When Dodging Death Becomes a Fact of Life

cabcarnage.jpgLisa Sladkus sent in this photo of yesterday’s mayhem at the 72nd Street subway station.

For the second time (that we know of) in less than a week, a yellow cab driver has wreaked havoc on Manhattan streets, terrorizing pedestrians and leaving a trail of destruction.

Miraculously, unlike Akim Saiful Alam, the unidentified driver in yesterday’s crash didn’t kill anyone when he lost control of his cab on Amsterdam Avenue. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. Witnesses told NY1 the cabbie was speeding before he attempted to "make a turn from the far right lane of Amsterdam and turned all the way into the far left lane." The News reports what happened next:

The cab careened off the roadway and nearly cleared a 4-foot-high wrought-iron fence separating a traffic island from the intersection.

"He hit the fence, and he went flying," said Samuel Valerdi, 34, of Brooklyn.

Then the taxi smashed into a small building that houses the entrance to the 1, 2 and 3 subway trains.

"It hit like a bomb," said newspaper vendor Mohameed Raza, 22, of Brooklyn.

Pedestrians ran for their lives, but "luckily no one was coming out of the subway at the time," said David Spiers, 44, a Bronx electrician working across the street.

All told, three people — the driver, his passenger, and a pedestrian — were injured. The News says NYPD is still investigating, though no summonses were immediately issued.

While this incident will soon drop off the radar (just as surely as it will soon happen again), not everyone will be quick to forget. After the jump, witness Lisa Sladkus questions why all of us, every day, should suffer the consequences of dangerous driving.

What will it take to make these streets safer? A low-stress afternoon interrupted by screeching tires, a loud crash, and the terrifying thought, "Where are my kids right now?" It shouldn’t be like this. Today on Broadway between 71st and 72nd Street, a cab went straight through the wrought-iron fence and landed on the sidewalk right outside the subway entrance. My sister and I rushed out to see what seemed to be the cab driver with a bloody head and at least one pedestrian with a head injury. The sadder part was hearing the first police officer to the scene of the crash say, "It’s shocking there weren’t more injuries or deaths."

What’s more shocking to me is that this is okay with the powers that be. Why is it okay to have a person walk out of the subway and get hit by some flying metal from a car crash? Why is it okay to have 53 pedestrians and four bicyclists die on the Upper West Side between 1995 and 2005 because of car crashes? Why can cars drive through red lights and nothing happens? Why is Amsterdam Avenue more like a bustling highway than a lovely city Boulevard?

This similar shock and sadness happened to me a few weeks ago while walking home with my three kids and loads of groceries. A woman riding her bike was hit by a car in front of the popular grocery store, Fairway. She didn’t move for many minutes, and my kids kept asking, "Is she dead?" Once we determined that she, in fact, didn’t die, my kids switched their questioning. The question that really got me was from my four year old, "You and Daddy bike. Are you going to get rolled up by a car too?"

All I can say is that we need a serious re-thinking of our neighborhoods. How do we want them to feel? Do we want kids to feel safe while walking and biking? Do we want peaceful streets where we can meet neighbors and frolic with our children? Do we want our valuable police force, fire department and EMT doing something more beneficial than spending hours dealing with the aftermath of a totally preventable crash? If so, we need to start by lowering speed limits, we need to re-design our streets and sidewalks to accommodate the masses of people instead of motor vehicles, we need safe places to bike and walk, we need trucks off our neighborhood side streets (and, frankly, completely out of our neighborhoods unless they are absolutely necessary), and on and on.

After the death of 8-year-old Axel Pablo last week, the Post called on Mayor Bloomberg, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and TLC Commissioner Matthew Daus to crack down on cell phone-talking cab drivers. While this would be a welcome move, a more effective approach, for starters, would be an across the board no tolerance policy to speeding on city streets, coupled with prosecution of reckless motorists who maim and kill.

We know what it takes to "help us make safer streets and sidewalks," Sladkus concludes. "The question is: do we want that as our outcome?"

  • Can we stop pretending that bikes are a worse menace, or that they’re even in the same league?

  • J

    The situation seems to be getting more dangerous as drivers realize that enforcement continues to get worse. It’s quite common to see vehicles driving 45 mph down large avenues. A single mistake at that speed will certainly put people in the hospital and has a high chance of killing someone.

  • Glenn

    PHYSICAL BARRIERS

    There was a similar accident covered by the Columbia Spectator (original link is broken) but I did capture the resulting picture on the UGS website (http://uppergreenside.org/2006/12).

    The comparison couldn’t be clearer. Solid concrete barriers pedestrian islands are the only way to prevent & protect against injuries and deaths. Metal bar gates are clearly no match for a speeding cab.

    That intersection needs traffic calming ASAP and perhaps it can join the other 3-way intersections (Times Sq and Herald Sq.) as new public space

  • Vehicle speeds in the city need to be taken seriously as a threat to public health and safety. When we talk about sharing the road and allocating space to pedestrians, that space needs to be safe.

    As it stands now it’s just not possible to expect cyclists to share space with high speed vehicular traffic. Those same high vehicular speeds also create the need for large scale street interventions to protect cyclists and pedestrians which are more expensive and more difficult to implement.

    It’s also worth noting that at excessive speeds no amount of protection for pedestrians is sufficient. That wrought iron fence that protects the islands and station houses was no match for a speeding SUV. If we don’t slow the cars down

  • Shemp

    The simple fact that needs to be changed on NYC streets is that the NYPD views doing dangerous and stupid things with cars as normal behavior, while they feel that people bicycling (and even walking in many cases) are deviants, faggots, criminals and assholes.

  • …pedestrians will never be safe from reckless drivers.

  • Ian Turner

    J, at 45 MPH, a pedestrian collision is more likely to kill than to maim.

  • File this one in the Manhattan DA’s/NYPD’s “No Harm, No Foul” folder. Which they keep right next to the “Harm, No Foul” folder.

  • Grinner

    C. Bruce Gambardella will probably include this in his next report on the safety of hybrid cabs for the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade (ref. http://www.streetsblog.org/2008/10/21/todays-headlines-511/).

    Cap’n Transit, this horrible event obviously occured because there was a person on a bike somewhere in the city, and that fact blinded the driver to the risks of his actions.

    “… nearly cleared a 4-foot-high wrought-iron fence….” Just how fast do you have to be going to get that sort of air?

  • James

    What is it about the culture of this city that would lead motorists to believe that speeding at 15+mph over the speed limit on residential streets is socially acceptable behavior? Is it because of the polyglot clash of cultures that New York represents (i.e. a critical mass of motorists, many of whom are immigrants from the developing world who aren’t aware of what the norms are)? Or is it simply a sense of entitlement, as in “I’m the one in the 4,000lb vehicle, screw you, move the hell out of the way!” You travel elsewhere and this kind of outlandish shit is looked upon as abnormal, deviant, destructive behavior, but somehow it is socially accepted here. This is the one thing that has me dreading coming back to NY after a vacation every time. There will never be enough cops to enforce the law 100%, Albany keeps us from installing enforcement cameras, so what we are left with is incremental improvements around the edges and figuring out some way to change the “culture of the road” here. But how is this done? Is such a thing even possible?

  • PaulCJr

    They’ll probably come back with a no fault by the drive designation. I’ll try not get a ticket today for riding my bike through the city( just being a little sarcastic. I’ve actually never gotten a ticket for cycling in the city and hopefully never will).

  • Eric

    I don’t see any need to create new laws and regulations to deal with this type of problem. NYPD needs to enforce EXISTING laws, start setting up some speed traps. Private and commercial vehicles will figure out which is better driving within the speed limit or getting a ticket.

  • Check out the NY1 report–a witness says the cabbie “WAS ASKED if his brakes failed,” to which he replied “Yes.”

    If her report is accurate, WHAT THE HELL kind of numbskull cop is OFFERING the driver an idea of how to get out of trouble?

    http://www.ny1.com/content/top_stories/104303/taxi-slams-into-uws-subway-entrance–injures-three/Default.aspx

    Forgive me, any cops out there, if I’m misunderstanding some smart investigative technique that the “brake failure” leading question might represent, but I doubt I am.

  • I \v/ NY

    more proof that taxis are the worst “professional” drivers on the road. though i cant believe i’m using the word professional in the same sentence as taxi.

    i’m sorry to hear that a pedestrian and the passenger were injured.

    i’m also pissed the driver damaged that beautiful subway headhouse.

  • I \v/ NY

    yeah, brakes will fail to stop when you fail to apply them before crashing into something.

  • PaulCJr

    I doubt the drivers brakes actually failed. Brakes are one of the few things that fail in a vehicle. Maybe the might have failed, but i doubt it unless the vehicle wasn’t maintained properly.

  • Why are the urban streets of most European cities I visit full of life (children play, cafe dining, people walking, farmers markets) and those in the the US full of death?

  • Only the wrought iron fence kept the cab from plowing into the station house, which I’m guessing is unreinforced masonry. It’s a miracle more people weren’t hurt.

    The 72nd St. station is at the nexus of two multi-lane high-speed highways, Broadway and Amsterdam Ave. Only street redesign will conclusively stop these “accidents.” Narrow the streets — making them truly streets, not highways — install speed bumps, widen the sidewalks and protect them (and the station house) with bollards that can stop 4000 pounds of hurtling metal.

    Forget the law, forget the cops. In a perfect world they’d work but in our world they don’t and that is not going to change despite our most fervent wishes. Street redesign is the only way out of this endless cavalcade of violence and death.

  • sarge

    We need a Jeanette Sadik Khan for the NYPD. We need someone who will begin to change the priorities in that agency.

  • Mark’s absolutely correct, the only way to fix this is by design.

  • Anon

    Is the city really to be held responsible for cabbies driving like idiots?

  • Charles

    Narrow the avenues or make them two-way boulevards. Is there an actual need for a one-way speedway above a subway line?

  • dave

    What sort of requirements are there before one can drive a taxi in the city? Maybe there should be some sort of enhanced driving test before you can drive a cab.

  • Erin

    “Forget the law, forget the cops. In a perfect world they’d work but in our world they don’t and that is not going to change despite our most fervent wishes. Street redesign is the only way out of this endless cavalcade of violence and death.” – Mark Walker, Comment #18

    Yep, this is true. But design doesn’t happen on its own. We (the roadway engineers, which I am) know quite well how to make safer streets. Neck-downs. Pedestrian “refuge islands” – the worst name ever – it’s too bad that peds have to take refuge. Speed bumps/humps. Narrower lanes. Fewer lanes. Street landscaping. Striped bike lanes. Separated bike lanes. Transit-only lanes. Parking lanes. Etc. I could go on and on. The problem is not lack of imagination. The problem is that the city (the DOT, DDC, etc.) has to ask for it. The City of New York has to want safer streets. The local politicians have to demand safer streets. AND the NYPD also needs to get off their asses, those of them who are on them, and enforce the damn laws. Enough people have died on these streets. I’m sick of trying to cross the street and almost be hit by speeding turning cars. I’m tired of drivers not being punished for their dangerous and unlawful behaviors.

  • Anon- Yeah, when there are so many of them (and others) driving like idiots and we as a city could do things to stop it but don’t.

  • Josh

    That’s very well said by Ms. Sladkus in the original post. I hope her remarks get read by people with the authority to do something important, though I’d add that it’s less important that speed limits be *lowered* than that they be *enforced*.

  • Ian Turner

    Dave,

    Perhaps there should be some sort of enhanced driving test before you can drive a car of any kind. The color of the paint on the vehicle has little connection to its ability to kill and maim.

    The driver licensing system in the United States is designed to pass people. With the exception of those with severe physical or developmental disabilities, nobody is unable to get a license because they can’t pass the test. Some people fail the first time, but almost no one gives up and settles for a state ID.

    “Maybe” it’s time to change that.

    Cheers,

    –Ian

  • Ian Turner

    Erin,

    Thanks for sharing. It’s encouraging to hear this attitude from a member of a profession that is too often blamed for pushing more traffic at the expense of everything else.

    Cheers,

    –Ian

  • Omri

    “Forget the law, forget the cops. In a perfect world they’d work but in our world they don’t and that is not going to change despite our most fervent wishes. Street redesign is the only way out of this endless cavalcade of violence and death.”

    Yup. And it won’t take much, either. Even the flimsiest bollards will help take away momentum from a curb-jumping car (that fence probably saved the pedestrian’s life and reduced the damage to the subway station), and better yet, even the flimsiest bollard will cause heavy enough damage to an errant car to “encourage” people to slow down.

  • By the way, on WPIX News last night, Scott Stringer was interviewed at the scene and called for tougher enforcement. Nice to hear that coming from a Manhattan borough president. Now I’d like to hear it from the mayor for whom I’ve voted twice.

  • rex

    It seems that fixing the taxi problem would be relatively easy: Require all cabs to have GPS logging device. At the end of a day/month/week/whatever, the log is downloaded and compared to a GIS map of the city and the speed limits on those streets. For each speed limit execedence, the medallion holder is sent a summons. Create a new class of speeding fines for professional drivers, and keep raising the fines until the unwanted behavior is extinguished. Simple no?

  • It seems pretty clear that taxi drivers speed and generally drive like maniacs because they make more money when they drive this way. Perhaps we can find ways to make speeding less lucrative. Would it be possible, for example, to design taxi-meters that turn over more slowly, proportionate to the taxi’s speed, when it was going over the speed limit?

    The prospect of killing pedestrians or hitting subway entrances is not much of a deterrent because these consequences are (relatively) rare. But if a driver lost money of his fare EVERY TIME he drove too fast, he might have an incentive to obey the speed limit.

  • Ideas about on-board technology to discourage cabbies from speeding have been batted around probably for decades; here’s one the NYTimes talked about in 1997:

    http://tinyurl.com/l3bgwx

    I hate to sound like a Townhaller, but my feeling is that it’s one of those things that simply makes too much sense for the government to adopt.

  • @ Erin,

    Yeah I find the name refuge islands to be ironic as well. I once made a presentation in which I called them refugee islands without realizing it. We might as well call them that.

  • SecretSystemsGuy

    “It seems pretty clear that taxi drivers speed and generally drive like maniacs because they make more money when they drive this way.”

    Bingo.

    “Perhaps we can find ways to make speeding less lucrative. Would it be possible, for example, to design taxi-meters that turn over more slowly, proportionate to the taxi’s speed, when it was going over the speed limit?”

    Hypothetically, yes. Practically, it would be very difficult, and prohibitively expensive. [without giving away too much of my secret identity, I’ve done a lot of work on database design for traffic control devices and how mobile and GPS technologies can be brought into the mix. I have looked at this exact problem from a systems perspective.]

    All this talk of redesigning the infrastructure to stop the speeding is utopian. Look at NYPD’s budget. Look at DOT’s budget. Look at the City’s dwindling capital budget. NYC invests in cops, not infrastructure. Cops can change the public’s behavior (according to Bloomberg, anyway) so let’s work on that. It’s where the money is. Apart from that, we also need to look at the economics of the taxi business. Some sort of regulatory shift that got us back to either a predominantly operator-as-owner or operator-as-emoployee model might make more difference than anything else to improve driver behavior.

  • How does someone kill a person with a vehicle, even if unintentional and not get charged with anything!? I don’t understand.

  • LauraBeachnut

    IT’S THIS SIMPLE.

    TAXI’S as well as other people try to avoid the UNBELIEVABLY STUPID pedestrians that stand in the street when cares are not there.

    HELLO PEOPLE….. My 3 Year old Nephew knows not to stand in the street even though their is not a car there.

    A car may need the street it HAS THE RIGHT TO USE and not travel on the sidewalk. Why cant wait for the light to change or use the intersection like THE LAWS TELLS US TOO.

    No, you pedestrians have to use the laws to your advantage to hurt other people. People have a right o use the street for their cars just like you have the right to use the sidewalk.

    PEDESTRIANS THAT GET STAND IN THE STREET DESERVE TO GET HIT……..TILL DEATH!

  • ChrisCo

    I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: it’s time to turn all of Manhattan’s wide, one-way Avenues back to bi-directional streets.

    Of course this won’t happen in any of our lifetimes, but it’s nice to dream. The single easiest way to slow traffic down is to turn a one-way street into a two-way street. People won’t drive at excessive speeds if there is a lane of traffic coming towards them just a few feet to the left, just as they won’t drive at excessive speeds just a few feet from parked cars. The problem in Manhattan is all these wide Avenues where you can have a moving lane of cars moving in your same direction on either side. This means there is NOTHING in the road design to discourage you from speeding. These situations must be done away with.

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