Testimony for the New York City Council: Traffic Safety and Enforcement

This afternoon, I had the opportunity to testify in front of a joint hearing of the Transportation and Public Safety committees.

Proceeding with Caution – An Examination of NYPD’s accident response and enforcement of traffic rules relating to cars, bikes, and trucks


Testimony: John Petro, Policy Analyst for Urban Affairs
Drum Major Institute for Public Policy
February 15th, 2012


My name is John Petro, and I am a policy analyst with the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy. About 16 months ago, I began researching the subject of traffic safety in New York City and published my results last June in a report called Vision Zero: How Safer Streets in New York City Can Save More Than 100 Lives a Year.


Saving over 100 lives a year is something that I think everyone in this room can support. But for some reason, we seem to accept traffic fatalities as something inevitable, something that we as citizens or as policymakers cannot control. But this is not true. Other cities have cut traffic fatalities in half—some in as little as six years. I’ve found that there are proven methods to reduce them, to stop the needless death and pain, and to eliminate this very serious threat to public safety. Cutting fatalities in half is an important goal: that’s how we can save over 100 lives a year.


Traffic crashes are a very serious threat to public safety. It is the number one cause of injury-related death among children under 14 and the number two cause of injury-related death among New Yorkers of all ages. In fact, traffic crashes pose the same level of threat to public safety as gun murders. Over the past ten years more traffic-related incidents have been recorded as the cause of death by the New York City Department of Health than firearm-related homicides.


Every 35 hours, one New Yorker is killed in a traffic incident. In other words, they were killed while simply trying to get from point A to point B.


All of us in this room are responsible for whether or not traffic incidents occur—we all use the city streets in one way or another. But those that engage in dangerous driving are especially responsible. In New York City, speeding is the number one cause of fatal traffic crashes.


Policymakers are also responsible for whether or not traffic fatalities occur on the scale that they do. There are proven methods to reduce traffic fatalities in urban areas. Most seek to ensure that motorists don’t exceed 30 miles per hour. Where pedestrians and bicyclists are present, keep automobile speeds between 20 and 30 miles per hour and your fatality rates will drop.


That’s why bike lanes reduce fatalities. They tend to prevent drivers from speeding. That’s why widening sidewalks at intersections works: they cause drivers to slow down to legal speeds, to observe pedestrians and others as they make a turn. These methods have proven to work in academic studies and in journals of medicine and injury-prevention in the cities that have tried them.


That’s why these policies should have the broad support of the elected officials in city government: they save lives.


Cities that have widely adopted 20 mph zones have seen traffic fatalities drop. Berlin in Germany—the home of the Autobahn—has converted 70 percent of its road network to 20 mph zones. It also has a traffic fatality rate half of New York’s. This is where the report gets its name: if New York had the same traffic fatality rate as Berlin, Paris, or Tokyo we’d save over 100 lives a year.


The enforcement of traffic rules is also critical for the prevention of traffic fatalities. Most fatal crashes are not just accidents—drivers often choose to engage in risky behavior like speeding that contribute to fatal crashes. However, without the expectation that traffic laws will be enforced, they will routinely be broken. For example, one study of 13 city intersections found that 39 percent of the drivers were speeding.


One effective enforcement method is the use of speed cameras, which have been proven to reduce speeding, crashes, and injuries. Cameras are especially beneficial when you consider that they use few police resources—officers are not diverted from other tasks. Speed detectors—especially mobile units because otherwise drivers simply learn the location of fixed cameras—give drivers the expectation that enforcement may occur anywhere and at any time.


What else could the NYPD be doing to help reduce traffic fatalities? The department could focus on reducing the incidence of dangerous speeding by setting benchmarks and targets. For instance, the NYPD could work with the Department of Transportation to set targets to reduce the number of drivers that exceed the speed limit by more than ten miles per hour: a reduction by 50 percent over five years, for example.


More generally, traffic crashes need to be treated with the same seriousness as other incidents that cause injury and death. For example, the difference between the investigations into the elevator incident from last December—in which a woman was killed—and the traffic crash that killed Mathieu Lefevre could not be more different. In the case of the elevator incident, 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.


The question I would like to leave before the committee is this: why are traffic crashes treated much less seriously? Through careful street design, through targeted enforcement, and by changing the culture that accepts traffic death as a part of every day life, we can dramatically reduce the number of fatalities that occur on the city’s streets nearly every day.


Thank you.