End the Culture of Accepting Traffic Deaths

Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein

In December, a horrific elevator accident killed a young executive named Suzanne Hart in Midtown Manhattan. The city’s response was swift and firm: the Department of Buildings quickly inspected all 650 elevators owned or maintained by the company involved, and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office also launched a criminal investigation into the botched maintenance work.It was a horrible incident necessary of a thorough investigation.

Two months earlier, another horrible incident resulted in the death of a young New Yorker. However, the difference between the city’s responses to both incidents is stark and shocking.

In October, Mathieu Lefevre was struck and killed by a truck while commuting home on his bicycle in an industrial part of East Williamsburg. The truck driver left the scene.

The NYPD tracked down the driver that struck Lefevre a few days later, the truck having been found parked a few blocks away. The driver claimed he never felt the collision and was unaware that the incident took place.

No charges were filed against the driver and the NYPD brought the investigation to a close, falsely concluding with the notion that Lefevre had run a red light.

It wasn’t until after being threatened with a lawsuit by the victim’s family that the NYPD released the file of the investigation. This is when certain facts of the incident became known: investigating officers were unable to take pictures of the incident because of a faulty camera (no camera phones, I suppose); and video footage from a private security camera captured the incident, showing that the truck driver struck Leferve while making a right hand turn without signaling. This video proved that Lefevre did not run a red light and makes it difficult to believe that the driver was unaware that the collision took place.

But one especially eerie detail stands out: the NYPD had taken pictures of the victim’s family while attending a rally in support of better enforcement of traffic laws. It was in the file.

Why was the city’s response to these two tragedies so different? There is a general culture that simply accepts traffic deaths as a way of life; this is a culture of acceptance. Traffic deaths are, after all, common. One New Yorker dies roughly every 35 hours in a traffic incident.

But traffic deaths are entirely preventable with careful street designs, such as bike lanes and other safety-enhancing measures implemented by the city’s transportation commissioner, Jannette Sadik-Kahn. Instead, elected officials and opinion pages generally deride her and her policies.

The City Council enacts legislation to add roadblocks to new bike lanes, bizarrely claim they hurt business, and take stabs at Sadik-Kahn. But these same elected officials do not think about the massive scale of traffic violence: about 300 killed a year and another three thousand seriously injured.

Other cities have cut their traffic fatality rates to one-half that of New York City. This means over one hundred lives a year in human terms. Only when we stop accepting traffic deaths as a fact of life and begin to treat them more like the elevator incident will we stop the violence that claims so many every year.

Everyone needs to show leadership to end the plague of violence on our roads. The Mayor needs to show zero tolerance for traffic fatalities and ensure that city agencies do the same. The Transportation Department under Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan is already reducing speed limits in neighborhoods like Claremont in the Bronx and Park Slope in Brooklyn, a move proven to reduce traffic deaths but the entire city could benefit from less speeding. NYPD needs to crack down on dangerous driving like what killed Mathieu Lefevre, but it’s not just dangerous drivers who are at fault. Felix Salmon points to studies finding that 2/3rds of bike accidents happen because of unsafe cycling and safer biking would surely keep people alive. Moreover, responsibility does not rest merely with city government. Community boards and neighborhood groups should not sit back and watch pedestrians and cyclists die on their streets. And everyone has a responsibility to use the streets safely and make sure friends and neighbors do too.

In some ways, we are at the beginning of a shift similar to the movement to prevent drunk driving, which Barron Lerner recounts in One for the Road. They faced a similar misperception that drunk driving was inevitable and accidental, rather than a conscious choice to drink and drive. Changing behavior and government policy reduced drunk driving and keeps people alive. We are similarly positioned to make giant leaps in reducing traffic deaths, if we take up on the duty to do so.