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.

It's Too Easy to Kill Pedestrians in New York City
Liz Patek/Right of Way
A memorial for Alex Shear stenciled by Right of Way

Five days after two Upper West Side residents were struck and killed by moving vehicles, their deaths separated by two blocks and 30 minutes, the sidewalk at 97th Street and West End Avenue is so thick with mourners that they spill onto the street. The crowd eventually swells so large that it becomes impossible for a crosstown bus to make its turn onto West End from 97th. For a moment, the bus sits paralyzed, mid-intersection, as a line of cars stacks up behind it, honking.

“The fact that plans drawn up by citizen activists in 2008 and 2010 to fix the traffic problems in this area were not acted on makes us sick.”

A candlelight vigil for two dead: That is what it takes to stop traffic on the Upper West Side.

Alex Shear was killed first. Seventy-three years old and a well-known collector of pop-culture trinkets (the New Yorker dubbed him "The Sultan of Stuff" in a 1999 profile), he was struck by a tour bus at 96th and Broadway at 8:15 p.m. on January 10. The bus dragged him nearly a block before a witness flagged down its driver.

A half-hour later, Cooper Stock, age nine, was holding his father's hand in the crosswalk, beneath the walk signal, outside their home at the intersection of West End and 97th. A taxi making a left turn killed him.

No charges have been filed against the driver of the bus that hit Shear. The driver of the cab that killed Stock received a traffic citation for "failure to yield to a pedestrian." If it's his first offense, he'll pay a small fine.

At the vigil, as the bus inches forward on to 97th, Julie Dermer addresses the throng through a megaphone. Dermer lives in the same building as the Stocks. She has a son Cooper's age.

"They hung out in the lobby, giggling," Dermer tells the crowd. "They always returned safely into our beloved home, right here on that corner, until Friday night, when our worst fear became reality and we lost — as Pablo, our doorman, said — we lost one of our kids right outside of our front door.

"Shock and sadness, which has really taken over the building and the neighborhood, has now turned to rage," Dermer says, her voice rising as she relates her own close call just weeks before and her subsequent discovery that the intersection had prompted "letters and reports that have been sent to our local officials since as early as 2008."

Adds Dermer: "The response has been, quote: 'We'll study it.'"

See also: New York's Deadliest Roads for Pedestrians, Borough by Borough

Last year, 335 people were murdered in New York City. Homicide is on the decline in New York, down 21 percent from 2012, 35 percent from 2011. Last year saw the fewest number of murders in a single year since the New York Police Department started keeping count back in 1963.

Also in 2013, cars in New York City killed 286 people. Traffic fatalities are up 5 percent from 2012, 15 percent from 2011.

If these trends continue on their trajectories, there is a good chance more people will be killed by cars in New York City this year than will be murdered.

That fact says a lot about the NYPD's success in driving down crime, but it says as much about the fact that the city has failed to apply the same determination to reducing traffic deaths.

It's not that cars kill more people in New York than in other major American cities. You're actually less likely to be killed by a car here: A study of data collected in 2009, published in 2012 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that New York had the lowest rate of motor-vehicle deaths of any of the nation's 50 most populous metropolitan areas: 3.9 per 100,000 residents. (The highest: Orlando, Florida, at 19.4.)

But from a different angle, New York's numbers are more troubling. Here, pedestrians, as a share of motor-vehicle fatalities, are killed at a rate far higher than the national average. In New York, pedestrian deaths comprise 52 percent of all traffic fatalities, according to the city's Department of Transportation; the national average is a mere 13 percent. (New York, of course, also boasts the nation's highest rate of commuters who walk or use public transit to get to work: 67 percent.)

The death rate is staggering, but it's not for a lack of effort on the part of pedestrian and cyclist rights groups like Transportation Alternatives, Right of Way, and a newly formed political action committee, StreetsPAC, which helped push the issue to the top of Bill de Blasio's mayoral campaign agenda last year.

It is a testament to their work when, hours before the January 15 vigil on the Upper West Side, de Blasio stands in a Queens schoolyard to make good on his campaign promises. He is here to announce an ambitious new initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities in 10 years. The effort, called Vision Zero, takes its name from a similar campaign begun more than a decade and a half ago in Sweden. There, the government aimed for a 50 percent reduction in traffic deaths over 10 years; after 15 years, the country has achieved a 48 percent drop.

Among those present at today's event are the parents of Noshat Nahian, an eight-year-old boy who was run over by a semitruck in December while crossing Northern Boulevard, a few blocks from here. Two months prior, a two-year-old was fatally struck on the same street; a year earlier, an 11-year-old suffered a similar fate. Over the past four years, nine pedestrians have been killed along Northern Boulevard's 11 miles of pavement.

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.

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.

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."

The problem the police commissioner will likely face as he attempts to execute de Blasio's vision is not that traffic deaths are insufficiently sensational. It is that state laws don't provide a framework for police and prosecutors to hold dangerous drivers accountable.

Mowing down a pedestrian while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or running over a cheating lover — these crimes fit neatly into the New York State Penal Law: vehicular manslaughter (which requires an element of intoxication) and plain old homicide. Those types of crimes, though, make up a small portion of traffic deaths.

In Queens, for example, where 93 people were killed by cars in 2013, the District Attorney's Office prosecuted 11 cases. Two involved using a vehicle as a weapon, while the nine others involved alcohol, racing, or leaving the scene of an accident.

According to the Department of Transportation, citywide, about 8 percent of traffic deaths are due to driving under the influence. Infractions like failure to yield to a pedestrian (27 percent) and speeding (21 percent) are far more common. Both are traffic violations not covered by the criminal code but under New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law.

The most common cause for a crash, according to the DOT, is "driver inattention," which was cited in 36 percent of collisions.

You can't get arrested in New York for not paying attention. You can't even get a ticket for it.

There is a category of traffic violation, "Failure to Exercise Due Care to Avoid Striking a Pedestrian or Cyclist," that can result in a misdemeanor criminal violation if a driver is cited for it twice during a five-year span.

When, during the Vision Zero press conference, Bratton responds to a reporter who asks what hurdle prevents an officer from making an arrest if a driver is reckless or negligent, the commissioner's answeris — perhaps understandably — incomprehensible:

"The hurdle, basically, is appropriate evidence that within the existing laws, in the terms of ensuring that to the best of our ability — that we investigate these cases so that if that there is criminality involved, that we are — have the ability to work with the district attorneys to move those charges forward."

If the District Attorney's office determines that there's not enough evidence to bring charges, the Collision Investigation Squad may still cite a driver for violating traffic laws. But John Cassidy, the executive officer of the NYPD's Transportation Bureau, told the City Council's transportation committee at a hearing last year, "Nearly all of these summonses are dismissed by the Traffic Violations Bureau administrative law judges, on the grounds that the violation was not personally observed by the issuing officer."

Counters attorney and street safety advocate Steve Vaccaro: "I have never seen evidence to substantiate the police statement that the courts throw out summonses issued for violations not personally observed by the issuing officer. I think it is a made-up story. I think the NYPD refusal to issue summonses for non-observed conduct is a work rule created by NYPD to save them work, not something judges are forcing upon them."

In 2008, with help from the transportation consulting firm Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates, a citizens' group called the Upper West Side Streets Renaissance published a 51-page document filled with a long list of goals. At the top of the list: improving pedestrian safety.

Page 32 of the "Blueprint for the Upper West Side" is a rendering of West 97th Street, the street where, five years later, Cooper Stock would die. The drawing is annotated with suggestions to make the street safer. Pages 38 and 39 contain renderings of 96th Street, where, a half-hour before Stock was run over, a tour bus dragged Alexander Shear to his death.

The suggestions are small: curb extensions, which narrow the street, forcing drivers to slow down; a slightly raised crosswalk, to capture drivers' attention; and extending an existing median to further slow drivers.

The group presented it at local block associations, synagogues, and schools. "We brought it out and shopped it around to show people the work that we'd done and get people excited about the ideas," Lisa Sladkus, an early participant, remembers.

Sladkus recalls presenting a second set of plans focused exclusively on 95th, 96th, and 97th streets to Community Board 7's transportation committee in April 2010.

"We basically said, 'We did our own survey of these streets. If you'd like to add anything to this list, if you'd like to support this list, if you'd like to help us with this, we'd like that.' And they said, 'Sure, we'll get back to you in May 2010.'"

But at the next meeting there was no mention of the list. Nor at the meeting after that. "It was not mentioned at any subsequent committee meeting," Sladkus says.

According to Sladkus and others who have attended meetings of Community Board 7's transportation committee, the co-chairs didn't merely ignore safety proposals, they deliberately stalled or blocked them.

Dan Zweig and Andrew Albert voted against installing so-called protected bike lanes on Columbus Avenue. The lanes — slivers of roadway between marked parking spaces and the curb — were installed anyway.

And even after the DOT determined that the Columbus project, which originally extended from 77th Street to 96th Street, reduced crashes by 19 percent and pedestrian injuries by 41 percent, Zweig opposed extending the lanes south to 59th Street and north to 110th Street. Albert abstained.

According to attorney Steve Vaccaro, who began attending the meetings in 2008, Zweig and Albert have used "their procedural prerogatives to stifle debate and thwart progress that was being consistently supported" by the majority of those present at meetings. The co-chairs would identify some small issue or concern, says Vaccaro, and "seize on those as a reason to put the brakes on, or to reverse any changes."

A request for study that would typically require one to three months took up to two years at Community Board 7, the attorney says.

Adds Mark Gorton, the Wall Street trader and longtime safe-streets advocate who bankrolled Streetsblog, "At every turn we have been rebuffed, ignored, or had our work sabotaged" by the co-chairs of Community Board 7's transportation committee. The co-chairs, Gorton says, have refused to meet or speak with advocates, to correspond with them, or engage outside of meetings.

"Now, after a slew of deaths, CB7 and DOT are paying attention. But it should not require people to die for CB7 and DOT to recognize these safety problems," Gorton adds.

In 2012, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer received at least three letters complaining about Zweig and Albert, each more urgent than the last.

In February: "Not once have we seen a proactive safety measure come out of the leaders on this committee. Sadly, the opposite usually happens."

In April: "The committee leadership regularly employs stall tactics or other avoidance behaviors to community groups presenting before them."

And in December: "It is now clear that when it comes to safety for walkers and bikers, the two chairs of this committee will do almost anything to block progress. They ignore the will of their community and tie up life-saving proposals with their common refrain, 'we need more information.'"

Lisa Sladkus wrote the first two letters. She wrote the third one as well, and it was co-signed by 11 fellow Upper West Side residents.

In April 2013, Stringer reappointed Zweig to the community board. Albert's appointment is up for consideration this year. Both turned down repeated requests for comment on this story.

Says Stringer, who in November was elected city comptroller: "As borough president, my office selected community board members through an extensive, merit-based process" that included an independent screening panel and mandatory interview.

Sladkus does have some results to show for her efforts. Following years of activism, she was able to help get crosswalk lines repainted and a "Wait for Walk Symbol" sign installed at 96th Street and West End Avenue. A request to eliminate parking spaces too close to street corners — a move known as "daylighting" for its effect on visibility — was recently approved by the transportation department as well.

A daylighting request at 97th and West End, where Cooper Stock was killed, has not yet gone through.

"If we had removed parked cars and had daylighting at that intersection, there is a chance that the taxi driver could have seen Cooper," Sladkus says.

Hindsight conversations like this aren't unique to the Upper West Side.

In February 2013, after six-year-old Amar Diarrassouba was crushed under an 18-wheeler on his way to school, Community Board 11 came under fire for rescinding its support for a bike lane with pedestrian safety measures in response to complaints from local business owners.

If the next death falls within the boundaries of Community Board 10, residents will be asking why, months after the transportation department crafted a plan to improve safety on Morningside Avenue, the board has not acted on the suggestions.

This past summer, five years after Upper West Side Streets Renaissance published its "Blueprint," Community Board 7 commissioned Nelson\Nygaard to study the same streets and intersections the firm looked at in 2008.

Nelson\Nygaard submitted its report in November. Its recommendations were posted on the Community Board 7 website, where they remain — and where they were on January 10, when Cooper Stock and Alexander Shear were killed.

A few days after the vigil, Elizabeth Caputo, chair of Community Board 7, emphasized Zweig's and Albert's years of service to the community. "Obviously, we've spent the last week mourning, like everyone else," she told the Voice. "This has been a top priority of ours for years."

Caputo said she hopes the Department of Transportation will implement some of the Nelson\Nygaard study's recommendations. "We are hopeful that DOT, when it was sent to them in November, and especially now that it has even more urgency, that they'll actually take a good look. A lot of those recommendations are structural, long-term things, but there were a number of them that were short-term, that are immediate, actionable items that we feel would hopefully prevent these types of pedestrian fatalities or even injuries from ever happening again."

On January 17, Community Board 7 sent a letter to the transportation department requesting changes to Broadway and 96th Street and, West End and 97th Street. Two days after the letter was written, Samantha Lee, a 26-year-old resident in the anesthesiology department at Columbia University Hospital, died crossing 96th Street mid-block between West End Avenue and Broadway. Lee was clipped by an ambulance and thrown into the opposite lane, under the wheels of a Dodge Charger. Neither driver was cited. Later that day, police appeared at the same corner to ticket jaywalkers.

On January 30, Community Board 7 convened to discuss pedestrian safety improvements at Broadway and 96th Street. Before transportation officials got to that, though, they told the packed room at the Goddard Riverside Community Center about West End Avenue, where they adjusted the signal to give pedestrians six additional seconds. They plan to daylight the intersection too, removing three parking spaces to increase visibility. At Broadway and 96th, among other improvements, they propose banning two kinds of left turns and installing a new crosswalk.

Cooper Stock's uncle, Barron Lerner, spoke at the meeting. "The fact that plans drawn up by citizen activists in 2008 and 2010 to fix the traffic problems in this area were not acted on makes us sick," Lerner said. "We beg you: Please do not let politics, bureaucracy and interest group squabbling prevent meaningful reform in the name of Cooper and the other innocent victims of reckless, careless, and distracted drivers."

The changes, if Community Board 7 approves them, could be implemented as soon as early March.

tstuart@villagevoice.com

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