speeds down. She’s also doubling down on education efforts: the “That’s Why It’s 30” anti-speeding campaign; the “Don’t Be a Jerk” message to get cyclists to ride with traffic and stay off sidewalks; the “Look” campaign to get pedestrians and drivers to watch out for one another; and Sadik-Khan’s favorite, “There’s nothing LOL about RIP,” an anti-texting measure. But it can be difficult to induce people to change their behavior. In New York, says Michael King, “people don’t behave exactly the way you want them to behave.”

Greg Smith, the driver of the truck that killed Jessica Dworkin, received two traffic summonses—failure to yield to a pedestrian and failure to exercise due care. Both are misdemeanors. At the September Community Board 2 meeting following her death, the police provided no more details about the crash, except that Smith had been released after passing a Breathalyzer. “That shows just an utter lack of respect for Jessie’s life,” says Dworkin’s friend Ian Dutton.

Neighbors, meanwhile, continue to press for changes to make the intersection of Bedford Street, West Houston Street, and Sixth Avenue safer for pedestrians. At the September Community Board 2 meeting, a school crossing guard, Esperanca Varela, said she feared for her life each day she worked at Houston and Sixth. “There’s not even one sign indicating there are schoolchildren nearby,” she said. Another neighbor, Bonnie Rivera, said she’d been hit at that intersection years earlier, when she was 12. “A child is gonna be killed,” she said. “We all know this is about to happen.”

A few years back, the city had made some improvements to the intersection, extending the sidewalk on the northwest corner along Sixth Avenue with a neckdown, extending a traffic island on the west side, and installing an LPI signal, giving pedestrians a head start crossing the street. But advocates say that isn’t enough. “One of the things we asked for is a full pedestrian green cycle,” says Shirley Secunda, who chairs the Community Board 2 traffic and transportation committee, “while you hold up the trucks or cars that would be turning onto Sixth Avenue.”

Even if all the improvements they hope for were to happen, neighbors are convinced that redesigning the curbs and defining the lanes would only go so far. On a corner like Houston and Sixth, Secunda says, “You need a lot of traffic agents. And the police just haven’t provided them.” Transportation Alternatives has collected records of major accidents that suggest that the intersection had at least 41 crashes that injured pedestrians and cyclists between 1995 and 2009. NYPD crash reports for this year show that between August 2011 and July 2012, there were 34 crashes that injured seven people. But from January through August 1 of this year, the entire First and Sixth precincts, which share responsibility for that intersection, wrote just 46 speeding tickets and 186 failure-to-yield tickets.

Defective headlights, meanwhile, received 703 tickets.

Death by Car