‘Vision Zero,’ one year on: NYC’s quest to reduce preventable traffic deaths

Lisa Belkin
Chief National Correspondent
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, incoming Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg and Deputy Inspector Kevin Maloney of the 114th Precinct meet at Northern Boulevard and 61st Street on Jan. 15, 2014, the dangerous Woodside intersection where 8-year-old Noshat Nahian was struck and killed in the crosswalk while walking to school in December. (Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio)

It has been one year since New York Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged a new way of thinking about traffic in the city. On Jan. 15, 2014, he stood not far from the Queens crosswalk where an 8-year-old boy had been killed by an unlicensed truck driver a month earlier and spoke of the “epidemic of traffic fatalities.”

 “The time to start change is now,” he declared.

 The plan he announced that day is called Vision Zero, and is based on a Swedish system of the same name that considers pedestrian deaths not as “accidents” but as a failure of street design. Now that it has been the operating philosophy of New York for a year, those who advocated it in the first place families of traffic victims, advocates for pedestrian safety are taking stock. They summarize this first year as one where much was accomplished, much was learned, and much remains left to be done.

Among the victories a sharp percentage decrease in the number of pedestrian deaths. NYPD data shows that 132 pedestrians were killed by vehicles in 2014 (a record low) compared with 180 such deaths in 2013 (a record high). 

 “It’s still shocking that over 130 people died while walking, in one year,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of the group Transportation Alternatives. “But the fact that the number can move so much in such a short period of time speaks to the power of the mayor making traffic safety such an issue.”

 Among the apparent reasons for the reduced death rate is the lowering of the New York City speed limit to 25 mph from 30 mph, which took effect this fall, and an increase in the number of speed cameras (which, on the advice of Vision Zero advocates in Sweden, proponents have started calling “safety cameras”) to 140 from 20.  In addition, several other laws were passed that advocates hope will “change the culture of driving in New York,” said Amy Cohen, who founded the group Families for Safe Streets about a year ago, after her 12-year-old son, Sammy Cohen Eckstein, was killed by a truck on Prospect Park West in in Brooklyn in October 2013. A package of 11 bills approved by the City Council in May includes: increased penalties for failing to yield to a pedestrian or biker (which is now considered a criminal misdemeanor); the creation of slow zones of 20 mph in particularly dangerous areas; and the requirement that the city fix broken traffic signals within 24 hours. Cooper’s Law, named for 9-year-old Cooper Stock, whose death was the subject of a Yahoo News report earlier this year, requires that the license of a cab driver be revoked pending investigation any time a driver kills or injures someone.

Amy Cohen, who founded the group Families for Safe Streets about a year ago, after her 12-year-old son Sammy Cohen Eckstein was killed by a truck on Prospect Park West in in Brooklyn in Oct. of 2013. Cohen attends a press conference held by Mayor Bill de Blasio to announce the release of the 'Vision Zero' Action Plan at PS 75 in Manhattan on Tuesday, February 18, 2014. (Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio

 Having buy-in from the mayor and putting new laws on the books is an excellent start, Cohen and others say. But they worry that a shift in attitude on the part of all the actors in the city’s daily traffic drama everyone from the DMV, DOT and NYPD to the driving and walking public is still necessary if those laws are to make a real difference.

 They cite, as one example, the death of 3-year-old Allison Liao, struck by an SUV driver a few months before de Blasio made his announcement, while crossing a Flushing intersection holding her grandmother’s hand. A video camera on the dashboard of a passing vehicle showed that Allison and her grandmother had the light, and at first, police issued two tickets to the driver, for “failure to yield” and “failure to exercise due care.” Those were thrown out by a state DMV judge. As the prosecutor explained in a letter to the Liaos’ city councilman: “There are occasions as in this matter … when accidents occur.”

That attitude, that pedestrian deaths and injuries are still perceived as “something that just happens and being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” infuriates Dulcie Canton, who was struck by a speeding hit-and-run driver while riding her bike at the corner of Bleecker and Wilson in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn on Aug. 4 last year, making her one of the 239 pedestrians hit by motor vehicles in Brooklyn that month, and one of the 15,000 to 16,000 pedestrians hit in New York City each year. Two cameras on a nearby apartment building captured the moment and showed that the driver was clearly at fault. But when Canton’s lawyer brought the police video of a 2013 Chevy Camaro parked a block from the intersection its front end damaged and missing the same side-view mirror that had been found at the scene police did not follow up, she says, and no charges were filed against the driver. (Canton has brought a civil suit against him for unspecified damages.) Canton fractured her shoulder and left ankle, requiring surgery, and suffered a concussion. She could not return to full-time work at the bike shop where she was employed, because she cannot stand for long periods of time or lift heavy loads. She still needs physical therapy 20 hours every week.

The NYPD did not return requests for comment.

“The authorities have to stop calling these ‘accidents,’” says Dana Lerner, Cooper Stock’s mother. “These are crashes. When your dog pees on the rug, that’s an accident. When someone is reckless, or doesn’t yield, and someone else is injured or dead, that’s a crash.”

 For Year 2, therefore, there are new proposals and demands. Families for Safe Streets listed those over the past few days, first at a sunset vigil protesting the lack of charges in the case of Allison Liao, and later at a rally at City Hall last weekend to mark the first year of Vision Zero. They include: calling on the DMV to require mandatory three-month license suspensions for serious driving offenses, as well as changes to the DMV point system to ensure that causing death or serious injury results in additional points; requiring the district attorney to refer to a “crash” or “collision” rather than an “accident,” and increasing criminal prosecution of the newly created misdemeanor offense for failure to yield.

People gather for a vigil in Flushing, N.Y., on Jan. 6, 2015, in memory of the death of 3-year-old Allison Liao, struck by an SUV on Oct. 6, 2014. (Anna Zivarts/Flickr)

 They are also asking for more money to fund structural change. “We need serious capital investment to undo decades of design that had traffic engineers treating city streets like highways,” White said. “We need $100 million in the capital budget so DOT has the resources to overhaul: wider sidewalk, protected bike lanes, redesigned intersections. Doing it part-way risks lives.”

 Judy and Ken Bandes say they have learned the danger of compromise firsthand. Their 23-year-old daughter, Ella, was struck and killed by a city Metropolitan Transport Authority bus two years ago this month, crossing Myrtle Avenue in Ridgewood, Queens, after coming home from work at 11 p.m. That intersection, where Myrtle, Wyckoff and Palmetto meet, is a complex one, composed of three roads, six directions and more than 20 separate ways to turn.  In the four years before Ella stepped into the crosswalk, her parents would later learn, there had been 15 pedestrian injuries (3 of those severe), 14 vehicle occupant injuries (1 of those severe) and 2 pedestrian fatalities.

 After Ella’s death, the intersection was designated by the DOT as a “high-pedestrian-crash location.” There was some redesign, and the specific turn that killed Ella was banned — for cars, but not for buses.  In November 2014, another pedestrian was killed at exactly the same spot, in exactly the same circumstances, also by an MTA bus.

 “I feel so guilty, because we actually were instrumental in getting those proposals implemented,” Judy Bandes says. “We knew at the time it was not perfect, but we felt that something was better than nothing. Then someone else was killed. I feel like we should have held out for more changes.”

New York City Department of Transportation's Vision Zero Street Team in Brooklyn on December 12, 2014, to educate drivers (and pedestrians and cyclists) to #Drive25 at Atlantic Ave and Washington. (NYCDOT)

 Families for Safe Streets hopes to see Queens Boulevard become the first major artery in the city to be renovated without compromise. Cohen says locals have taken to calling the street the “Boulevard of Death.”  Among the changes the organization proposes are timed light cycles that would stop traffic in all directions while pedestrians cross and then stop pedestrians from crossing while traffic moves. That configuration, known as “the Barnes dance” after the city traffic engineer who widely implemented it in New York 50 years ago, fell out of use in the 1970s because it slowed the tempo of a city that took pride in speed.

 “It’s time to do things because they slow everything down,” Cohen insists.

 Some corners are being slowed, including the one at 97th Street and West End Avenue, right outside Lerner’s apartment building. It is the spot where her son, Cooper, died. The DOT reconfigured a stretch of road, putting medians in the center and narrowing traffic to a single lane in each direction and slowing cars down in the process.

 It’s an improvement, she says, but not one that brings much comfort. She and her family will be moving soon, to a new neighborhood where they don’t have to pass the spot where Cooper died every time they walk in or out of their apartment building.

 “You can fix the street,” she says, “but not the scars.”