The right of way. You won’t find it in the Declaration of Independence, the UN Charter on Human Rights, or any other foundational declaration of rights. But that’s not because it’s any less important. At least for those living in dense urban environments — a growing proportion of Americans — respect for the right of way is critical to efficiently navigating the routine of daily life. For millions of us, respect for the right of way is a matter of life and death.
It is a staple of urban stereotypes that New Yorkers jealously guard their right of way and are constantly pushing against the envelope of others. Cars inch into the crosswalk in anticipation of a green light or to force a way through pedestrians’ right of way. Cyclists with open road before them take the lane, then when vehicular traffic slows, cut a labyrinthine path in and out of traffic lanes and around pedestrians. Pedestrians walk imperiously out into traffic and seem determined to make the absolute minimum changes in course and speed necessary to avoid collisions. If each group engages in a roughly equivalent level of traffic misbehavior, then haven’t we achieved a rough justice in respecting each others’ right of way?
Of course not. It is abundantly clear to those who travel our streets without motors, armor, and padding that the terms of engagement with those who do involve a distinct, and dire, risk assessment. Pedestrians and cyclists fail to anticipate what a motorist is about to do at peril of life and limb. But as every Streetsblog Weekly Carnage reader knows, motorists are likely to drive away from a fatal crash without a scratch, criminal charge, or even a traffic ticket. The apparent equivalence of “every-person-for-themselves” traffic chaos masks how much the deck is stacked against pedestrians and cyclists, who make up half of the victims in the hundreds of fatal New York City crashes each year, but cause no more than a few traffic deaths per decade.
As long as the design of our streets and automobiles optimize motorists’ speed and power vis-a-vis other street users, the laws and customs regarding right of way are the only things that keep the numbers of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities and serious injuries in check. Great strides have been made in recent years to redesign New York City streets to prioritize safety, and as Nicole Gelinas recently reported, hundreds of lives have been saved as a result.
Many more lives could be saved if NYPD stepped up enforcement of traffic laws against dangerous driving in neighborhoods, instead of wasting time on fish-in-a-barrel summonsing of technical violations. Seven NYPD officers are assigned daily to check every tour bus and truck for explosives, right outside my office. Why aren’t officers assigned to checking giant semi trucks for approrpiate mirrors, other safety equipment and permits before they cross a bridge or tunnel into the pedestrian rich streets of our city? The parents of Renee Thompson and every other victim or survivor of traffic violence has a right to an answer.
But the possibility of meaningful intervention by NYPD into the city’s survival-of-the-biggest traffic culture — and maybe even the street redesign gains of the last six years — is in jeopardy. None of the leading contenders for mayor have made street safety a top priority in their platform, even though traffic violence is the greatest cause of injury-related death in NYC. The tabloid media, which potently shapes popular opinion, continues for the most part to emphasize the personalities of perpetrators and victims over the common thread of preventability running through the endless, numbing procession of lives tragically cut short or wrecked.
That’s why is so important for eveyone who gives a damn about fairness in right of way to come to City Hall tomorrow at 8:30 a.m. To give a public voice to the searing pain crash victims and their survivors suffer in private due to official neglect. To punch through the nauseating business-as-usual approach to traffic violence. To show the candidates running for office that traffic violence is not just another token issue to play politics with, to check or uncheck the box. Please come to City Hall tomorrow to demonstrate that right of way is a fundamental urban right that government has a duty to protect.
Steve Vaccaro is an attorney with the Law Office of Vaccaro & White.