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De Blasio Wants to Strike Fear in the Hearts of New York's Reckless Drivers

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The physical landscape of New York can be read as an answer to a seemingly straightforward question: How do we get anyplace without killing each other? For well over a century, that dilemma has reconfigured this dense, jostled city. To separate people and vehicles, New York has sodded parks, installed playgrounds, positioned planters and pedestrian bridges; lifted highways, buried trains, and covered an elevated roadway that runs around a train station, at Grand Central Terminal. Yet each year cars and trucks still kill hundreds of New Yorkers and maim untold others. The concern endures. How can we keep people safe in urban environments that are lousy with cars?

“Design around the human as we are,” advises Claes Tingvall, the traffic safety guru behind Vision Zero, the Swedish program with a goal to eliminate all traffic fatalities. New York's mayor, Bill de Blasio, has sought to emulate the program in New York, after some particularly hideous deaths of pedestrians in the last year. Succeed, and his approach may become a template for other American cities. Along the way, though, he might have to rewrite our cultural contract with the automobile.

To go a year in New York without a traffic death might be an achievable goal, if not for the inconvenient fact that the city is full of New Yorkers. We are, all of us, pedestrians, bicyclists, and (at least vicarious) drivers, anarchists at heart. We delight in jaywalking, crossing in the middle of streets, ignoring red lights, and speeding behind the wheel and on foot. De Blasio’s Vision Zero insists that, beyond reshaping physical spaces, the city needs public education, new laws, and new penalties. The mayor has pushed through a city law making it a misdemeanor for a driver to hit a pedestrian after refusing to yield.

Before this, the established criminal standard in New York for a car-on-human “accident”—that is, hitting a living person with an enormous piece of machinery—was that the driver must do two things wrong, e.g., run a red light and be speeding. Impaired driving has remained a crime unto itself, as has leaving the scene of an accident. But stay out of the bourbon and stay on-site, and basically you could kill anyone you wanted in New York with a motor vehicle. Now you may be facing up to a month in jail. The new law has actually generated its own controversy, something likely to amaze you only if you don’t consider how contentiously people and vehicles have always vied for the same public space in the city.

In the mid-nineteenth century, horse-drawn vehicles killed New Yorkers at a higher rate than cars do today. An innately skittish animal, the horse was never designed for city life. When spooked, or when the wheels or the axles of the vehicles they were driving busted, they might bolt off anywhere, sometimes dragging wagons or carriages behind them; sometimes banging into other horses, and other carts, and causing them to bolt, too, into the panicked crowds.

“Traffic, as well as being dense, was chaotic and completely unregulated. Broadway was quite unmanageable well before the middle of the nineteenth century,” writes Luc Sante in Low Life. “[I]t was plied by every sort of truck, wagon, cart, and coach, although the bulk of traffic was made up of the all-purpose two-wheeled delivery carts driven by white-smocked carmen who were the terror of all.”

Newspapers filled countless column inches with stories of deadly carriage wrecks. Reporters raged against the attitudes of the drivers, who were routinely arrested for driving recklessly and running over pedestrians. “Drivers persist in keeping the noses or poles of their teams close up against the read of preceding vehicles, and there is no way to stop them. They seem to take a malicious delight in harassing people who are obliged to cross the street,” a New York Times reporter fumed in 1888, after recounting a series of horse-and-buggy crashes. “They seem to think that they own the crossings, instead of being allowed to pass over on sufferance. Pedestrians have right of way over crossings, and drivers are bound to respect that right, if the city authorities would only enforce the law.”

Imagine the carnage and the cacophony: untold thousands of iron-rimmed wagon wheels, rolling incessantly over the uneven stones the streets were paved with at the time. Edgar Allen Poe, Sante notes, called this an “ingenious contrivance for driving men mad through sheer noise,” and submitted an eminently practical plan for smoother paving. He was ignored, and went mad. If New York was pressing the limits of the horse-driven city, the solutions seemed worse. The city’s grade-level trains, which once ran as far down Manhattan as Chambers Street, caused so much chaos that New York invented such diverse items as Park Avenue (to cover the deadly old train ditch into Grand Central Terminal), and the High Line (originally an elevated freight line), to keep people out of harm’s way. But for decades, the interaction of trains and trolleys with carriages only led to more spooked horses.

Cars brought a special problem, particularly when you plopped them onto streets with horse-drawn wagons and streetcars. The first recorded auto accident in the history of the Americas occurred on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, when a car struck a bicyclist, breaking the biker’s leg. The motorist was arrested. The first recorded fatal accident happened on Central Park West, when a real estate dealer named Henry Hale Bliss was struck and killed by an electric taxicab. Bliss was helping a lady down from a trolley car. His killing occurred in what was known as “the Danger Stretch,” though Central Park West then as now is a straight, wide avenue. The “danger” seems to have been created when the cabbie got impatient at being stuck behind a truck, and pulled out without bothering to look for what or who might be in his way. He too was arrested.

By the 1920s and ’30s, New York City had more automobiles than Europe, and slums teeming with children who had nowhere to play but the street. In 1933 alone, 249 children were killed in “street mishaps” and another 12,000 injured, according to historian Thomas Kessner. Slowly, New Yorkers began to address the slaughter. Building parks, pools, and playgrounds helped to draw the kids out of the streets. In 1902, the city started making drivers wait for each other at major Fifth Avenue intersections. By 1906, New York was sticking pedestrian islands in the middle of particularly wide streets, and by 1910 it was experimenting with one-way streets. In the ’20s came the first traffic lights. Seatbelt laws, changes in car design, new street engineering, and driver education all helped.

Traffic deaths dropped from 701 in 1990, to a low of 249 in 2011, before rebounding to 291 last year—close to half of the dead, pedestrians. But on a per capita basis, New York had the second fewest such deaths, behind Washington, among American cities with over half a million people. Its rate of death by car is less than a third of Detroit's, Dallas's, or Phoenix's. But that still means, officially, 4,000 or so pedestrians hit and injured by cars in the city—and we’re talking “injuries” like amputation or permanent brain damage. Being struck by a vehicle is now the leading cause of “injury-related death” for children under 14, according to city authorities, and the second-leading such cause for seniors. With crime continuing to drop, traffic killings are close to surpassing homicides as an injury-related cause of death, period.

Advocates for biking and public transportation estimate that the real number vehicles injure is probably many times the reported number. The victims simply don’t report them to police. The “do two things wrong” standard of criminality has made prosecution unlikely, after all, and even a civil suit is tough when a defense attorney can tell a jury that his client wasn’t arrested, or even detained.

All that started to change last year after a couple of horrendous accidents on Manhattan’s West End Avenue. The first victim was 9-year-old Cooper Stock, who according to the media loved the Knicks, the civil rights movement, Abe Lincoln, and Jimi Hendrix. He was crossing West End Avenue hand-in-hand with his father—and with the light—at W. 97th Street one evening, when a cab struck them both. Cooper fell under its wheels, and the taxi didn’t stop until it had crushed his chest and lungs. Despite his injured leg, his father, a doctor, rushed over to pick up his son, but Cooper died choking on his own blood. No crime was charged.

Six months later and two blocks away, 61-year-old Jean Chambers, a commercial artist, church volunteer, wife of 27 years and mother of a daughter she was about to send off to college, was struck by a Ford Expedition. It dragged her half a block, leaving her body covered in blood on the street, before her friends and neighbors. The 50-year-old man who hit her was not even identified by name in the press. But it was reported that he seemed upset.

The publicity after the deaths of these relatively affluent people in a relatively affluent neighborhood only underscored the ubiquity of such collisions. The killings gave vital impetus to the foundation of Families for Safe Streets (FSS), which had started to cohere after 12-year-old Sammy Cohen Eckstein was run down and killed in 2013, while on his way to soccer practice near Brooklyn’s ProspectPark. Assembled with the help of Transportation Alternatives, a 42-year-old organization seeking “to reclaim New York City’s streets from the automobile and to promote bicycling, walking, public transit,” FSS became the nation’s first organization composed of the victims of “traffic violence” and their families. FSS is hoping to do what Mothers Against Drunk Driving did to change the culture of driving under the influence.

Families for Safe Streets immediately pushed for what became de Blasio’s version of Vision Zero, an elaborate, 63-point combination of “enforcement, education, and engineering” reforms, designed to cut traffic deaths to, yes, zero within the next ten years. But is it really possible for New York to get down to no car-related deaths—and particularly, to no pedestrians killed by cars?

This seems a worthy goal to aim for, even if it is never achieved, just as MADD’s quest to reduce drunk driving has probably saved many lives. Sweden’s overall auto fatality rate is only a little better than New York City’s—but Stockholm, Sweden’s capital and largest city, has a traffic death rate only about one-third that of New York’s. The Swedish emphasis on physical alterations is an old play in New York, and one readily adapted again. The city has already straitened traffic and slowed it, with metal markers and new signs in the area where Cooper Stock and Jean Chambers died.

After that it gets more complicated. Some 140 cameras have been installed in traffic lights in school zones, to catch speeders and those who run red lights—though the city, suffering as always under archaic “home rule” laws, has been prevented by the state government in Albany from putting up thousands more. Then there is the “controversy” over actually putting teeth into the regulation that drivers must yield for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The new statute supplants the old “you must do two things wrong” standard of criminality, making it a misdemeanor to hit a pedestrian who is in a crosswalk and crossing with the light. Even this modest standard has drawn the wrath of New York’s bus driver unions. When a bus struck 85-year-old Jeanine Deutsch as she tried to cross 70th Road in Queens, the union of bus driver Isaac Sanson protested bitterly over the fact that he was arrested. (Deutsch spent two months hospitalized before succumbing to her injuries.) No driver has yet to serve so much as a day in jail, and only 17 were arrested in all last year for refusing to yield. But drivers hate the idea that they might be cuffed and detained. City councilman I. Daneek Miller, himself a former bus driver, is already trying to change the new law to exempt bus drivers, who accounted for six of those 17 arrests. “Are we really supposed to believe that more than a third of those failing to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk are professional drivers?” he asks, as if proportionality were the issue—particularly when 5,700 New York City buses run 310 routes, 24 hours a day.

All of us anarchists are to blame for traffic deaths in New York. But drivers are the ones bringing several tons of streaking metal to this particular knife fight. Taking advantage of coordinated lights on Amsterdam Avenue, for instance, they have turned the avenue into a speedway, honking maniacally whenever their way is blocked for an instant. Like that anonymous Times reporter in 1888, I always marvel at drivers’ sense of entitlement in this city, their carelessness, their seeming indifference toward what hitting someone could do to their own mental well-being, never mind the victims and their loved ones.

What seems to be the new “Danger Stretch” on West End Avenue has some particularly tangled intersections, due to nearby exits to the West Side Highway, no doubt one reason why so many drivers behave badly there. But being impatient to get home to New Jersey or Westchester in time for dinner doesn’t justify killing somebody’s grandmother. Just the other day, crossing 96th Street at West End with the light, I watched as a frustrated motorist pulled blindly around a truck making a dawdling turn—as blindly and recklessly as the cabbie who killed poor Mr. Bliss—then sped away, revving his engine as if to demonstrate his frustration. Had I been in the crosswalk five seconds earlier, I would’ve been meat. If slapping cuffs on a few such drivers can finally bring an attitude adjustment, it’s well worth it.