During a forum punctuated at points by grief and anger, New Yorkers and officials from across the city gathered to discuss what increasingly is feeling like a public health crisis: pedestrian fatalities on the streets of New York.
“There’s a growing recognition that there’s an epidemiological element to this,” said the city’s Dept. of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, one of four panelists at the forum, which was organized by Straus News, publisher of Our Town and The West Side Spirit, and held at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on West 64th Street.
Also on the panel was Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, and Dana Lerner, the mother of 9-year-old Cooper Stock, who was struck and killed just over one year ago while crossing West 97th Street with his father.
“This is Cooper,” said Lerner, pointing to a photo of her son that was projected onto the wall. “He was very gregarious and he liked being the center of attention. I’m doing this for him.”
Lerner said before her son’s death, she was unaware just how unafe the streets of New York are. “I was ignorant, I had no idea how bad it was,” she said. After his death, Lerner joined Families for Safe Streets, an organization made up of surivors and family members of those killed in collisions. The group estimates that every 35 hours, someone is killed in traffic in New York City.
In many ways the forum was about changing the way New Yorkers and those in power think about the issue. “Accidents” where drivers fail to yield to pedestrians are not accidents; rather they’re to be called “crashes,” said Lerner, who characterized such cases as “the new drunk driving.” An increasing number of organizations and elected officials refer to such incidents as “traffic violence.” Even the NYPD changed the name of the Accident Investigation Squad to the Collision Investigation Squad. “It’s a culture change,” said Inspector Dennis Fulton from the NYPD’s Chief of Transportation Office.
“I think this is an epidemic, and that’s the way we need to think about this,” said Lerner.
Much progress already has been made. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative has been successful in lowering the citywide speed limit to 25 miles per hour and getting 120 additional traffic cameras on city streets. At 130, pedestrian traffic deaths in 2014 were the lowest they’ve been since statistics were first kept in 1910. Even Lerner said Vision Zero has been “enormously successful.”
In the wake of her son’s death, and with the help of Rosenthal, Lerner passed “Cooper’s Law,” mandating that taxi drivers who kill or seriously injure a pedestrian immediately have their license suspended and revoked permanently if a subsequent investigation finds they broke traffic laws.
But, said Trottenberg, “the trend line is not going down fast enough.” The DOT recently launched a series of grisly ads reminding both pedestrians and drivers to exercise awareness and caution when navigating city streets.
Statistics included in de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative say that traffic crashes are the leading cause of injury-related death for children under 14. Families for Safe Streets maintains that five children in New York City are hit by vehicles every day.
And impediments to true pedestrian safety persist. The state legislature must approve certain traffic safety measures implemented on city streets, such as traffic cameras. Lerner noted that cabbies are able to obtain a license with merely a written test and without ever having driven on the streets of New York. And to traffic safety activists, the law is woefully incapable of holding dangerous drivers accountable.
Lerner and Families for Safe Streets have been pressuring the city’s five district attorneys to beef up laws and prosecutions of dangerous drivers who hit pedestrians.
They’ve already convinced Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson to form a Driver Accountability Initiative. While it’s still unclear what the program will entail, it at least represents a toehold in the push to hold drivers more accountable under the law.
Other DAs have been less enthusiastic. At a recent Crain’s breakfast event, Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance was interrupted by Sofia Russo, the mother of four-year-old Ariel Russo, who was struck and killed last year by an unlicensed driver fleeing police. Russo, also a member of Families for Safe Streets, demanded more accountability from Vance, who in his remarks at the breakfast referenced her story. According to reports of the meeting and comments made by Abramson, Russo was silenced by a Crain’s editor and her plea went unaddressed by Vance.
“It’s the perfect crime,” said Lerner. “If you want to kill someone and get away with it, use your car.”
As reported in the Spirit, Koffi Komlani, the cabbie who killed Cooper, was arrested in October and charged with “failure to exercise due care.” Cooper and his father were crossing the street with the light and had the right of way during the Jan. 10 collision. According to the Manhattan DA’s office, the maximum penalty is 15 days jail, a $750 fine and a license suspension. The minimum sentence is no penalty at all.
Abramson, the first female executive editor of the Times in the paper’s 160-year history, was struck by a truck near Times Square in 2007. She suffered a broken femur, broken pelvis, and broken right foot, and spent a month in Bellevue Hospital. “I was one of the lucky ones,” said Abramson. “I didn’t have any head injuries and I’m pretty well recovered.”
The driver of the truck did not stop, and was later tracked down by police and bystanders. It was later determined he failed to yield and was not ticketed.
“Everything about my crash was common,” she said.
After the colission and while she was still at the Times, three of her colleagues were struck by vehicles.
“I became sort of the armchair consultant to the people involved in these crashes, my colleagues,” said Abramson, who helped them find doctors, lawyers and physical therapists during their recovery. “With each one I became angry. Anger can be a force for social good and social change.”
Her anger led in a lengthy piece she wrote in the Times last year about her experience and those of her colleagues. In it, she said she was one of almost 11,000 pedestrians struck by vehicles and injured in 2007.
In December, Abramson wrote a lengthy piece for this publication called “The Second Tragedy of Traffic Deaths,” in which she wrote that fewer than 7 percent of the drivers in fatal crashes that kill pedestrians are ticketed and only a tiny fraction, usually only those driving drunk, face any criminal charges.
“The enforcement side of this epidemic is something that really needs attention,” she said at the forum. “New York City is the greatest walking city in the world and our streets need to be safer.”