Motorists often insist that everyone should share the blame for traffic deaths: when someone posts an article about traffic fatalities to Facebook, one of his or her automobile-minded friends always adds a comment: “but people have to cross safely, too!” It’s a classic game of blame the victim, and, look, sure, people shouldn’t dart out into the street. Not every car accident is a result of reckless driving. But if you think there’re two problems of equal weight in New York City—people driving like maniacs on poorly designed roads and people who don’t cross in the crosswalk—you’re crazy.
For every driver’s personal anecdote about someone popping out from between parked cars I could give a dozen stories of pedestrians killed by drunk drivers, by people driving without the proper credentials or too fast, of taxis driving aggressively to fuck with bicyclists, of bicyclists dragged to their deaths by trucks and buses. “A 2010 pedestrian safety study from the city’s Department of Transportation… found that the actions of the driver were the primary factor in 78.5 percent of serious pedestrian crashes,” Atlantic Cities reported. “Studies [have] found most accidents involving a pedestrian occurred in a crosswalk, when the pedestrian had the light,” the Times reported. (Last year, 173 pedestrians were struck and killed in NYC, a rise from 2012, and almost 4,000 were seriously injured.) Plus, it doesn’t even matter if people are crossing the roads dangerously: car owners have an extra responsibility to drive safely, because they’re in control of several tons of metal moving at fast speeds—they’re the ones who can cause harm, who have a state license to operate special, potentially lethal machinery.
The new mayor seems to get this: his Vision Zero is a plan to reduce traffic fatalities to none. “The City of New York must no longer regard traffic crashes as mere ‘accidents,’ but rather as preventable incidents that can be systematically addressed,” according to the plan, which calls for redesigning problematic intersections; creating new “slow zones” with lower speed limits; installing speed bumps and cameras; cracking down on drivers for moving violations; actually investigating crashes; and much more.
Unfortunately, it also allows the NYPD to address the matter however it sees fit, and its individual precinct commanders have started putting their limited resources into cracking down on… jaywalking. Kang Chung Wong, the 84-year-old man bloodied by police trying to issue him a summons for jaywalking in January, was one of 10 ticketed pedestrians near an Upper West Side corner where several traffic fatalities had recently occurred. Five drivers were ticketed on the same day.
The laughable 68th Precinct, within whose jurisdiction a number of pedestrians were struck in the last year, specifically on Fourth Avenue as well as 86th Street, last week handed out “Pedestrian Violation Warning Notices,” fliers made to look like tickets to remind people to cross in crosswalks. Bay Ridge has a strong car culture, and automobile advocates on the community board have proven powerful enough to stymie redesigns to 86th Street and to Fourth Avenue that would slow traffic, as well as to delay the building of new bike lanes. The car lobby’s influence clearly extends into the local precinct, which has never aggressively pursued reckless driving, and which now wants to pin the blame for pedestrian deaths on the pedestrians.
The police have limited resources, and if they want to focus them on saving lives, they need to put them toward stopping drivers from engaging in reckless behavior, not pedestrians. But as long as police commanders and politicians give in to car-owning complainers that it’s not fair that they’re singled out for responsibility, even though street safety depends more on them than anyone else, we won’t get closer to having safe streets, let alone Vision Zero. Let the 68th Precinct learn a lesson from its colleagues in Park Slope: stop giving people tickets for double parking outside Bagel Boy and instead ticket every driver who plows down Fourth Avenue like it’s the Autobahn. Let them issue summonses to the engine-revving bros whipping down residential side streets at 60mph. Let them citation people speeding through yellow lights in busy pedestrian corridors so they can go wait at the next red light. Let them arrest every drunk stumbling out of a Third Avenue bar and into a Lexus, every idiot making a turn without yielding. Then, and only then, will the number of lives lost to traffic accidents begin to decline.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart