My grandmother in NJ used to say ironically that every traffic light is a memorial -- her way of calling transportation officials to task for not taking action until a fatal crash demonstrated after the fact that a road or intersection wasn't safe.
Unfortunately, two tragedies in my neighborhood show that New York City has suffered from the same lack of forward vision. A 73-year-old man was dragged to his death by a tour bus at 96th and Broadway and a 9-year-old boy who was walking hand-in-hand with his father was struck and killed by a taxi cab at the corner of 97th and West End Avenue.
Both these corners already have traffic lights, as do most city intersections. But the lights clearly weren't enough to save Alexander Shear nor little Cooper Stock. In fact, pedestrian deaths have been rising in New York, with 156 fatalities in 2013, up from 152 in 2012 and 142 in 2011. In just the first 10 days of the new year, there were 7 pedestrian fatalities. Since 9/11, over 1,840 pedestrians and over 220 bicyclists have been killed on New York City's streets -- nearly three-quarters as many people as were killed in the city on 9/11.
Much more needs to be done and much more can be done. A forward-thinking approach calls for the enforcement of existing traffic laws and the installation of new safety features in our streets to protect pedestrians.
In October 2013, Transportation Alternatives' report "The Enforcement Gap" detailed that speeding drivers are the number one cause of fatal crashes and failure to yield was the number one cause of injurious crashes in 2011. However, even though 83 percent of New Yorkers want stronger enforcement of speed laws to reduce traffic fatalities, the NYPD gave out more tickets in 2012 for trivial issues that haven't caused fatalities such as excessive window tint (95,526 summonses) and defective headlights (25,439 summonses) than for speeding (84,630 summonses, despite 55 fatal crashes and 2,710 injurious crashes) and failure to yield (16,283 summonses, despite 26 fatal crashes and 5,501 injurious crashes).
Further, the NYPD has been cracking down more on cyclists than motorists, even though no pedestrians have been killed by cyclists in New York City in nearly 5 years.
My own observations are that traffic lights and speed limits are rarely obeyed by motorists and even more rarely enforced by the NYPD. Nearly every time a light turns red, I see at least one car speed up to race through the intersection. On West End Avenue, cars frequently are driven far in excess of the 30 mph speed limit. Yet almost never have I seen drivers get stopped for these dangerous offenses.
In the wake of these latest deaths, Mayor Bill de Blasio reinforced his call for "Vision Zero," the goal of completely eliminating pedestrian deaths in NYC, and Borough President Gale Brewer endorsed this goal in her inaugural address.
The NYPD needs to dramatically step up enforcement of dangerous traffic violations. Additionally, residential neighborhoods like the Upper West Side need traffic calming enhancements such as speed bumps and curb extensions, which physically force cars to slow down in dangerous areas and at intersections. Finally, Mayor de Blasio should force the NYPD to release more and better crash data so citizens help identify dangerous streets that need to be made safer and potential solutions.
It's time for New York City to get serious about making our streets safe. Had former NYPD Commissioner Kelly heeded Transportation Alternatives' report and cracked down on speeding and failure to yield, perhaps Cooper Stock and Alexander Shear would be alive today. It would be a greater tragedy if we don't react to these two latest in a series of pedestrian deaths in a way that effectively saves lives.
Note: There will be a vigil on Wednesday, January 15 at 6:30pm at the SW corner of 97th and West End Avenue to remember Cooper Stock and Alexander Shear.