Calling traffic fatalities an “epidemic” that deserves immediate attention from the city, Mayor Bill de Blasio launched his administration’s “Vision Zero” agenda this afternoon, setting out to eliminate traffic deaths within a decade. The most important news to come out of today’s announcement is that his administration will enlist multiple agencies to tackle the multifaceted problem of traffic violence. A working group led by the city’s police, transportation, health, and taxi commissioners is tasked with coming up with an action plan by February 15.
De Blasio also announced more immediate steps. School-zone speed cameras, which have been issuing warnings since they were installed in September, will begin issuing tickets tomorrow, the mayor said, and the police will begin prioritizing enforcement of the most dangerous infractions: Speeding and failure to yield to pedestrians. In addition, NYPD will be increasing the size of its highway division — which investigates crashes and performs much of the department’s traffic enforcement — to 270 officers, an increase of 50 percent; already, the unit has increased its staff size by 10 percent, up from 170 officers.
De Blasio made the announcement this afternoon at PS 152 in Woodside, where 8-year-old Noshat Nahian was walking last month when, crossing Northern Boulevard with his sister, he was struck and killed by an unlicensed tractor-trailer truck driver. Flanked by Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, incoming Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, elected officials, and families of traffic violence victims, de Blasio began his remarks by saying this issue is important to him as a parent. “Every one of us thinks: ‘What if that was my child?'” he said. “That is, in fact, how we have to make public policy and how we have to implement public policy.”
“There is an epidemic of traffic fatalities and it can’t go on,” de Blasio said, noting that traffic fatalities are the leading cause of injury-related death for NYC children and that the city’s plunging homicide rate — 333 murders last year — is closing in on the number of traffic fatalities, which last year’s preliminary data puts at 286 people.
“The families joining us today have turned their grief into action,” de Blasio continued. “We are standing with them and we’re starting immediately to make changes to protect our children, and to protect all New Yorkers.”
In tone and substance, today’s announcement marked a notable departure from the days when NYC DOT was the sole city agency taking traffic violence seriously. The interagency task force will convene over the next month before releasing a report with “concrete plans” to carry out de Blasio’s Vision Zero campaign promises, namely: Dedicating more NYPD resources to traffic enforcement, improving design and enforcement along 50 dangerous corridors and intersections annually, expanding the number of 20 mph zones, and formulating a legislative agenda that includes securing home rule over traffic enforcement cameras.
Bratton announced a raft of changes at NYPD, some of which were begun last year by his predecessor, Ray Kelly. These include expanding the Highway Division and its Collision Investigation Squad, including new staff focused on crash investigations, drug testing, and retention of “black box” data that records critical information immediately before a crash.
“Many, many serious accident investigations involving serious injuries were not adequately investigated,” Bratton said. “I intend to ensure that the new policy is adhered to strictly.”
Bratton said the department increased the number of speeding tickets it issued last year by 16 percent over the year before, and he expects the number of citations to continue to increase. Bratton also said the department is outfitting more precincts with laser speed enforcement equipment, which is more effective than traditional radar-based speed guns.
When a reporter asked de Blasio if he thought laws were being adequately enforced against drivers who have killed pedestrians, the mayor said that while he didn’t want to speak about specific cases, his general belief is that drivers who kill do not face sufficient consequences. (The cab driver who on Friday killed 9-year-old Cooper Stock on the Upper West Side, for example, has received only a summons for failure to yield and is not facing disciplinary action from TLC. The case remains under investigation by the NYPD and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance.)
District attorneys, a separate branch of city government that works in tandem with NYPD but rarely prosecutes drivers for deadly crashes, did not receive much attention at today’s press conference. “What I think we can hope to see moving forward is more partnership with the district attorneys offices and I think a greater appreciation for the nuances of why motorists aren’t being charged and the need to establish new case law,” Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White told Streetsblog. “These cases go quietly and charges are not brought and people forget about it.”
De Blasio also promised to meet personally with victims’ families in the next few weeks. Families of traffic violence victims from across the city stood next to de Blasio at today’s event, including the parents of Ella Kottick Bandes, Luis Bravo, Sammy Cohen Eckstein, Allison Liao, and Noshat Nahian.
“Today was hopeful,” said Judy Kottick, Ella’s mother. But she added that, in the year since Ella was killed by an MTA bus driver, it’s been difficult to get information about the investigation from the NYPD. Investigators told Kottick they did not retrieve camera footage of the crash and interviewed only one eyewitness, even though the family itself has found others who saw her death. “We know people were there,” said Kottick, who is organizing a one-year anniversary vigil on January 26 at the intersection of Myrtle and Wyckoff Streets, where Ella was killed.
Advocates say today’s big announcement must be followed by difficult decisions. “All eyes are on this February 15 deadline and how committed the mayor and his team are when the going gets tough, because it most certainly will,” White told Streetsblog. “When the inevitable opposition does arise… that’s what our focus is on, making sure we win those battles and that the mayor is bringing the necessary political capital to bear.”