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New Report Breaks Down Crashes Involving City Agencies, Except NYPD

The city agency most likely to be involved in a traffic crash is missing from a city report on traffic crashes. Image: DCAS [PDF]

The city agency involved in the most traffic collisions is missing from a report on traffic collisions involving city agencies. Image: DCAS [PDF]

A new report sheds light on the extent to which drivers working for city agencies are involved in traffic collisions [PDF]. But the picture is incomplete: NYPD, the agency involved in the most pedestrian injury claims, is withholding its crash information from the city’s database.

Excluding the police department, drivers of city-owned vehicles were involved in eight of the 250 traffic fatalities in New York City last year, according to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. Of those eight, half involved sanitation vehicles.

Of the 5,805 collisions tracked by the report, 584 resulted in injury, including 49 crashes that injured pedestrians and 15 that injured bicyclists. Of the agencies in the database, fire department vehicles were involved in the most crashes with injuries, at 148, followed by sanitation with 98.

If NYPD were included in the city’s data, it would likely outpace the rest of city government. The police department is far and away the top agency for pedestrian injury claims, according to Comptroller Scott Stringer. While NYPD’s feed of reported crashes indicates whether the vehicle involved was a passenger car, truck, ambulance, fire truck, bus, or taxi, it doesn’t say whether the driver was behind the wheel of a police vehicle.

DCAS is “still working with NYPD” to bring its crash data into the city’s database, Deputy Commissioner for Fleet Management Keith Kerman told Streetsblog.

Almost half the crashes in the city’s database involved sideswipes, 18 percent were rear-end collisions, and 9 percent were head-on crashes. Rear-end collisions, however, comprised almost one in three crashes with injuries. DCAS has begun piloting driver alert systems focused on sideswipe and rear-end crashes, Kerman said, and has made these types of collisions a focus of its training for city drivers.

Read more…

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If DOT Can Accelerate Street Repaving, It Can Accelerate Safety Projects

Mayor Bill de Blasio made a visit yesterday to one of the city’s more car-dependent areas, on Staten Island’s south shore, to tout an additional $242 million in his budget for street repaving. The additional money will bring the city’s repaving plan to a total 1,200 lane-miles through June 2016, a 20 percent boost over previous projections.

That street might be smoother, but will it be any safer? Photo: NYC Mayor's Office/Flickr

That street might be smoother, but will it be any safer? Photo: NYC Mayor’s Office/Flickr

Well-maintained streets are good news for bus riders, cyclists, and pedestrians in addition to motorists — but will the city take this opportunity to accelerate its street redesign schedule too? Advocates are urging the city to break down the silos between its resurfacing and safety teams to quickly roll out basic improvements for walking and biking.

The mayor didn’t touch on Vision Zero during his remarks yesterday, but the press release announcing the new funds did briefly mention street safety. “As DOT crews mill and repave more streets,” City Hall said, “it provides opportunities to enhance safety on roadways by improving roadway markings including crosswalks, furthering the Vision Zero initiative for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.”

“More repaving supports Vision Zero because it gets us closer to a state of good repair for pavement markings, in addition to smoother roads,” said DOT spokesperson Bonny Tsang. “Crosswalks and bike lane markings added to new asphalt last longer than [on] older asphalt.”

Advocates say DOT can take it a few steps farther by better coordinating the agency’s repaving and safety programs. “All resurfacing work should be seen as an opportunity to provide short-term safety improvements such as bike lanes, lane reductions, visibility improvements, and more room for pedestrians,” said Transportation Alternatives Deputy Director Caroline Samponaro. “By integrating the repaving and the Safety Improvement Project schedule, we can dramatically increase short term safety improvements on many more streets.”

“Resurfacing and street safety improvement projects serve two different functions,” Tsang said. DOT does make minor adjustments after repaving, she said, for example, narrowing car lanes to add a buffer on part of the Sixth Avenue bike lane. Repaving is also often scheduled before a street safety project is implemented, such as on West End Avenue, Tsang said.

With City Hall committing more funds to resurfacing, advocates want to see a concurrent increase for street redesigns. As budget negotiations between the mayor and the City Council wrap up, TA is looking for de Blasio to expand the Vision Zero Great Streets program, which will redesign and rebuild four major arterial streets. The preliminary City Council budget proposal recommended doubling the funds for Vision Zero Great Streets. TA is also asking DOT to commit to implementing more than 50 street safety projects each year.

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The Case for Baking Bike Infrastructure Into Vision Zero Projects

Is the grass just greener? London's planned cycle superhighways. Image: Transport for London

One of the major new bikeways in the works in London. Image: Transport for London

London is surging ahead with big plans for protected bikeways that span the city. By comparison, New York’s bike plans, while moving forward incrementally, feel piecemeal. Has safe cycling infrastructure become an afterthought in the city’s Vision Zero program?

The question came up yesterday during a seminar on cycling policy hosted simultaneously in the two cities, organized by New London Architecture with the Forum and Institute for Urban Design.

“Our goal is to get more people cycling, more safely, more often,” said Sarah Burr, senior strategy and planning manager for surface transport at Transport for London. “We know we’re not going to reach the targets we have for cycling by getting existing cyclists to cycle more.”

She highlighted three initiatives in London key to improving safety and broadening the appeal of bicycling for everyday trips: “cycle superhighways” made of protected paths on major streets, “quietways” akin to bike boulevards, and “Mini-Hollands,” which are transforming three of London’s 32 boroughs into models for cycle-friendly design. To make those plans a reality, London mayor Boris Johnson has committed to tripling spending on bicycle infrastructure, to almost £1 billion over a decade.

Burr’s counterpart in New York, DOT Assistant Commissioner for Street Improvement Projects Josh Benson, gave an overview of Vision Zero, covering lower speed limits, increased enforcement, the Right of Way Law, and street redesigns. He walked through three projects, one of which included bicycle facilities.

“The impetus behind Vision Zero is looking at how we can make the most progress towards zero, and I think it’s pedestrians. Pedestrians are, unfortunately, the majority of people killed and injured in traffic,” Benson said after the event. “I think in the early stages of Vision Zero, that has to be the focus. You have to look at where the problem is most severe.”

Noting that fatality rates per mile are higher for biking than for walking, Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White argued that bike infrastructure shouldn’t be compartmentalized. “It’s incumbent on us here in New York to make bike lanes much more baked-in to Vision Zero than it is now,” he said, “because for risk exposure, it’s much more dangerous to ride a bike.”

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Why Does Rory Lancman Want to Save Drivers From “Scofflaw Pedestrians”?

Paramedics work to save John Torson a few feet from the crosswalk at E. 61st Street and First Avenue. Photo: Daniel S. Dunnam

Paramedics work on John Torson a few feet from the crosswalk at E. 61st Street and First Avenue. NYPD said Torson was “outside the crosswalk” when he was fatally struck by the driver of the white SUV. Photo: Daniel S. Dunnam

City Council Member Rory Lancman wants to make it more difficult for NYPD to charge drivers who injure and kill people when, in his words, “accidents are caused by poor road conditions, bad weather and scofflaw pedestrians.” But if anything, NYPD has been exceedingly cautious in applying the Right of Way Law when there’s a chance the victim was not in a crosswalk.

If there’s even a speck of doubt about whether the victim had the right of way, NYPD isn’t filing charges against the driver.

The above photo was taken by a reader after an SUV driver fatally struck 89-year-old John Torson as he was walking across E. 61st Street at First Avenue. As we reported last Friday, the day after the crash, an NYPD spokesperson told Streetsblog that, according to the Collision Investigation Squad, Torson was “outside of the marked crosswalk” when he was hit. You can see from the photo that, if Torson was not in the crosswalk, he was at most no more than one car length away. You can’t rule out the possibility that Torson was struck in the crosswalk and propelled forward by the force of impact.

As of today, police had filed no charges against the driver.

The Right of Way Law took effect last August. Between last September and March 2015, the latest month for which NYPD crash data is available, city motorists injured or killed over 8,000 pedestrians and cyclists. As of April, NYPD had applied the Right of Way Law just 22 times. NYPD is training beat cops to use the law, but as of now virtually all cases resulting in Right of Way Law charges are investigated by the Collision Investigation Squad — a small unit of detectives who are trained to process crash scenes, and whose work is relied upon to convict motorists on serious charges, like homicide.

With an application rate of one-quarter of one percent, and investigators declining to prosecute drivers whose victims were said to be just outside the crosswalk, it’s clear that NYPD is being very conservative with the Right of Way Law. Lancman’s proposed Right of Way Law amendment — which would absolve drivers who harm people when the weather is bad — would lead police to apply the law even less frequently.

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Rory Lancman Will Introduce Bill to Hamstring NYPD Crash Investigators

City Council Member Rory Lancman thinks NYPD is playing fast and loose with the Right of Way Law, and he’ll soon introduce a bill that would make it more difficult for police to apply it.

Rory Lancman

A key facet of Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative, the Right of Way Law allows NYPD to file misdemeanor charges against drivers who harm people who are walking and biking with the right of way. Lancman voted for the law, but has complained that NYPD uses it too often.

Motorists have injured or killed over 8,000 pedestrians and cyclists since the Right of Way Law took effect last August. As of April, NYPD had applied the law 22 times. As of now virtually all cases resulting in Right of Way Law charges were worked by the Collision Investigation Squad, which is trained to investigate serious traffic crashes.

In an email to fellow council members today, Lancman called on them to sponsor a Right of Way Law amendment that would place additional burdens on NYPD crash investigators, and create loopholes for motorists who harm people who are following traffic rules.

Wrote Lancman:

[I]t is unclear whether the police department is conducting a “due care” analysis before deciding to arrest and charge drivers with a misdemeanor, or what factors are incorporated into such a “due care” analysis. Indeed, the Transport Workers Union has filed a lawsuit to declare the law unconstitutional and unenforceable in part because of this ambiguity.

This amendment clarifies the meaning of “failure to use due care” by requiring the police department to consider visibility, illumination, weather conditions, roadway conditions, and roadway design as well as whether the pedestrian was in violation of any vehicle and traffic laws at the time of the accident.

Adding a provision to the bill to require an analysis of due care will penalize drivers who hit pedestrians out of recklessness and gross negligence, while sparing drivers when accidents are caused by poor road conditions, bad weather and scofflaw pedestrians.

NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan has explained publicly that the department files charges under the Right of Way Law only when probable cause can be determined based on evidence. Given the number of pedestrian and cyclist injuries and deaths since the law was adopted, if anything it seems NYPD is exercising excessive restraint in applying the law.

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DOT Vision Zero Ad Targets Drivers Who Speed and Fail to Yield

DOT has released the first in another round of ads for its “Your Choices Matter” Vision Zero education campaign. It’s an effective and reality-based video spot that targets drivers who speed and fail to yield — leading causes of death and injury for people who walk and bike in NYC.

The 30-second PSA depicts a driver adjusting his radio and accelerating down a city street before making a fast right turn into a crosswalk and striking a child on a bike. “He wasn’t racing,” reads the title card. “The driver was. Slow down. Your choices matter.”

A DOT press release says the new ads “specifically identify driver behaviors,” and that “[r]eckless or dangerous driving decisions by motorists are key factors in 70 percent of pedestrian fatalities citywide.”

Motorists hurt and kill thousands of pedestrians on city streets every year, and most victims who are struck in crosswalks have the walk signal.

“While NYC DOT redesigned more streets than ever and NYPD increased traffic enforcement, bringing safer streets to the five boroughs is also the responsibility of drivers,” Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said in the press release. “Drivers’ choices behind the wheel matter and these television advertisements will remind millions of people that their actions can have fatal consequences for New Yorkers and their families.”

A second video ad will be released later this week, according to DOT. The video spots will run on broadcast and cable television through the end of June.

Other ads “will feature images of items found at crash scenes and tell the stories of the pedestrian-victims,” and relate findings from DOT borough pedestrian safety action plans, the press release says. Ads will be placed on radio, in newspapers, online, on billboards, and at street-level locations including busses and bus shelters, phone kiosks, and along priority corridors identified in the pedestrian safety action plans.

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New Families For Safe Streets Campaign Defends Right of Way Law

fss1Families For Safe Streets released videos and posters this morning defending the Right of Way Law, in response to a campaign by Transport Workers Union Local 100, which wants MTA bus drivers exempted from the law.

The Right of Way Law, passed unanimously by the City Council and signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio last June, allows for low-level misdemeanor charges against drivers who injure or kill people who are walking or biking with the right of way. If found guilty, the driver can be punished with a fine or jail time, though in practice, unclassified misdemeanors are often pled down to a traffic violation.

A bill from Council Member I. Daneek Miller to amend the law and exempt MTA bus operators has support from 25 of the City Council’s 51 members. There is also a bill in Albany that would prevent police from detaining bus operators, though other drivers could still be arrested.

Before the Right of Way Law, with a tiny number of exceptions, drivers who were sober and stayed on the scene did not receive as much as a careless driving ticket for injuring or killing someone. When drivers were cited, the state Department of Motor Vehicles sometimes dismissed the tickets.

The Right of Way Law addresses this problem by allowing police to file charges against drivers who break the law and run people over. MTA bus drivers struck and killed nine pedestrians last year. In eight of those cases, the pedestrian had the right of way.

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Vision Zero Progress Report Fails to Measure Impact of Vision Zero Policies

Earlier this week, City Hall released an update on the first year of Vision Zero [PDF]. With 90 pages of charts, stats, maps, and graphs, it’s impressively long. But how well does it measure the impact of the city’s street safety policies?

There were a slate of changes to speed limits and traffic enforcement priorities in 2014, and it looks like these policies had an effect: Pedestrian fatalities reached an historic low last year. There should be enough data by now to draw some conclusions about what’s working and what’s not — conclusions that can help guide Vision Zero policy going forward. But the report is mostly an exercise in checking off boxes.

Shouldn't New York City's analysis of Vision Zero be more than just a checklist?

New York City’s analysis of Vision Zero policies should be more than just a checklist. Image: Mayor’s Office [PDF]

Here are five key questions left unanswered by the report:

  • Do Arterial Slow Zones work? Before securing state approval to lower NYC’s default speed limit, the city established 27 “Arterial Slow Zones” — major corridors that received 25 mph speed limits and focused enforcement from NYPD. Some of these changes have been in place for a year, but we still don’t know the effect on key metrics like injury rates, crash severity, and the prevalence of speeding.
  • How are speed cams affecting crashes and injuries? There are 63 school zone speed cameras on the ground right now, according to DOT, with 42 at fixed locations and 21 mobile units. The full 140 allowed by Albany will be installed by the end of this year. Studies from other cities have proven that speed cams work to slow drivers and reduce crashes, so what is the effect in New York City, where state legislation limits where and when cameras can operate? The Vision Zero update notes that speeding has declined 59 percent at 19 camera locations but provides no analysis of the impact on crashes or injuries. In February, WNYC put together a deeper look at the effect of speed cams than the city’s own report.
  • Are TLC-licensed drivers causing fewer injuries and deaths? The report says the de Blasio administration will seek a state law requiring seat belt use for front-seat passengers and children in taxis, but it doesn’t have much data about actual taxi crashes. The Taxi and Limousine Commission fact book once included an entire section on crashes, analyzing everything from seatbelt use to the number of pedestrians and cyclists injured. An update more than a year ago neglected to mention crash data, and the Vision Zero update doesn’t talk about the safety record of TLC-licensed drivers either.
  • What about the rest of the city fleet? The Department of Citywide Administrative Services has a nifty new database tracking crashes across the city fleet, but that information is missing in the Vision Zero update. Has the city improved the safety record of its fleet under Vision Zero? We don’t know, and this latest report didn’t tell us.
  • Where is NYPD concentrating its enforcement? Enforcement of dangerous violations like failure to yield and speeding increased last year. But are those tickets going to drivers at dangerous locations, and can we discern the impact of NYPD enforcement on crash and injury rates? There’s no way to tell, because the city doesn’t publish geographic data on traffic enforcement more detailed than the the precinct level.

There is some new information in the Vision Zero update, though it’s more like factoids than analysis:

Read more…

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A Bus Design Flaw Is No Reason to Gut the Right of Way Law

As part of its campaign to make it legal for bus drivers to injure and kill people, the Transport Workers Union says flawed bus design is to blame for bus drivers hitting pedestrians while turning.

Ella Bandes was killed by a bus driver turning right in 2013.

According to WABC, the TWU claims “half of all recent bus accidents” in NYC and nationwide occurred because drivers were prevented from seeing pedestrians while turning left. TWU and the Amalgamated Transit Union say the issue is that driver visibility is obstructed by the left-hand windshield pillar and the driver’s side rear view mirror.

“There’s a blind spot that’s 14 inches wide that obscures not only one pedestrian but as many as 15,” ATU International President Larry Hanley told WCBS. The unions say “newly-designed” buses are the problem.

Of the nine crashes in 2014 where an MTA bus driver killed a pedestrian, three drivers were reportedly turning left and five were turning right. I looked back through media reports on those eight crashes. Most didn’t have photos from the scene, but of the three that did, each bus was a different model.

In a statement, the MTA said bus drivers are trained to see pedestrians by “leaning into and out of their mirrors while seated to ensure that their line of sight is not obstructed.”

Mayor de Blasio said Wednesday that if it poses a threat to safety, bus design should be looked at. “But in the here and now,” de Blasio said, “our message to everyone in this city, whether they work for the city, or they work for the MTA, or a private individual, is you have to drive safely. You have to yield to pedestrians. You have to respect that there’s new laws now that clearly penalize those who do not yield to pedestrians.”

If it turns out that MTA buses were built in such a way that endangers people, by all means, fix the buses. But as the mayor indicated, everyone who drives in NYC must yield to people walking. A bus design flaw is no reason to gut the Right of Way Law.

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De Blasio: Everyone in This City Has to Yield to Pedestrians

At the press event today announcing the de Blasio administration update to NYC’s citywide sustainability plan (now called “OneNYC” — more on that soon!), the mayor fielded a question about bus design and whether bus drivers can be expected to spot and avoid striking pedestrians in crosswalks. The unspoken subtext was the Transport Workers Union campaign to carve out an exemption for MTA bus drivers in the city’s Right of Way Law, which makes it a misdemeanor for drivers to injure people walking or biking with the right of way.

Here’s the meat of de Blasio’s response — you can see it at about the 1:26 mark in this video:

As you know, we’re training a lot of people who work for the city of New York in how to be safer and better drivers. MTA we do not control. But I think there’s an opportunity to work with the MTA to figure out what will help these drivers to do their work more safely. I think that the whole picture should be looked at — the routes that they cover, the schedules they’re on, the kind of training they need. If the equipment creates a problem, obviously — what’s more important than safety? What’s more important than saving people’s lives and avoiding horribly injured people? This is what we come here first to do in government.

So if it turns out that the design of the buses creates a safety problem — can we fix that with different mirrors or other adjustments? That’s a valid question. But in the here and now, our message to everyone in this city, whether they work for the city, or they work for the MTA, or a private individual, is you have to drive safely. You have to yield to pedestrians. You have to respect that there’s new laws now that clearly penalize those who do not yield to pedestrians. We’re here to save lives and everybody has to be a part of that.