Twenty Years Later, Horrific Washington Square Park Crash Still Resonates

Twenty years ago today, as throngs of New Yorkers were sunning themselves in Washington Square Park on the first warm day of spring, a 1987 Oldsmobile zoomed down Washington Place, gunned through the stop sign at Greene Street, plowed across the sidewalk at Washington Square East and smashed into the park. When the car finally came to rest against a couple of benches near the center of the park, five people lay dead or dying. Twenty-seven people were injured, some of them grievously.

The Washington Square Massacre, as the incident came to be known, left deep marks on NYC transportation advocacy. Members of Transportation Alternatives and Auto-Free NY had already been sounding the alarm over “off-road” pedestrian fatalities, such as that of 7-year-old Gavin Cato in Crown Heights the previous August, and were campaigning for car-free zones in Greenwich Village, including the very stretch of Washington Place that had served as the launching pad for the killer Olds. The carnage in Washington Square Park spurred us to redouble our efforts and laid the ground for the street memorials that fostered citywide awareness of endangerment of pedestrians and cyclists, several years later.

Another of those affected was Gail Collins, now a New York Times columnist but then a writer for Newsday. Collins had already decried sidewalk killings, do-nothing DAs, the “rule of two,” and windshield-privileged legislators who “drive a great deal more than they walk [and] pass laws in their own image.” On April 24, 1992, the day after the massacre, she published her classic broadside, “Pedestrians Losing the Battle.” Here are some excerpts (sadly, Collins’ Newsday columns are not available online):

We are not safe from cars anyplace, people. Not on the sidewalk, not on your front lawn.

Two weeks ago it was a blind man and his dog on Fifth Avenue. Before that, a woman walking her kids to school, and a pregnant teenager in Brooklyn. Before that, a mentally handicapped woman on her way to work in Queens. All of them hit by cars while standing on the sidewalk.

In a city this full of pedestrians, the automobile should always be on the defensive, treading carefully. But instead, the cars seem to be in charge. They can go anywhere, do anything.

When it comes to cars, New York City is wide open. Virtually nobody who speeds or runs a red light gets a ticket.

We need a level playing field between people and cars.

Twenty years later, it’s tempting to feel that nothing has changed — particularly in the wake of the three-car smash-up on Saturday night near Bryant Park in which a speeding Jaguar somersaulted onto the sidewalk, injuring four pedestrians in addition to six vehicle passengers.

That would be a mistake. NYC pedestrian fatalities have fallen by 50 percent from their early-1990s levels — with sidewalk killings apparently down at around the same rate, from a dozen a year (PDF, see pp. 37-38) to half-a-dozen.

Who, or what, deserves the credit for this impressive drop? Improved trauma response and greater sobriety have played a part, but the civic culture in which driving takes place has been changing as well. The meme of driver superiority and pedestrian inferiority appears to be losing ground, as can be seen in drivers’ greater willingness to observe pedestrians’ right-of-way before turning at crosswalks, and, one presumes, a corresponding drop in such collisions. More recently, streets throughout the five boroughs have begun to be re-engineered in the direction of Collins’ level playing field, further advancing safety.

Hearteningly, the political intelligentsia may finally be warming to livable streets, not just as an abstraction but even when it means taking actual space from cars. Fresh evidence of this may appear as soon as the end of this week, when an article in the right-leaning Manhattan Institute’s City Journal delivers a ringing endorsement of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s and DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan’s “transportation reforms [that] have unclogged New York’s streets and made them safer.”

Two things that haven’t changed, though, are negligent drivers’ blanket denial of responsibility, and the NYPD’s aversion to transparent crash analysis.

The driver of the ’87 Olds, 74-year-old Yonkers resident Stella Maychick, who had slid over from the passenger seat after her daughter Diana drove them to Washington Place, died eight years ago. In 2010, the daughter, now Diana Foote, a food writer for a Florida paper, published a classic “you-a culpa” about “that beautiful spring day when my own mother’s car just wouldn’t stop.” In Foote’s telling, a mysterious manufacturing defect called “sudden acceleration” was to blame — rather than her or her mother’s failure to adjust seat distance and height before taking off from the curb, which could have led the shorter Ms. Maychick to mistake the accelerator for the brake.

Back in the present, two days after the Jag driver set off a chain of collisions that sent eight people to the hospital, the police are still singing their familiar refrain. According to the Post, “No criminality was suspected, but the investigation is ongoing.”