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After Jill Abramson’s Powerful Traffic Violence Piece, What Now for the NYT?

Over the weekend, the New York Times ran a powerful piece by executive editor Jill Abramson about recovering from injuries sustained on city streets, based on her own experience and those of three other Times employees. Their stories, along with accompanying maps of New York City’s most dangerous intersections, conveyed the widespread and profound impact of traffic violence more effectively than anything the Times has published before. Now the question is: Will the Times continue to beat the drum for safe streets?

New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson. Photo: Wikimedia

New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson. Photo: Wikimedia

There is a precedent if you look to the UK. After a Times of London reporter was seriously injured by a truck driver while commuting to work by bike, that paper launched a sustained effort to push for safer streets for cyclists. The “Cities Fit for Cycling” campaign covered everything from truck regulations to street design and speed limits.

The Times of London collected more than 36,000 signatures, gaining the endorsement of Olympic champions and earning plaudits from both Prime Minister David Cameron and the opposition Labour Party. But most importantly, the paper focused public attention on traffic violence, an issue that can easily get lost in the daily noise of metro coverage.

An overt campaign like that may be outside the New York Times’ comfort zone, but the paper doesn’t shy away from going above and beyond typical public service journalism. A Times series like last year’s “Invisible Child” can shape the discourse about a specific set of policy issues more powerfully than just about any other form of media.

As Abramson and her colleagues know too well, traffic violence is pervasive and affects people in ways that go much deeper than the topline statistics about deaths and injuries can ever describe. Fixing the problem is complex and multi-faceted too, requiring action from leaders in City Hall and Albany, as well as fundamental changes in how we view city streets and the act of driving on them. When the city has to beg and plead with state government to let it effectively prevent motorists from speeding, you know policy isn’t improving as urgently as the situation demands. But with more sustained, in-depth coverage from the Times about how to safely design and police our streets, solutions to traffic violence could come to fruition faster.

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Can Vision Zero Survive NYC’s Tabloid Editorial Boards?

New mayor. New DOT commissioner. Same old myopic Daily News editorial board.

The opinion writers who spent four years undermining the implementation of safer street designs want “clear and transparent data” from Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative. Good idea, right? But when the data is right under their noses, they’re still not satisfied.

In a piece that’s ostensibly about holding the city to its traffic safety targets, the Daily News opinion team is still complaining about the Midtown pedestrian plazas on Broadway, which cut pedestrian injuries by 35 percent along the project area. Why? Because the city went ahead and made the safer design permanent, even though, according to the News, data on “average traffic flow rates” didn’t support the initial rationale for the project.

Except they’re wrong — average traffic speeds did increase, according to millions of taxi trips measured with GPS units. All the major nuances in the data (southbound traffic did slow down a tad) are captured in the city’s summary report [PDF].

The Daily News also still has beef with bike lanes, with their unequivocally positive safety record, and Citi Bike, which has recently been opening up all manner of data about bike-share trips.

Meanwhile, the data that street safety advocates really want to see opened up in standard, transparent format — NYPD’s crash information — doesn’t get a mention from the Daily News.

Open data is an absolute necessity for the public to assess policy and hold government accountable. But when the numbers are staring you in the face and you still insist on more data before taking action, maybe you just don’t want things to change. The Daily News opinion page is, after all, the same opinion page that fell back on the “more data” mantra when it called for the city to slow down on the 34th Street separated transitway, which the city abandoned soon after.

Eliminating traffic deaths is an ambitious goal that will require massive change — including more transformative street redesigns than the 34th Street transitway. Can the city make it happen if tabloid opinion writers are pushing against it every step of the way?

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NYPD and the Press Parrot Driver’s Account of Crash That Killed Lisa Julian

Yesterday’s fatal East Village crash is another example of how NYPD and the press blame deceased pedestrians and cyclists based mostly on the word of the drivers who killed them.

“Woman, 47, crossing against light in NoHo struck by car, killed on Thursday,” read the Daily News headline. But the only evidence presented that Lisa Julian was crossing against the light came from Oliver Parris, who hit her with an SUV as she crossed Third Avenue at St. Marks Place at around 6:30 a.m.

Lisa Julian. Photo via New York Post

Lisa Julian. Photo via New York Post

Here’s Parris, as quoted by the Daily News:

“I was trying to swerve from her and I couldn’t do it in time,” said Parris, who said that Julian was crossing against the light. Parris was on his way home from his job as a newspaper deliveryman at the time of the accident.

“She was walking,” he said. “I don’t think she was paying attention.”

And the Post:

“She was crossing against the light. I had a green light,” he said sadly.

“I tried to avoid her. I swerved.”

Julian was pronounced dead at Beth Israel hospital. ”She was a loving, upbeat, and interesting person,” Alexander Rubinstein, the victim’s boyfriend, told the Post. “She was very happy. It’s tough to talk about her right now.”

Reporters for the Daily News, the Post, and DNAinfo take care to note that Parris was upset, and that he did not flee the scene. These details cast Parris in a sympathetic light, and are offered in lieu of critical analysis. Not only do reporters accept Parris’s word that it was Julian who disregarded the signal, they don’t question whether Parris himself was “paying attention,” though state law requires motorists to exercise due care to avoid running people over.

Assuming that Julian did cross against the signal raises other issues. If reports are correct that Parris was driving straight ahead, why didn’t he see Julian in the street in front of him? How close did he get before he saw her? Why did he have to swerve in the first place? This information is critical to determining how the crash occurred. While it may be too early to expect answers to all these questions, it’s also premature to accept the driver’s account as definitive.

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Marlene Baharlias, 77, Killed by Motorist, Blamed by NYPD and the Post

A senior was killed Tuesday in Sheepshead Bay by a driver who witnesses say backed onto a sidewalk — contrary to anonymous NYPD sources who told the Post the victim was jaywalking. No charges were filed.

Marlene Baharlias, 77, was walking home from the doctor with her husband when the driver of a Mercedes SUV backed onto the curb in front of 2060 E. 19th Street, according to witnesses who spoke with News 12 and Brooklyn Daily.

Photo: New York Post

Photo: New York Post

“She was walking on the sidewalk with her husband, the poor woman,” said Shlomo Hava, a neighbor who saw the accident unfold.

Hava said he wanted to help, but seeing her injuries, he knew there was little he could do.

“All her face was smashed — I was shocked,” he said.

Baharlias was pronounced dead at Coney Island Hospital.

In a five-sentence story, Post reporter Dana Sauchelli blamed Baharlias for her own death, citing police sources who said she “was jaywalking when she stepped off an East 19th street curb mid-block.” The Post is the only media outlet we found that claimed Baharlias was attempting to cross the street outside a crosswalk. The story was accompanied by a photo of the SUV parked almost perpendicular to the sidewalk, with the back end over the curb, and the description embedded with the photo said the victim ”was run over by SUV on the sidewalk.” Regardless, for all Post readers know, Baharlias put herself in harm’s way.

In the immediate aftermath of traffic crashes, anonymous NYPD sources are notorious for leaking information that assigns responsibility to deceased pedestrians and cyclists. When Allision Liao was killed last October, police told the media the 4 year old “broke free from her grandmother while they were crossing the street.” To the contrary, video of the crash revealed Allison was holding her grandmother’s hand when Ahmad Abu-Zayedeha drove into both of them in a Queens crosswalk. Pedestrian Seth Kahn and cyclists Mathieu Lefevre and Rasha Shamoon are also among those who in recent years were initially blamed by NYPD for the crashes that killed them and were later exonerated, either after further investigation or in civil court.

Data consistently show drivers are usually at fault in crashes that hurt and kill NYC pedestrians. NYC DOT’s landmark 2010 pedestrian safety study found that motorist behavior was the main factor in 78.5 percent of serious pedestrian injuries and fatalities. A 2012 Transportation Alternatives report found that, according to data from the state DOT, 60 percent of fatal New York City pedestrian and cyclist crashes with known causes between 1995 and 2009 were the result of motorists breaking traffic laws. And NYC DOT data from 2011 revealed that half of pedestrians killed in city crosswalks were crossing with the signal.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn Daily reported that motorists picking up kids from a school close to where Baharlias was hit pose a danger to pedestrians.

Locals said the end of the school day may have contributed to the fatal accident. Parents jockey for the position when picking up their kids, sometimes double- or triple- parking, one neighbor said.

“If you see a spot, its like a race to see who can get that spot,” said William Perry, who lives on the block. “Its just an accident waiting to happen.”

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It’s Not the Bike Lane, Stupid: Double-Parking Caused By Poor Curb Policies

This may shock the New York Post, but double-parking is a huge problem on streets with no bike lane. Here’s 9th Street in Park Slope before it got a bike lane. Photo: Aaron Naparstek

Probably the dumbest part of a stupendously dumb Post story about double-parking tickets and the Columbus Avenue bike lane is this:

The controversial bike path from West 110th Street down to West 77th Street claimed a lane of traffic — even though it is parallel to more preferable cycling routes on Riverside Drive or in Central Park.

Trucks are forced to double-park in the middle of the avenue to make deliveries, and the companies are paying the price.

I will narrow my observations to two. First, no traffic lanes were removed to make room for the Columbus Avenue bike lane — the existing lanes were narrowed. Second, even if this project had removed a traffic lane, that wouldn’t affect access to the curb.

Delivery drivers are not double-parking because of the bike lane, or the number of traffic lanes. Narrower lanes may make double-parking more obtrusive than before, but these same truckers would have double-parked on the old Columbus Avenue design, like they do on so many NYC streets with no bike lane, because the curb is not managed to provide open spaces for delivery trucks.

The drivers — or driver, I should say, since the Post only quoted one source for the story — should be complaining to the Post about meter prices that fail to keep curbside space open, or the lack of loading zones. The bike lane isn’t the source of his problem.

And now, more pictures of double-parked trucks on streets with no bike lane…

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Post Wonders What Woman Did to Get Herself Run Over by Cab Driver

It's unclear if this cab driver was violating traffic laws when he ran over a pedestrian, but Post reporters do not appear to be paying attention.

It’s unclear if this cab driver was violating traffic laws when he ran over a pedestrian, but Post reporters do not appear to be paying attention.

It used to be that the tabloids would focus on any mistake by an injured or deceased pedestrian while ignoring what a motorist did, or didn’t do, to cause a crash. Now, in the absence of actual evidence that a pedestrian was in any way at fault, the Post has taken to spreading innuendo.

Yesterday afternoon a woman was run over by a cab driver in Midtown. Here’s what happened according to Post reporters Minsi Chung and Natasha Velez:

A puddle of blood next to a crosswalk on 6th Avenue marked the spot where the woman was struck as she crossed the wide avenue. A taxi turning left from W. 38th Street clipped the woman moments after she stepped off the sidewalk.

It was unclear if the pedestrian was jaywalking, but a witness said the woman did not appear to be paying attention as she crossed the busy street.

See what Chung and Velez did? They insinuated the victim was jaywalking through pure speculation. And for good measure added a vague but damning detail from an unnamed witness.

It may be unclear if the woman was “paying attention” before she was struck in a crosswalk on a city street teeming with pedestrian traffic. Since there is no rule against distracted walking, and the law puts the onus on drivers to avoid running people over, this is irrelevant.

But here’s what else is unclear: We don’t know if the cabbie who hit her violated her right of way, was driving at an appropriate speed, or using the cell phone he’s shown holding in the Post photo. And the reason it’s unclear is because the tabloids routinely fail to address motorist behavior in their zeal to blame the woman who ends up under the cab or bus.

Implying without cause that a fallen pedestrian might have been asking for it is not reporting. Post reporters and their editors should provide readers with fact-based traffic violence coverage and leave the gossip to Page Six.

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Was the Victim of the Jackson Heights MTA Bus Crash Jaywalking? [Updated]

Crash site, from bus driver's point of view. Image: Google Maps

Crash site, from the bus driver’s point of view. Image: Google Maps

Update: NYPD identified the victim as Martha Tibillin-Guamug, 25, according to the Times Ledger.

A pedestrian was killed by a Q53 bus driver in Jackson Heights Monday afternoon.

Some published reports say the woman was hit near 74th Street and Broadway, but photos of the scene and the Q53 route map indicate that the crash occurred as the bus driver was turning right from Roosevelt Avenue onto Broadway. FDNY got the call at 5:56 p.m. 

From DNAinfo:

The front window of the bus next to the driver was cracked from the impact and the body of the woman lay under the vehicle near the right front tire a half-hour after the crash.

Commuters heading home after work saw the crash and immediately alerted police, but the woman could not be revived, witnesses said.

“People started screaming,” Carlos Mesia, 28, who saw the woman hesitate before stepping into the street.

He turned away for a moment and heard the bus’s brakes screech. When he turned back, the vehicle rocked like it had just hit a bump.

WCBS reported that the victim, whose name has not been released, was crossing Broadway from west to east. If this is correct — again, judging by photos taken at the scene — she would have been in or near the crosswalk, with the bus to her left. The intersection of Roosevelt Avenue and Broadway is under the elevated 7 track, and there is a stanchion on the southwest corner. On the stanchion is a sign alerting drivers turning right from Roosevelt onto Broadway to yield to pedestrians. Unless there is an exclusive turn phase there, if the driver had a green light, the victim probably also had the signal.

Roosevelt Avenue at Broadway. Image: Google Maps

Roosevelt Avenue at Broadway. Image: Google Maps

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Daily News Ignores Driver’s Actions in Persecuting 70-Year-Old “Jaywalker”

The headline in today’s Daily News, “Jaywalker in critical condition after being struck by car in Midtown,” sets the tone for a particularly heinous example of tabloid victim-blaming.

According to the Post, the victim was Landal Hoilette, who was hit on W. 57th Street near 11th Avenue yesterday afternoon while on a lunch break from his job. But the Daily News does not identify Hoilette as a New Yorker, a pedestrian, or a senior. Instead, the story repeatedly refers to him as “the jaywalker.”

Crucial details, such as driver speed, are omitted by the Daily News, whose team of reporters focus on the actions of the injured pedestrian.

Crucial details, such as driver speed, are omitted by the Daily News, whose team of reporters focused instead on the actions of the injured pedestrian.

A 70-year-old man crossing a Manhattan street mid-block was hit by a car and critically wounded Wednesday afternoon, police said.

The victim was crossing 11th Ave. near W. 57th St. at 1:50 p.m. when he was hit by a four-door Nissan sedan that was heading south, cops said.

The jaywalker was rushed to New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he is listed in critical condition with head trauma, according to police.

“Jaywalker,” of course, is a term invented by the car lobby in the first half of the 20th century to apply to anyone who stood in the way of unfettered automobility — including children and the elderly. It’s a dehumanizing epithet that reflects an outdated mindset. It shifts blame away from motorists, who are mostly responsible for pedestrian-involved crashes, and it ignores the fact that, when you’re not in a car, following traffic rules can get you killed.

The tabloids did a decent job on the Kang Wong story, but they are generally terrible when it comes to day to day coverage of traffic crashes. Any mistake by the victim becomes the thrust of the story, while providing cover for the driver’s actions.

As is usually the case when the injured or dead can’t speak for themselves, the motorist’s version of events is the only account presented. How fast was the driver going? Was she distracted? How did she not see a 70-year-old man in the middle of the street? These crucial details are absent from the Daily News piece. The Post did a somewhat less horrible job, but offered zero information on the driver’s actions in a story headlined “CBS employee fighting for life after hit by car while jaywalking.”

The New York dailies should take a lesson from British papers like the Times of London, which treat traffic violence as a preventable public safety issue rather than reflexively blaming victims.

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It’s Time for the AP to Nix the Term “Accident” to Describe Car Collisions

The Cleveland Plain Dealer uses the term "accident" to describe a collision that led to vehicular homicide charges. The Associated Press' editors have cautioned against using this term, but haven't made it part of the organization's all-important Style Guide for journalists. Image: ##http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2013/12/woman_who_ran_over_person_in_h.html## Cleveland.com##

The Cleveland Plain Dealer used the term “accident” to describe a fatal hit-and-run collision. The influential Associated Press cautions against using the term “accident,” but that’s not an official rule in its influential style guide for journalists. Image: Cleveland.com

Earlier this year, the NYPD adopted a policy to stop using the term “accident” to describe traffic collisions. The San Francisco police department made similar changes a few months later. The problem with the term “accident,” of course, is that it implies no one was at fault — that traffic injuries and deaths are just random, unpreventable occurrences. It’s part of a cultural permissiveness toward dangerous driving, which in turn contributes to the loss of life.

News media, however, have been slower than police to acknowledge the shortcomings of the term “accident.” While even NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, notorious for turning a blind eye to traffic violence, issued a statement that “the term ‘accident’ has sometimes given the inaccurate impression or connotation that there is no fault or liability associated with a specific event,” major press outlets like the New York Times and the Cleveland Plain Dealer still tend to use “accident” as the default term for car crashes, even in vehicular homicide cases.

One journalism institution could change that. The Associated Press produces the preeminent style guide for journalists, a reference used by news outlets around the country and around the world. While the AP has acknowledged the inherent problems with the term “accident,” it has yet to issue clear guidelines for journalists that would prevent the imprecise term from tacitly excusing thousands of deaths every year.

In its style guide, the Associated Press has no entry for “accident,” “collision,” or “crash.” However, in a supplemental guide for journalists called “Ask the Editor,” the AP advises journalists against using the term “accident.”

In one entry, a reporter asks editor David Minthorn: “I’ve always written traffic ‘crash,’ not ‘accident’ because the latter seems to imply no fault. But increasingly I see people calling crashes accidents. Does it matter?”

Minthorn responds: “Yes, avoid terms that might suggest a conclusion.” So there you have it, right? Not quite.

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Post Unwittingly Makes Case for Northbound Protected Bike Lane on UWS

Today, New Yorkers got a blast from the past in the pages of the New York Post. Less than a week ago, Community Board 7 voted unanimously to ask DOT to study complete streets measures including a protected bike lane on Amsterdam Avenue. For today’s paper, the Post sent two reporters to the Columbus Avenue protected bike lane to get some quotes from die-hard bike lane opponents and catch wrong-way cyclists on camera.

To get anti-bike quotes, the Post goes back to the well. Ian Alterman, the president of the 20th precinct community council who has opposed not only bike lanes but also business requests for bike racks, and the Zingone Brothers grocery store, which has previously had its grievances aired on WCBSWNYC – and (surprise!) the Post — both make appearances. Can you smell the controversy?

The NY Post's street safety coverage priorities. Photo: NY Post

If there was a protected northbound bike route on the Upper West Side, the Columbus Avenue bike lane wouldn’t draw so much wrong-way riding. Photo: NY Post

The Post conveniently ignored all the benefits the Columbus Avenue redesign has brought to the Upper West Side: Shorter crossing distances for pedestrians, new concrete islands that get drivers to take turns carefully, safer biking conditions, tweaks to improve loading zones for businesses, narrower lanes and less speeding, and — most important — a 41 percent reduction in pedestrian injuries.

The paper tried to link the bike lane — which creates a safe place to ride in the street — to sidewalk riding and wrong-way cycling. Never mind that sidewalk riding is down: Only 2.3 percent of riders on Columbus currently use the sidewalk, a drop from before the lane was installed, according to DOT.

There’s no evidence that wrong-way riding is any more or less frequent than it used to be either, but if northbound cycling is prevalent on the southbound Columbus Avenue bike lane, there’s a good reason: There is no northbound protected bike lane on the Upper West Side. The Post actually makes a good case for a companion protected lane on Amsterdam, which would give cyclists a safer route heading uptown and draw wrong-way bike traffic off Columbus.