Did Cooper Stock really have to die?
Different traffic laws could have saved his life and the lives of thousands of others. What the U.S. can learn from Sweden.
Note: This story was updated at 1:02 p.m. Friday, May 23.
Cooper Stock was holding his father’s hand. That’s what he always did when he crossed the street, even though he was already 9 years old, even when the street was right in front of his apartment building at West End Avenue and 97th Street in New York City, even though he had been crossing this same street his whole life.
He did this because it was the right thing to do, and his parents had taught him to do the right thing. So he held his daddy’s hand, looked both ways and stepped off the curb toward home.
His father, Richard Stock, was also doing the right thing shortly before 9 p.m. that drizzly January night. After a father-son dinner of fried chicken and chocolate cream pie, he and Cooper opted to take a cab back uptown, and the driver dropped them off at the southeast corner. Usually they got out on the northeast one, giving them one less street to cross, but really, what difference did it make? So Richard took Cooper’s hand, waited for the red neon hand to become a white neon man, then looked both ways and walked.
Koffi Komlani was doing the right thing, too. At least he insisted so to the police. He’d also had the light on 97th Street, and he drove his taxi, a 2010 Ford, License 6796A, into the intersection just as the Stocks started to cross. He didn’t see them, Komlani would tell the officers who were on the scene minutes after he made his left-hand turn into the crosswalk; after the father and son were knocked onto the bright yellow hood; after Richard rolled off to the left, then down the passenger’s side, injuring his leg; after Cooper was thrown to the right, in front of — then completely under — first the front and then the rear driver’s-side wheels.
Related: Cab driver who struck NYC 9-year-old to lose his taxi license
“Didn’t see them?” Dana Lerner, Cooper’s mother, would cry whenever she told the story, which she has done continuously since that night — after she had raced out of her building, summoned by a doorman who called up to say “Cooper has been hit”; after she saw her boy surrounded by paramedics, blood streaming from his ears; after the ambulance, and the ER, and the doctor who said “I’m sorry”; after spending time with her son’s body, wetting her fingertip and wiping off the smudge of blood on his otherwise eerily untouched face, the way a mother would.
“Didn’t see them?” she says, sitting in the living room now cluttered with photos of Cooper and studies about traffic safety. “My husband is 6 foot 3. How is that possible?”
Cooper Stock was one of two pedestrians killed within blocks and minutes of each other on the night of Jan. 10. (The second, 73-year-old Alexander Shear, was struck by a tour bus at West 96th Street half an hour earlier.) That made him one of 11 killed in New York City in the first 15 days of this year, one of 37 citywide so far in 2014, and one of more than 4,000 expected to die this year across the United States. In all, 75,000 New Yorkers and some 100 million pedestrians worldwide have been killed crossing streets since Henry Bliss was struck (also by a taxi) in 1899, at the corner of 74th and Central Park West, the first recorded pedestrian death in the country. After each of those deaths someone probably wailed, “How is that possible?”
It is possible, even probable, experts say, because of the way Americans have designed their streets for hundreds of years — essentially viewing pedestrian fatalities as the cost of doing business, as the collateral damage of speed and progress.
“Traditionally we build assuming that drivers and pedestrians will do the right thing even though we know that humans are flawed,” says Claes Tingvall, the director of Traffic Safety for the Swedish Transport Administration, in an interview with Yahoo News. “You don’t design an elevator or an airplane or a nuclear power station on the assumption that everyone will do the right thing. You design it assuming they will make mistakes, and build in ways that withstand and minimize error.”
For nearly 20 years, Sweden has been building on that latter assumption, rethinking and revamping its transportation system, both the philosophy and the nuts and bolts. They call this 1997 legislation Vision Zero — meaning the goal is to reach zero pedestrian deaths in all of Sweden — and under the program people are valued over cars, safety over efficiency. Streets have been narrowed; speed limits have been lowered. Above all, the Swedes have declared an end to the argument over whether safety violations should be punished or prevented. Voting for problem solving over finger pointing, they view collisions as warnings that some fix — a differently timed light, a better lit intersection — is needed.
In these ways, Sweden has lowered its pedestrian death rate dramatically. It is now the lowest in the world, with 2.7 deaths per 100,000 people annually, compared with an average of 6 across the European Union and 10 in the U.S.
And now it may be poised to transform a city near you. Already, cities in 23 American states have laws incorporating some of the lessons from Sweden. In New York, for instance, much of Times Square is a pedestrian mall, and in San Francisco, police have stopped classifying pedestrian deaths as “accidents” (implying they are unavoidable), and now classify them as “collisions” (which require investigation). Until now, all these changes have been piecemeal, but at the start of this year, city officials in New York, San Francisco and Chicago announced they would embrace Vision Zero more fully.
“There's been an epidemic of traffic fatalities and it can’t go on,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio at a news conference five days after Cooper’s death, announcing a commission that would unveil the city’s 62-point Vision Zero implementation plan a month later. “Every one of us thinks: ‘What if that was my child?’”
And in San Francisco, where the push has been led less by Mayor Ed Lee than by the combined forces of the Board of Supervisors, the Municipal Transportation Agency, the Police Department and the Department of Public Health, Ed Reiskin, the SFMTA’s director of transportation said, “People should not be dying in the streets as they merely try to make their way around our great city."
Safe-street activists, many of whom have spent years urging the adoption of the Swedish model in the U.S. and wooing candidates and city managers to their cause, are responding with cautious hope.
“Bringing Vision Zero here is a powerful statement that it is unacceptable for anyone to die because they are walking or biking on city streets,” says Paul Steely White, executive director of New York’s Transportation Alternatives, which has been working toward that goal since it was founded in 1973. “We may not get to zero deaths, but we can create more human streets, more humane streets.”
Seven months before Cooper died, Marlene Lieberman stood at the same corner of 97th Street and West End Avenue and waited to cross. She lived in the same building as the Stocks and was also heading home. When the same traffic light turned green and the same walk sign turned white, she stepped into the street. A 2007 Chrysler, making the same left-hand turn, hit Lieberman at about the same spot in the crosswalk, pushing her onto the hood and back down onto the asphalt. The driver said he didn’t see her.
The collision left Lieberman bruised, but alive. And since Jan. 10 of this year, it has also left her with a question: Why did she survive while Cooper died?
There was no official police investigation into Lieberman’s “accident” because current city laws do not require one in collisions that don’t result in fatality or serious injury. But even without exact details, many in the traffic community say the answer is clear.
“Speed,” says Nicole Schneider, executive director of the pedestrian advocacy organization Walk San Francisco, in an interview with Yahoo News.
Speed is most regularly the difference between life and death when cars collide with people. “It’s like falling from the first floor or the tenth floor,” Tingvall explains. “It’s not the fact that you are hit but the speed at which you hit.” A ten percent increase in speed with which a car hits a pedestrian increases the fatality risk to that pedestrian by 40 to 45 percent.
So if a driver is going 20 miles an hour upon impact, the pedestrian has an 85 percent of surviving. If that same car is going 40 miles per hour, the survival chance drops to 5 percent. The speed limit on most New York City streets, as on so many urban roadways across the country, is 30 mph (which gives the pedestrian a 50-50 chance.) In Stockholm, in contrast, the residential speed limit is 30 kph, the equivalent of 18 mph, and while the number of collisions has not decreased there, the number of pedestrian deaths and serious injuries has. In other words, drivers are making the same number of errors as before Vision Zero, but fewer people are dying as a result of the errors.
Was Komlani speeding that night? The police seem to have determined he was not, and he was given a single traffic ticket for “failure to yield. ” New York law differs from most other major cities in that the death or injury of a pedestrian does not mean the driver is charged with a crime unless two traffic rules are broken — for instance, speeding and texting or texting and not yielding. But because police found that Komlani had not broken two traffic rules (nor was he found to be drinking) he faces up to a $300 fine, a result similar to the 21 other NYC taxi drivers who caused pedestrian death or injury in the past five years, only one of whom faced criminal charges. On Wednesday, attorneys from the Manhattan DA's office met with Cooper's parents to tell them no charges would be filed against Komlani. “They told me there is nothing in the law right now that specifies that he can be charged with any crime,” Dana Lerner said.
Cooper Stock's parents said the Manhattan District Attorney’s office told them Wednesday that no charges would be flied against Komlani, which the DA's office confirmed. On Friday, New York's Taxi and Limousine Commission told Yahoo News Komlani would lose his professional license, which he had held less than a year.
If Komlani wasn't speeding, was he going too fast? Witnesses to the accident suggest that he was.
Komlani did not brake until he had already run Cooper over, says Ramon Gonzalez, who was driving the car behind Komlani’s cab that night. “He hit him and continued straight on,” Gonzalez told the Daily News the night Cooper died. “It almost looked like he was going to crash into some parked cars.”
Erica Lanser, a photojournalist who was also in a cab on West 97th Street when Cooper was hit, thinks she understands why Komlani might have entered the intersection quickly. She was in the front seat of her taxi, her daughter and two 13-year-old friends in the back, headed south from upper Broadway to the movies when a police barrier diverted all traffic to turn right on 97th because of the fatal bus-pedestrian collision one block away. Drivers responded to this inconvenience, she says, the way drivers do when slowed to a creeping crawl: “Everyone was honking their horns, jostling for every bit of space,” she says.
Suddenly there was a series of “horrible screams,” she remembers, and someone came running up the block shouting “a child’s been hit.” Lanser assumes that Komlani, finally reaching the end of the jammed street, had done as so many regularly do — hit the gas toward freedom, in this case the expanse of the four-lane width of West End Avenue. (Komlani did not respond to a letter left at his home by this reporter, requesting comment.)
Marlene Lieberman suspects that’s what the driver who hit her did as well. There was no additional accident the evening she was hit, hence less pent up driver frustration, but the same temptation to burst from the one-way street to the four-lane boulevard. Which leads to another question: Why two almost identical collisions at this particular corner?
“Street design,” says Schneider. If fatality is a function of speed, she says, then speed is a result not only of the speed limit and its enforcement, but also of the way a street is laid out in the first place. That is why 6 percent of San Francisco streets account for 60 percent of pedestrian injuries and fatalities, she says. And why wide arterial roads account for 15 percent of New York City’s road network but also 60 percent of fatal and serious injuries.
The way to fix nearly every one of these streets, urban planners explain, is to slow them down. Implementing a “road diet,” for instance, in which four lanes of traffic are reduced to two travel lanes, one central turning lane, and a mixture of bike lanes and plantings along the sides, have been shown to reduce serious collisions by 30 percent, Schneider says.
Or a “2+1 Road,” where each lane of traffic takes turns using the middle lane to pass and turn — which is credited for saving 145 lives in Sweden during the first ten years of Vision Zero.
Or designated left-hand turn arrows wherever left-hand turns are legal, because left-hand turns are three times more likely to result in a crash that kills a pedestrian than are right-hand turns.
Or pedestrian bridges, and flashing lights added to zebra-striped crosswalks, or speed bumps before intersections, all of which are thought to have halved pedestrian death rates in Sweden in five years.
In fact, exactly these kinds of changes were proposed six years ago for the whole of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, in a report that specifically includes a rendering of a redesign of West 97 Street and West End Avenue. Called the “Blueprint for the Upper West Side,” it was commissioned by a collection of grass roots groups, most of them affiliated with Transportation Alternatives. On page 40 of the 50-page document, there is a series of suggestions for the very intersection in which Cooper Stock and Marlene Lieberman would be struck years later. Those proposals include “a raised crosswalk” that would make “pedestrians more visible,” as well as an extended curb “so drivers approaching the intersection perceive a narrower street, forcing them to slow down” before turning. Along 97th itself, there is a proposed midblock “chicane,” which is a bump-out of the sidewalk into the street, which the report calls “an effective technique to dramatically reduce vehicle speeds.”
Would any of these have saved Cooper? It is impossible to tell for sure, but they are clear recognition of existing problems. So why weren’t they implemented? The report was submitted to Community Board 7, says Tom DeVito, the Manhattan organizer for Transportation Alternatives, and while “there were bits and bobs from elsewhere in the plan that were adopted, but 97th St. remained an untreated intersection. It’s a shame, because there were some very good recommendations, but they basically disappeared” into a municipal filing cabinet, he says.
The reasons these particular changes never happened are probably the same reasons that have stalled the more general adoption of Vision Zero-based plans in the past — and will possibly threaten them in the future. The first of these is money. The de Blasio plan contains no mention of funding, but some estimates expect it will cost at least $240 million to make all the changes required to redesign New York’s streets. In San Francisco, $17 million has been set aside to begin renovating 256 “faulty” intersections, with another $50 million in transportation taxes awaiting approval by voters on a November ballot.
Politics is another obstacle. Local changes like lowering the speed limit or adding traffic cameras in New York City have to be approved by the state legislature. Recently the state increased the allotment from 20 to 120, but that legislation has not yet taken effect. In addition, after years of wrangling, the first of 25 planned arterial slow zones was created last month on an eight-mile stretch of Atlantic Avenue, extending from the waterfront in Brooklyn to 76th Street in Queens. Along that road, lights will be retimed, the speed limit will be lowered to 25 mph, and police will issue more tickets for moving violations.
Politics are slowing things down in San Francisco, too. The heads of many large public agencies have signed on to a plan to bring the death count effectively to zero by 2024, but the mayor himself has given only lukewarm support. While the police department has responded by increasing traffic citations 70 percent since the beginning of the year, Mayor Lee barely mentioned Vision Zero in his State of the City address, saying “I also support the goals of Vision Zero to eliminate traffic-related deaths in our City, but to get there, we need a little more common sense.”
There is a different kind of politics complicating the implementation of many changes, and that is the politics of the street, where recalibration is often seen as accusation. Pedestrians blame the cars for inching into crosswalks; drivers blame pedestrians for crossing against the light and looking at their phones while they do. Add cyclists to the equation and every proposed remedy is met with umbrage. After Cooper died, for instance, police put up signs in his neighborhood urging pedestrians not to jaywalk. A vigilante protestor went out and covered those official signs with a different message: “It’s vehicles, dummies. When did you last witness a pedestrian run down a car?”
Six-year-old Sophia Liu was also holding her mother’s hand. At 8:30 in the evening last New Year’s Eve, the kindergartener was crossing the intersection of Polk and Ellis streets in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco with her mother and her five-year-old brother, Anthony. The family had the right of way when Syed Muzzafar, who had a green light, made a right-hand turn into the crosswalk and hit all three with his gray Honda Pilot, injuring mother and son and killing Sophia.
Like Cooper’s death and the spate of others in New York in January, Sophia’s death hit a nerve in San Francisco, a possible tipping point in public demand for safer streets. Because laws are different in New York and California, Muzzafar was arrested for gross vehicular manslaughter. (A trial is pending; Muzzafar’s attorney in his criminal case did not return requests for comment.) Also different — Sophia’s family is suing both the driver and the transport company Uber, saying that Muzzafar, an Uber driver, was distracted by the app on his phone that alerts him when he has a new fare. “He had an Uber phone with him and my client saw the blue light from that bouncing off his face,” the family’s attorney, Christopher Dolan, says. “He looked down at his phone and then he drove over them."
The legal argument between Uber and Sophia’s family is a narrow one — since there was no Uber passenger in Muzzafar’s car at the time of the accident, was he, in fact, an Uber driver at that moment, and is the company liable? (An attorney for Uber declined to comment, and his attorney in his civil case did not return a request for an interview.)
But broader questions raised by the case are universal, and they won’t be decided in court: How much does modern distraction worsen this century's old problem? And what to do about that?
Data on traffic deaths tells a complicated story. Historically they are down — from a high of 1,360 pedestrians killed in New York in 1929, for instance, to a low of 286 last year. But in some places they are creeping up — in San Francisco, Sophia Liu’s was the 20th pedestrian fatality of 2013, the highest toll in that city in seven years. And in New York, the adoption of many pedestrian safety programs by the Bloomberg administration — 20 mph speed limits around schools, for instance, and the conversion of 180 acres of road to things like public plazas, bike lanes and public plazas — has had a counter- intuitive effect. Overall vehicle deaths in that city have decreased by 30 percent since 2001, but pedestrian death rates in particular stayed essentially the same, if not a little higher.
Why are numbers heading upward after years of inching down? One possible reason can be found in Sophia’s death. There have always been distractions for drivers (the man who hit Henry Bliss 115 years ago had been trying to navigate around a stopped streetcar), but never has their been the technological gadgetry — GPS maps, texting, cell phone calls, electronic cab hailing — that we see today. “All these are inherent driver distraction tools,” Dolan says. “To solve the broad problem of pedestrian safety you have to account for that in a way that wasn’t as relevant even a few years ago.”
But do Americans have the same love of screens as they do of speed? Can street redesign create an environment that has the same chilling effect on distraction as on urgency?
“Vision Zero is a blueprint for cultural change,” says Megan Wier, an epidemiologist with the San Francisco Department of Health and the co-chair of the city’s multiagency Vision Zero Task Force. “Like drunk driving, like other health epidemics, we need to get across the message that no, it’s not an accident, it’s something that’s preventable, and we have the tools to prevent them.”
Dana Lerner seemed only a tiny bit nervous as she took the microphone in the ornate Council Chamber at City Hall in late April. She has gotten used to speaking in public about Cooper, though this was the first time she’d done it before the New York City Council.
The Transportation Committee was holding its first hearing on the mayor’s proposals for Vision Zero, and the cavernous room was mostly filled. There were 22 proposed pieces of legislation open for discussion, which would do everything from adding black boxes and video cameras to yellow cabs, to increasing the penalties for reckless driving, to putting left-turn arrows at intersections where cars and pedestrians both currently have the go-ahead to turn, to calling on the New York State Legislature to lower the city’s speed limit to 25 mph.
In clusters of four and five, those who came to be heard sat facing their elected officials. Some were there to represent the taxi drivers, or the trucking business owners, or the safe street advocates. Almost all of them began with their support of Vision Zero, then added a “but.” But taxis should not face steeper penalties than other vehicles; but the speed limit should be lowered to 20 rather than the proposed 25; but how can you blame the drivers when it’s the pedestrians and bikers who don’t follow the rules; but the police don’t enforce existing laws; but police use existing laws to hassle drivers.
When it was Lerner’s turn, she used her allotted two minutes to urge the council to adopt resolution 174-A, dubbed Cooper’s Law. It would require the immediate suspension, pending a full investigation, of the TLC license of any driver involved in an incident in which a pedestrian is killed or seriously injured.
The bill, sponsored by Helen Rosenthal, who represents Lerner’s Upper West Side neighborhood, grows out of the anguish Lerner has felt since she learned that Komlani could continue to drive a taxi after killing her son. He has only received a summons for “failure to yield” and faces a maximum of three points on his license (which is otherwise clean) and a $300 fine, pending his traffic court hearing later this year. The fact that Komlani’s former employer, Cyprus Taxi, in Long Island City, N.Y., told Yahoo News that he is no longer working there, and that a TLC spokesman confirmed he is no longer driving, does not make Lerner feel any better.
“He COULD be driving, he is allowed to be,” she says. “He could be out there right now, and the man who murdered my son could be my cab driver, or your cab driver.
Fighting to change that, she says, “is becoming the thing that is keeping me going, it’s what’s keeping me alive.”
And yet she knows there is opposition to what she sees as obvious and simple.
“It’s accidental, not intentional,” another hearing witness, Erhan Tuncel, managing director of the League of Mutual Taxi Owners, said at the same City Council meeting, after describing how his own teenage daughter had been hit by a car on the Upper West Side ten years ago, fracturing her hip. “I hope it is not the intention of this council to declare someone a criminal for being involved in an accident.”
And therein lies another philosophical conundrum at the heart of Vision Zero.
If you accept the core logic — that it is a structural problem, a design flaw, that is the root cause of most pedestrian deaths, then that raises the question of how you can find an individual guilty if the problem was, in effect inherent in the product — the product being the street on which he drove.
This is a theory that has been embraced in the realms of medicine and aeronautics. Pointing fingers and exacting punishment makes us feel better, the thinking goes, but it also removes all incentive to unearth the root cause. When an error leads to a patient’s death, for instance, what is gained by sending that doctor to jail? Assuming the error was not malicious, but rather a human mistake, wouldn’t it make more sense to use the tragedy to unearth flaws in the system? And if you remove the threat of punishment, would that not make it more likely that staff would step forward to report accidents that might otherwise be covered up?
Apply that logic directly to traffic, and you run smack into the question of whether a driver’s mistake, however horrific, should de facto result in severe consequences. Some, like Tingvall and the Swedish transportation agency he represents, believe that the logical extension of the Vision Zero world view is less punishment, not more.
“To punish individuals after crashes is not effective at all,” he says. “I know this is sensitive to many, but this is actually a fact. What is effective is to monitor and enforce prior to crashes — with speed checks with cameras, for instance. The policy that has been decided by the parliament in Sweden is therefore this: If the road user doesn’t follow the fundamental rules of the system, the responsibility falls back on the provider (the professionals who design the street system) to find another solution to the problem.”
Dolan, in his prospective lawsuit against Uber, is essentially making a similar argument. “It’s a product liability case,” he says, one separate from the criminal charges being brought against Muzzafar. “Uber provides them with the phone and requires them to accept a ride within 10 to 15 seconds or it goes to the next driver. They provide a product that is defective because it requires messaging while driving.”
Coincidentally, Barron Lerner, Cooper’s uncle (and, by way of full disclosure, a friend of this writer) is a physician and medical historian who has studied fatal error for many years. He knows all the reasons why the medical profession has moved away from finger pointing, and thinks that the difference between that dilemma and this one is that doctors have already been drilled and educated and immersed in the importance of “doing no harm” while drivers need to hear the message that is effectively sent by the setting of harsher penalties.
His most recent book was about the history of drunk driving in the U.S., and he sees parallels between that fight and this one. In the 1950s and '60s, he says, the same arguments were made about drivers who killed and injured after drinking. “It was common for judges and juries to sympathize with drunk drivers who had killed or maimed innocent people,” he says. “People labeled those events ‘accidents’ or ‘one time mistakes’ and said that these drunk drivers would suffer enough for the rest of their lives.”
Harsher laws and better enforcement were part of the reason death by drunk driving began to decrease steadily, he says, but just as important was the public education and resulting cultural change brought about by groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
“What we used to think of as fun we now understand as danger,” he says. “It feels wrong in a way it didn’t decades ago.” Vision Zero will only succeed, he warns, if it also changes the way we view driving just a little over the speed limit, or glancing at your phone while driving, or inching into a crosswalk that’s crowded with pedestrians.
This new moral order, more than any new traffic light sequence or redesigned intersection, or even a null death count, is the real goal of Vision Zero, he and others suggest. What is yet to be seen is how — and whether — American cities can get there.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the date of Henry Bliss' accident. It was 115 years ago, not 215.
To visit the Cooper Stock memorial website, please go to CoopsHoops.org. Contact writer Lisa Belkin via Twitter @LisaBelkin or email LisaBelkin@yahoo-inc.com