Can’t stop road deaths? Sez Who?

NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio wants to reduce deaths on The Apple’s roadways.  Some say it’s not going to work, road fatalities are inevitable.  We say, SEZ WHO?

I remember a moment in Boston in July, 1995 when Sgt. Brendan Flynn noticed that Boston had experienced more traffic deaths than criminal homicides through the first half of the year.  We were thrilled about the reduction in murder. It was instructive to me that no one else had noticed the increase in road deaths– including yours truly.  Had we become so desensitized to deaths on the roadways?  I think the answer was and is, yes.

Mayor DeBlasio can and should address vehicle-related deaths.  If for no reason better than that the people we kill on the roads with the greatest frequency are the most vulnerable among us: our elders and our babies.  But in my opinion he may need to fine-tune the approach.

The opportunity for NYC, and any municipality  is to put all the minds to work figuring out why we behave in such a way that kills so many human beings.  With the thousands of experienced minds cited in the article, NYC would have better than a supercomputer cogitating and sharing ideas.  Such activity would unlock insight.  The current approach is limiting.  The “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” model stimulates movement but it usually restricts people to their current, conventional thinking and agendas.  Why not turn all these minds loose in the data mines and the streets to come up with an analysis of how the problem actually works?  We all know a problem properly understood presents its own solution.

The headline below refers to the “reality of New York streets.”  Well, humans created that reality and humans can create a new one.  Let’s face it, since we have had human-made motor vehicles in human-designed roads we have been killing ourselves.  We can become sensitive and smart just as we have been insensitive and dumb.  It’s simply “true” that people have to die?  Sez who?

In the mid-1990’s, aunts and uncles of the people lamenting the “reality” of traffic mayhem were sure that WJ Bratton and his Merry Band of Pranksters, led by the late Dapper Jack Maple and George L. Kelling (quoted below) among others, could not play a role in reducing crime and harm in the city.  They put together a thoughtful strategy that was so powerful it contributed to crime reductions all over the country.  Not just because it was adopted widely.  NYC was generating between five and 10 percent of all homicides in the US.  When more people stayed alive in NYC after 1995, the country’s homicide rate saw a significant decline. It reminds me of a quote from the late Sid Caesar about producing 90 minutes of live, high-quality TV sketch comedy: “We didn’t know it could not be done, so we did it.”

At the time, Fox Butterfield then of the NY Times noted it as “New York City’s Gift to Clinton,” who as we recall won re-election in 1996.


De Blasio’s Vow to End Traffic Deaths Meets Reality of New York Streets

The announcement was bold, if somewhat quixotic: Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose campaign was focused on reforming the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk tactics, would commit his administration to reducing traffic deaths “literally” to zero.

In his administration’s first 40 days, that pledge translated into a series of ticket blitzes against drivers — and, in unusually large numbers, jaywalkers.

Jaywalking tickets are up nearly eightfold this year, despite the mayor’s insistence that his plan for safer streets did not include singling out pedestrians. Through Feb. 9, there were 215 jaywalking summonses issued, compared with 27 over the same period last year; tickets issued to drivers were down slightly.

Four Traffic Fatalities in Two Days As Mayor Vows to Make Streets SaferJAN. 19, 2014
The jaywalking focus concerned cycling and pedestrian advocates, who have largely praised Mr. de Blasio’s plans, known as Vision Zero, as an effective way to curb the number of traffic deaths: In 2013, 176 pedestrians were killed in traffic in New York, according to police statistics.

By Saturday, commanders of each of the city’s 77 police precincts were to have submitted their ideas for improving safety and traffic enforcement, along with plans from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Department of Transportation and the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Mr. de Blasio may unveil a unified plan as soon as next week.

In the meantime, police commanders in Manhattan and Brooklyn have tried differing approaches — one concentrating on jaywalkers, and the other, scofflaw drivers — in recent weeks, following a string of fatal crashes last month that included three pedestrian deaths in fewer than 10 days on the Upper West Side.

Shortly after the third pedestrian death, Inspector Nancy Barry, the local precinct commander, directed her officers to curb jaywalking, in addition to stopping cars, around 96th Street and Broadway, where two of the deaths occurred. At least one of the victims, the police said, had been jaywalking.

Officers also handed out cards with safety tips for pedestrians. “Why wait?” they read. “Because collisions don’t!”

On Jan. 19, the day of the third fatal crash, the police wrote 21 summonses to pedestrians at West 96th Street.

Charles Komanoff, a transportation economist, suggested that some pedestrian impulses could not, and perhaps should not, be tamed. “If people did not jaywalk, the efficiency of New York City as a place to live and work would plummet,” he said, adding that “crossing midblock, sentiently, can be a very smart strategy.”

For some, the issuing of tickets to pedestrians called to mind a failed effort by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani in the late 1990s to curtail jaywalking. So too did a comment by the police commissioner, William J. Bratton, in which he said “pedestrian error” was a contributing factor in “73 percent of collisions.” Advocates demanded to know where he had gotten his numbers, citing past studies that found most accidents involving a pedestrian occurred in a crosswalk, when the pedestrian had the light.

A police spokeswoman, Deputy Chief Kim Y. Royster, later clarified that Mr. Bratton had been referring to “pedestrian fatalities investigated by our collision investigation squad” and were “not a full representation of the D.O.T. data” on crashes.

Mr. de Blasio, for his part, has defended Inspector Barry’s efforts on jaywalking, saying they were “appropriate to that location,” though adding there would be no larger policy of giving pedestrians tickets.

The mayor has expressed support for the expansion of “slow zones” — a Bloomberg-era initiative that reduced the speed limit to 20 miles per hour, from 30 m.p.h., in some designated areas — and the installation of more ticket-issuing speed cameras.

Mr. Bratton has also promised to increase the ranks of the highway patrol to better catch lawbreakers and investigate crashes. But the department has struggled to find enough officers interested in the task, according to a top police official who was not authorized to discuss departmental personnel matters and insisted on anonymity.

Research suggests that a handful of targeted blitzes may not be enough to affect traffic safety.

Enhanced enforcement, particularly in high-visibility areas, can increase the rates at which drivers yield to pedestrians over the long term, said Ron Van Houten, a professor of psychology at Western Michigan University and the author of a series of traffic safety studies. But the most effective campaigns, he said, have also involved a range of other efforts, including radio advertising and “feedback signs” that publicly track changes in driver behavior.

One innovation that may gain traction: using plainclothes officers to stop drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. In the 78th Precinct, in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Deputy Inspector Michael Ameri tried such an approach last month; 17 tickets were issued.

“It’s a two-person operation — you have a plainclothes officer as a pedestrian who walks back and forth and a uniformed officer who issues summonses,” said Councilman Brad Lander, who represents the area and praised the approach.

Nonetheless, the number of citywide summonses for moving violations has remained flat. As of Feb. 9, there were 90,945 summonses issued in 2014 compared with 91,043 over the same period in 2013. (That includes all manner of car-related violations, including speeding, illegally tinted windows, talking on a cellphone while driving and broken taillights.)

Given the mayor’s early focus on pedestrian safety, and the spate of high-profile traffic deaths during his short time at City Hall, lawmakers suggested that even some minefields of city politics, like the elimination of parking spaces and the potential for slower traffic, had become more navigable.

“Widening sidewalks and eliminating parking — if that results in slowing down traffic, I think the trade-off is something that we should consider,” said Councilman James Vacca of the Bronx, a skeptic of the city’s street policies during Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s administration.

The department may also find it can motivate officers to engage in traffic enforcement by connecting those efforts with traditional crime-fighting, said George L. Kelling, a criminologist and longtime adviser to Mr. Bratton who helped develop the theory of “broken windows” policing. (The theory holds that as officers address minor quality-of-life crimes, more serious offenses are reduced.)

“That’s a side benefit: When you enforce the rules against disorderly behavior, it turns out that you had contacts with a lot of people who had done serious crimes or had warrants out,” Mr. Kelling said. “I think that the concern about traffic is the new threshold in terms of order maintenance.”

So far, organizations that represent drivers, who bristled at the installation of bike lanes and other street changes under Mr. Bloomberg, have remained quiet about Mr. de Blasio’s Vision Zero.

“We’re not going to come out swinging against any of this,” John A. Corlett, the director of government affairs and traffic safety for AAA New York. “It’s a new administration. They have an optimistic goal.”

A version of this article appears in print on February 15, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Mayor’s Vow to End Traffic Deaths Meets Reality of the Streets. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe


About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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