Solving a Deadly Traffic Puzzle

| 17 Feb 2015 | 05:07

Following a number of recent pedestrian fatalities -- including four more over the weekend -- experts, residents, and elected leaders look for answers

The corner of 97th and West End Avenue was crowded with neighbors, activists and local politicians last week for the vigil for two pedestrians killed in separate accidents. The victims included Cooper Stock, age 9, who was killed crossing West End Avenue with his father two weeks ago, as result of a cab driver making a blind left turn.

At the vigil, children gripped the hands of tearful adults who held candles in cups-the dim light illuminating angry protest signs demanding change. "This is unacceptable, this isn't right. This is matter of life and death and we do have to protect our little babies," said City Comptroller Scott Stringer, speaking at the vigil. "If you can't drive, get out of your car and stop hurting our children. As a city, let's get this done now."

Mayor de Blasio last week rolled out his Vision Zero plan, which aims to reduce traffic fatalities to zero in the next 10 years. He has devoted an entire agency to Vision Zero, which will report to the mayor with a plan to improve the 50 most dangerous intersections in New York, expand the number of 20 mph zones in the city and pursue a legislative plan to give the city more power to enforce traffic laws. While the pedestrian-safety push was prompted by the death of Cooper and a woman in Queens, it was given extra impetus by four more deaths over the weekend, including a 26-year-old woman killed while crossing the street a block from where the vigil was held.

"Pedestrians are not protected and we see that every day with a number of accidents. Not only are people hit and killed but they are mostly hit and injured, and these injuries can be really life-altering," said Christine Berthet, founder of CheckPeds, the Chelsea/Hell's Kitchen Pedestrian Safety Organization. "I think the goal of vision zero is good, but dramatic, and when you try to get to perfection you won't but you will get as close as possible."

In the first two weeks of 2014, there already have been seven pedestrian fatalities in the city, and 11 traffic deaths overall. Last year, there were 173 traffic deaths, according to the NYPD.

Everyone with a stake in this issue -- planning experts, residents, parents and elected officials -- agree that action has to be taken. Here are some of the specific proposals that have begun to emerge:

Lowering the City Speed Limit from 30 MPH to 25 or 20 MPH

This is a common solution, especially considering the fact that if a pedestrian is hit by a car going 30 mph, they have a 50% chance of surviving, but if they are hit by a car going 20 mph, they have a 90% chance of surviving, said Caroline Samponaro, director of Campaigns and Organizing with Transportation Alternatives.

"I don't think a 20 mph speed limit should be citywide, because certain thoroughfares like the FDR Drive allow for higher speeds," said Sarah Kaufman, a traffic research associate at NYU. "But side streets should be reduced to 20 mph. There's no reason you have to plow through a side street when kids are nearby."

Reducing the speed limit is much more complicated than the Mayor simply proposing a new set of laws. First of all, according to legal experts at Transportation Alternatives, the mayor would have to get a special "home rule" exemption because many traffic laws are under the jurisdiction of the state, including speed limits and speed cameras. In addition, the state has the ability to overrule any of the decisions the city makes.

Juan Martinez, a general counselor at Transportation Alternatives, said that the City Council recently tried to reduce the speed limit citywide to 25 mph, but couldn't because it was under jurisdiction of the state.

Installing More Speed and Red Light Cameras

Even though the NYPD has promised to devote more manpower to enforcing speed limits and other traffic laws, crossing guards and traffic cops can't be everywhere. In May, the City Council passed a resolution asking Albany for more speed cameras -- as many as 200 in school zones and other high-risk areas. However, Albany has given New York a limit of 20 speed and red light cameras that will be in operation at any time. And the maximum fine for getting caught over the speed limit? Anywhere between $50 and $100.

Failure to yield and speeding are the two most common causes of pedestrian accidents, according to the activist organization, Right of Way. "Because New York can get overruled by Albany at any time we had to get their permission to use technology that has been improving cities all over the world for decades," Martinez said. "They didn't want to give us permission, we negotiated and ended up with a small program."

Changing the Streetscapes

Starting with former Mayor Bloomberg, the typical streetscape in New York, especially in Manhattan, has been evolving since the inclusion of bike lanes and pedestrian plazas.

Caroline Samponaro says that Transportation Alternatives has noticed a big difference in pedestrian safety, since "streets aren't operated like speedways anymore." Really large avenues, especially on the Upper West Side, can be narrowed with the inclusion of specific bike and bus lanes, wider sidewalk curbs and islands that divide the avenues.

"Making streets safer for bicyclists has a wonderful side effect of making it safer for pedestrians because there's a lane of traffic that moves slower than cars that acts as a buffer," said Kaufman.

Imposing Harsher Punishments for Reckless Drivers

It's common sense that if drivers knew there would be a heavy punishment, they would be less likely to speed or drive recklessly. However, at the moment, drivers can only get a maximum of a $500-$700 fine or a 30-day prison sentence for hitting a pedestrian, even if they kill or seriously injure someone. It is incredibly difficult to prove vehicular involuntary manslaughter or negligent homicide. Instead, because the case is so hard to prove, said Martinez, the defense will get slapped with a fine or small prison sentence, leaving the injured party to seek compensation through a lawsuit.

Martinez says that in many court cases, remorse and cases of "he's just a kid, he didn't mean to kill the pedestrian" are common. However, making a left turn without looking is still making a choice, despite the lack of intent behind the results of that choice.

"We need to show a moral obligation to drive responsibly and to be careful, and we can do so through implementing serious consequences for people who harm or kill someone else while driving," said Martinez. "Lawsuits are a lousy way to get justice. The driver doesn't end up really feeling the consequences. And as a result you don't get a change in behavior and the cycle continues."