News & Politics

Erinn Phelan Gives Mike Bloomberg All the Reason He Needs to Reduce Pedestrian Deaths


We all know how effective Mike Bloomberg can be when he focuses on a problem, and the weekend hit-and-run of mayor’s office employee Erinn Phelan in Brooklyn has clearly moved him. Maybe it will be a wake-up call.

One of the city’s grand and underappreciated organizations, Transportation Alternatives, issued an extraordinary report last year, entitled “Executive Order: A Mayoral Strategy for Traffic Safety.” Here’s some of the alarming data:

  • In October 2008, there were 17 serious incidents of vehicles striking cyclists or pedestrians reported in the media, with 13 fatalities. No charges were reported.
  • Between 1994 and 2008, thousands of pedestrians and cyclists were killed by vehicles (160 in 2007, for example), but only 29 drivers were indicted for criminally negligent homicide.
  • Though speeding fatalities rose by 11 percent to 75 between 2001 and 2006 (the first six years of Bloomberg), NYPD-issued speeding tickets plummeted by 22 percent. Five percent of people die when struck by a motorist going 20 mph; 85 percent die when the motorist is doing 40 mph.
  • Despite a 26 percent increase in fatalities caused by drivers failing to yield the right of way (to 34), summonses for this violation dropped by 12 percent.
  • The number of fatalities caused by running a red light rose to 12 in 2007, but summonses for doing it dropped 13 percent (95 percent were caught by cameras, not cops).

The Bloomberg administration responded defensively to the study, citing, accurately, the continuing decline in total traffic fatalities. In fact, in January, the mayor and the Department of Transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, held a press conference announcing that in 2009, the number of fatalities dropped to 256, the lowest since 1910.

(As we noted just a few weeks earlier, however, 2010 had started out with a rash of nightmare accidents involving large vehicles.)

Bloomberg has overseen a decline in fatalities, but the rate of decline was greater under his predecessor and is dropping around the country. Or he could acknowledge, as the last sentence in the DOT press release did, that the reduction has been “helped by advances in vehicle safety design,” everything from “airbags to improved brakes to collision-avoidance systems,” as well as “improved medical trauma services.”

While there’s little doubt that the administration can lay claim to some of the reduction, the Phelan case, as so many others in this town, raise the question of whether it is doing enough.

Even the data at the Bloomberg press conference raises doubts. While fatalities for drivers and their passengers fell by 63 percent since 2001, fatalities for pedestrians dropped only 19 percent. In fact, if 2002 (the first year of Bloomberg) is used as the base year, pedestrian fatalities only dropped from 156 to 155 in 2009, and fatalities were actually going up over the 151 in 2008. These differences suggest just how much of the overall drop is attributable to improved safety design for motorists.

The Transportation Alternatives report says that the Highway Division in the NYPD, which oversees the Accident Investigation Squad, “has been forced to undergo dramatic staffing cuts.” For several years, says the report, “several of the NYC District Attorneys Offices have been urging the NYPD to expand” the squad. That may be precisely one of the ways the mayor can change the dynamic: cut a deal with the DAs to bolster the squad in exchange for far more aggression in prosecuting these cases (after all, the mayor has a lot to say about DA budgets as well).

The report suggested that the mayor create an Office of Road Safety with far-flung powers, and Councilwoman Jessica Lappin has proposed a bill to do just that. It also says the city should use 311 to map moving violations, allow civilian traffic agents to write moving violations, and make many other critical changes at the NYPD, refocusing on the violations that actually kill.

Do it in Erinn Phelan’s name.

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