How to Reduce Pedestrian Fatalities In NYC

02/01/2014 12:38 am ET | Updated Apr 02, 2014

A number of high-profile pedestrian deaths has put pedestrian safety on the public's radar and on our new mayor's agenda -- which is the only positive outcome to the loss of life and family tragedy that has recently saddened and upset so many New Yorkers. Reducing fatalities and injuries to pedestrians is a solvable problem.

Here is how it can be done:

Design Safer Crosswalks
New York's dirty little secret is that 74 percent of pedestrians are hit by vehicles while they are in the crosswalk. What this means is that our current infrastructure is not safe for people to use. There are three basic things that NYC can do to make crosswalks safer.

1. Add a pedestrian phase to the signal system. Currently when there is a green light, pedestrians are allowed to cross and drivers are allowed to turn. This creates a built in conflict between people and cars. This built in conflict is the reason why 9-year-old Cooper Stock and countless others have needlessly lost their lives. This conflict needs to be removed in the name of public safety.

The way a pedestrian phase would work is that there would be an additional phase added to NYC's street signals exclusively for pedestrians. During this phase all lights would be green for pedestrians and red for cars. This additional phase will allow pedestrian to cross diagonally, which will be an added benefit for the mobility impaired, disabled and elderly. This is especially urgent in Manhattan which has four times as many pedestrians killed per mile than other parts of NYC. And on all arterial streets throughout NYC where 60 percent of pedestrian fatalities occur even though these streets are only 15 percent of NYC's road network.

2. Reduce the speed of turning cars in crosswalks. The legal speed limit in NYC is 30 mph. Which means the legal speed limit for a turning car in a crosswalk is also 30 mph. All vehicles making a turn into a crosswalk where there is a potential conflict with people should be legally required to slow down and proceed at a slower, safer speed. The reduced speed should be such so that if there was a conflict with a pedestrian this conflict would not lead to the loss of life. I am proposing that there be a reduced speed limit for turning vehicles in crosswalks when pedestrians are present to five mph. Changing the speed limit for cars turning in crosswalks will also shift the legal liability to drivers who kill or seriously injure a pedestrian in crosswalks. No longer can the words "I didn't see them" be used as a get-out-of-jail-free card after turning too quickly and hitting someone who is crossing the street.

3. Redesign the physical crosswalk. The built environment is manmade. The opportunity here is that because it is made by man, it can also be designed to be safe for mankind. The current design intent of most crosswalks in NYC comes from a different era of transportation planning where the city was trying to solve the problem of moving cars as quickly as possible on our streets and not ensuring the safety of people using the crosswalks. Changing the design intent from moving cars to protecting people will make pedestrians safer. The design process and implementation would work by developing a series of tools that can be applied to different conditions found at NYC intersections that can include reducing the number of turning lanes, changing the materiality and color of road surfaces, making crosswalks safer for both the visually and mobility impaired and properly lighting at night.

Reduce Speed Limits on City Streets
In the same way that it makes sense to reduce the speed of turning cars, it also makes sense to reduce the speed of all cars in NYC. That said, while reducing speed limits from 30 mph to something slower will not be popular, with even this author, it must not be left off the table for discussion. Speed is a factor in every pedestrian fatality and injury and as there is a logarithmic relationship between speed and injuries, so, reducing car speed will have a positive public health outcome. While New Yorkers will probably not put up with the number that will reduce speeds so much to increase chances of survivability to 100 percent the idea of reducing the speed limit from 30 mph to something more compatible with an environment with so many people interactions should be discussed if NYC is serious about pedestrian safety.

Protect Pedestrians on Sidewalks
A surprising number of pedestrian fatalities and injuries happen to people on sidewalks. All of these are avoidable. All that is required is an investment in our infrastructure in a system of bollards that physically prevent vehicles to ever enter sidewalks. Many cities around the world already do this.

Make the Taxi Fleet Safer
With so many taxis on our streets, they act as pace cars for all drivers. If the pace cars are slowed down the entire city becomes safer. The current system awards drivers financially who speed. By taking the financial incentive away from speeding the taxi fleet will slow down. There is a simple and elegant way to do this which is to have the taxi meter stop earning money when the driver goes above the speed limit. The DeBlasio administration should consider implementing what others have dubbed the "Silver Meter."

Over the years I have conducted research and thought deeply and published often about pedestrian safety and believe that the only sensible strategic goal for NYC is to have zero pedestrian fatalities on its streets.

While these ideas are by no means a complete list of what can and should be done, they have the potential to reduce pedestrian fatalities significantly if implemented.