2014 Was an Improvement for NYC Street Safety, Not a Breakthrough

Last week, City Hall came out with the preliminary total for NYC traffic deaths in 2014. Pedestrian fatalities reached an all-time low and overall traffic deaths may have too, indicating that the de Blasio administration’s street safety policies made an impact in the first year of its Vision Zero initiative. With at least 248 lives lost, however, NYC streets remain far more dangerous than those of global peers like London or Berlin.

A closer look at the data reveals that while traffic deaths in 2014 dropped significantly compared to 2013, last year was more or less within the same range that has prevailed since 2007. To sustain significant, lasting citywide improvements in street safety, Mayor de Blasio will have to build on the policy successes of 2014 and redouble City Hall’s commitment to Vision Zero.

Traffic deaths in NYC have been steadily declining for about two decades. Since the turn of the century, a drop in fatalities among car and truck occupants, down from 146 in 2001 to a low of 52 in 2011 (though rising to 59 last year), accounts for most of the improvement.

The most encouraging signal in 2014 was that pedestrian safety markedly improved. Last year’s 132 fatalities were an all-time low, down from 194 in 2001, following a spike to 180 pedestrian deaths in 2013.

Cyclist fatalities have swung within the range of 12 to 24 each year since 2001. While the increase in cycling during this time means that biking in New York has become safer, the jump from 12 bicyclist deaths in 2013 to 20 in 2014 is especially troubling. Only one of the 20 cyclist fatalities in 2014 occurred inside the Citi Bike zone, lending more strength to the notion that expanding bike-share and protected bike lanes, which are more common in the Citi Bike service area, can have a major effect on safety.

A breakdown of traffic deaths by month shows July and September to be the deadliest, while February and December had the fewest fatalities last year.

It’s important to note that the data released last week are subject to small revisions. For example, the Daily News reported last Tuesday that the city had 131 pedestrian deaths and 250 total traffic fatalities last year, while on Thursday the Times said there were 132 pedestrian deaths and 248 total fatalities.

Why the discrepancy? DOT said Thursday’s numbers in the Times are the most up-to-date figures, and include a New Years Eve hit-and-run fatality on Amsterdam Avenue. Other deaths, meanwhile, have been reclassified. “Data is constantly reconciled and as a result, upon further investigation a fatality is not considered a traffic fatality,” a spokesperson said. “Examples include when a vehicle operator had a medical event like a heart attack, when the fatality is related to a crime such as purposefully running someone over, or if the fatality occurred off-street, such as within a private parking lot.”

The new data from 2014 help us judge how the city is doing on its street safety goals. In the first year of the de Blasio administration, the long-term trend of declining traffic deaths continued. Vision Zero calls for faster change. To put NYC on track to eliminate traffic deaths by 2024, City Hall has to intensify its focus on street design and law enforcement to prevent deadly driving.