It's Too Easy to Kill Pedestrians in New York City

Pedestrian deaths in New York City are on pace to eclipse homicides in 2014.

The problem is not contained to hot spots on the Upper West Side or in Queens. De Blasio lays out the statistics: Motor vehicles are the leading cause of injury-related death for kids under 14 in New York City and the second-leading cause of injury-related death for seniors. Over the past 10 years, cars have killed nearly 2,000 New Yorkers; 30,000 were hospitalized.

When all is said and done, 33 members of a 34,500-strong police force will be investigating a category of fatality that’s on track to outpace murder.

To reduce those numbers, de Blasio has assembled a task force to identify problems and implement solutions. That group, made up of the heads of the transportation department, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and the NYPD, has until February 15 to present a plan to the mayor.

During Raymond W. Kelly's 11-year tenure as police commissioner under de Blasio's predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, critics assailed the NYPD for not devoting sufficient resources to investigating traffic deaths, and for bungling the cases they did investigate. Asked to sum up Kelly's philosophy, street-safety advocates often point to a statement he made in October when he was asked whether his department could improve its record on preventing traffic deaths.

Illustration by Tom Carlson
Steve Vaccaro speaks at the Upper West Side vigil.
Anna Zivarts
Steve Vaccaro speaks at the Upper West Side vigil.

Kelly said, "We do have 8.4 million people here. We do have a daytime population that's over 10 million people, so you're going to have a lot of traffic. And you're going to have accidents."

To activists, it translated as: "Accidents happen. Big deal."

Yet Kelly did take some corrective steps. In a letter dated March 4, 2013, he announced that the NYPD would no longer limit its vehicle-incident investigations to those that caused death; incidents that left a victim critically injured would be scrutinized, too. (Perhaps not coincidentally, nine months earlier the family of Clara Heyworth, a Fort Greene woman killed crossing Vanderbilt Avenue, filed suit against the police department, alleging that it had delayed an investigation into Heyworth's death, losing crucial evidence, owing to the previous policy.)

Kelly also promised to increase the staffs of the NYPD Highway District and that division's Collision Investigation Squad. (In a symbolic gesture, Kelly changed the name of the latter, which had been known as the Accident Investigation Squad.)

"That letter, even though it was just lip service, was totally uncharacteristic for Kelly," says Keegan Stephan, an advocate affiliated with the pedestrian rights group Right of Way. "Most of the time, he would say things that flew in the face of all of our efforts."

From behind the podium at the Vision Zero event, newly installed NYPD Commissioner William J. Bratton trots out several of Kelly's promises, seeming to highlight the fact that, almost a year later, some of them have yet to be fully realized.

"As you may be aware, the department recently implemented a new policy to expand the number and type of collisions investigated," declares Bratton, who did a two-year stint as commissioner under Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the 1990s. "Previously, the department only investigated accidents in which victims were likely to die. That threshold has been expanded to include 'critically injured' as a category, increasing the number of cases we are investigating by approximately 20 percent."

The highway investigation unit, Bratton says, will expand to 270 officers from 210. But most of the Highway District's investigative work falls to its Collision Investigation Squad. That unit will grow, Bratton says, "to six supervisors and 27 highly trained investigators."

In other words, when all is said and done, 33 members of a 34,500-strong police force will be investigating a category of fatality that's on track to outpace murder. The CIS's arrest rate hovers at about 20 percent; the NYPD's homicide unit, by comparison, claims a clearance rate of about 70 percent.

If advocates are unimpressed by Bratton's recycling of Ray Kelly's promises, they're even less taken with his eagerness to place the blame for traffic fatalities at pedestrians' feet.

"I should point out that pedestrian accidents have accounted for the greatest increase in collision fatalities of late," he tells his audience in Queens. "Last year, pedestrian error contributed to 73 percent of collisions, and 66 percent are directly related to actions of pedestrians."

The following day, Streetsblog will seize upon the statistic, scrutinize it — and conclude the figure "doesn't match up with any known dataset."

Bratton's assertion is "based on drivers reporting who was at fault," suggests Caroline Samponaro, senior director of campaigns and organizing at Transportation Alternatives. "The pedestrian who was killed doesn't have a voice."

The statistic also contradicts numbers crunched by the health department in 2010. That study found that in New York, where two-thirds of crashes occur at intersections, more pedestrians were killed while crossing with the signal (45 percent) than against it (38 percent). Fifteen percent were hit crossing outside the crosswalk; 2 percent weren't on the road at all.

Stephan says he wasn't surprised to hear Bratton parroting his predecessor's promises. "What's going to matter is that he delivers on it," he says.

To cement his skepticism, Stephan adds, "And the first thing he did after that press conference was crack down on jaywalkers."

In the fall, before he was reappointed police commissioner, Bill Bratton delivered a talk at a Transportation Alternatives event at New York University. Police officers, he told his audience, "tend to focus on the more sensational, and the more sensational always has been the issue of [violent] crime." He went on to assert that the NYPD needs "to focus on the lives that could be saved through the reduction in traffic accidents as [much as] the lives that could be saved through [a reduction in] a violent type of crime."

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