Student Forum

The Hidden Scourge of Traffic Fatalities in NYC

Posted on March 12, 2015

Last month, an urban nightmare came true for Jiahuan Xu. The 15-year-old, crossing a Brooklyn street with the right of way, was struck down by an MTA bus driver who failed to check the crosswalk for pedestrians. Because of the driver’s recklessness, Xu may lose her leg.

The driver, Francisco de Jesus, was arrested and charged under the city’s new Right of Way Law, a recent addition to the NYPD’s traffic enforcement toolbox in the era of Vision Zero. While it may not seem controversial to hold an individual accountable for his maiming of a young girl, the incident has set off a dust-up in the press.

Pete Donahue lamented the arrest in the Daily News. In the Times, the president of the Transit Workers’ Union invoked classism, calling police enforcement against dangerous driving “outrageous, illogical, and anti-worker,” and called the head of a prominent street safety advocacy group a “progressive intellectual jackass” for lauding the city’s commitment to traffic safety.

This administration has, indeed, made significant strides in the pursuit of greater street safety. Expanding bike share to new neighborhoods encourages more cyclists to take to the streets, which has been empirically shown to make streets safer for all road users. The City Council’s “Cooper’s Law,” named for a boy slain by a reckless cab driver on the Upper West Side, strengthens restrictions on killer hacks. (The recent West Side Highway death of 60 Minutes’ Bob Simon came at the hands of a livery driver whose license had been suspended nine times.)

But it’s clear that the greatest work needs to be done in the arena of public opinion. At its heart, Vision Zero requires a sea change in the way we think about deaths on city streets. It should be unconscionable to suggest a victim of dangerous driving “had it coming” or that the incident was “merely an accident.” This goal can – and should – be achieved by firm enforcement of a codified belief that drivers are responsible for consequences caused by poor choices behind the wheel.

Historian Brian Lerner – uncle of Cooper Stock, the young boy whose death inspired “Cooper’s Law” – pointed out in a Times op-ed that drunk driving, much like deadly driving today, was once seen as inevitable and blameless: “Judges and juries — perhaps because they, too, secretly drank and drove or knew those who did — were reluctant to convict. Police told family members that their loved ones — the actual victims — had been ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time.’ Crashes were called accidents.”

It was only through a decisive effort on the part of legislators – “Between 1980 and 1985, states passed more than 700 laws” targeting drunk driving, writes Lerner – that the country came to view drinking and driving as less an inconvenience than a bona fide criminal act, no intent necessary.

Last month, WNYC published an interactive online memorial to the 265 New Yorkers killed in traffic violence in 2014, compiling names, pictures, and personal stories of those lost. The piece immediately brings to mind the Times“Portraits of Grief” feature, which, following a similar format, ran in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Both projects seek to bring emotional heft to simple statistical reporting, imploring the visitor to see these victims as friends and neighbors rather than mere dismaying statistics.

These memorial projects have more in common than just tone or sentiment: the scales of their respective tragedies are not dissimilar. In fact, since 2002, more New Yorkers – over 1,000 more – have died at the hands of drivers on city streets and sidewalks than perished in the World Trade Center attacks.

The difference, of course, is that virtually all traffic deaths are eminently preventable. With a holistic approach like Vision Zero – comprised of smarter road infrastructure, driver education, and protective and well-enforced laws – New York can succeed in saving lives, preventing future tragedies, and leading the way to a more humane urban experience for cities around the globe.

This post was written by a student enrolled in the Capstone Seminar course in the undergraduate program in public policy at Hunter College. Any opinions expressed here are solely those of the student.