Erinn Phelan and Mike Bloomberg, Part 2: Pushback from the Mayor

City Hall is giving me some pushback on yesterday's item about traffic fatalities, which was spurred by the horrid rundown of Erinn Phelan, a tragedy that has clearly caught the attention of Mayor Bloomberg.

Before I get to what we disagree about, let's review what we agree about: There has been a decline in traffic deaths since Bloomberg became mayor and, as I said in the previous piece, he deserves some credit for that. The Department of Transportation was candid enough to concede -- in the final paragraph of a recent press release trumpeting this decline -- that factors completely beyond the city's control also contributed to this reduction. The release mentioned air bags, better brakes, collision-avoidance systems and better hospital trauma units. Throw seatbelts in as well.

Marc LaVorgna of the mayor's press office took issue with my contention that the decline under Bloomberg is not as great as it was under his predecessor.

Using annual numbers from the city transportation department (DOT) that LaVorgna sent me, fatalities fell faster under David Dinkins in the four years he was mayor (165 or 23 percent from 1990 through 1993) than they did under Rudy Giuliani in eight (95 or 19 percent from 1994 through 2001) and under Bloomberg in eight (130 or 33 percent from 2002 through 2009). That either means that Dinkins, who served half as long as the other two, should be put in uniform and posted in midtown at peak hours, or that mayors have little to do with these numbers.

But the point of my piece was pedestrians, which, after all, is what Erinn Phelan was. Using the same base years and DOT's data, pedestrian deaths dropped by 82 in the Dinkins years, 53 under Giuliani and 31 in the Bloomberg era. Bloomberg's 16 percent drop in eight years was less than Dinkins' 22 percent plummet in four.

That's using LaVorgna's data. It's actually quite different if you use data posted by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles, which says it uses information supplied by none other than the NYPD. The DMV is where I got 156 pedestrian fatalities for the mayor's first year, only one more than the current 155, meaning pedestrian deaths barely dipped during the Bloomberg years. LaVorgna says the DOT has 186 deaths for 2002, and that's why he says there was a drop of 31, still far less than either Bloomberg predecessor.

I can't explain why the numbers are so different. Indeed the National Highway Administration Traffic Safety Administration has 163 for the city in 2002, closer to the DMV than the DOT but an entirely different number too. LaVorgna also threw some national data at me, but he didn't break it down to show how the city compared with other comparable urban areas.

What LaVorgna concedes is that his own numbers show a marked increase in pedestrian fatalities in the last two years--from 139 in 2007 to 155 now. Actually, it will probably wind up higher than 155 since the city often inches these numbers upward after it does a press release ballyhooing them. For example, DOT did a press release for 2007 with 136 pedestrian deaths, only to eventually bump it up by three.

The point is that the numbers, regardless of whose you use, underscore the key points I made in the earlier post:

*The comparatively minuscule improvement in pedestrian deaths, compared to a 63 percent decline in driver and passenger fatalities, indicates that it's vehicular improvements more than anything else that's spurring the reduction.

*The declines in the Bloomberg years are no deeper than the declines that preceded him. But, in many statistical arenas, already low numbers often dip at a slower rate than steep ones, and that's probably what explains the difference between the four Dinkins years and the eight Bloomberg ones.

*Most importantly, the recent uptick and the comparatively flat years before it indicate that the city needs to take a hard look at what it's doing to protect pedestrians like Erinn Phelan. The focus should be on much stronger enforcement of traffic laws and deterrence, with the NYPD and the DAs pushed to act. A new Office of Road Safety, with a mandate and the ability to coordinate all the agencies that impact on traffic, could only be a centerpiece for continuing focus and action. It is a Bloomberg kind of problem -- measurable and susceptible to organizational innovation.


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