Speed Kills, But NYPD Won’t Open the Data

On the surface, the crashes that killed Jill Tarlov and Michael Williams last month could hardly have been more different.

Michael Williams and Jill Tarlov.
Michael Williams and Jill Tarlov.

Williams, a 25-year-old rookie cop, was riding in an NYPD van on the Bruckner Expressway shortly after dawn en route to police the Peoples Climate March, when the driver of the van crashed into a concrete median. Tarlov, a 58-year-old mother of two from Fairfield, CT, was walking across Central Park around 4:30 p.m. after a day of birthday shopping for her son, when she was struck by a man cycling on the Park Loop.

A young man at work, a middle-aged woman on a stroll. A passenger in a van, a walker in a park. A wet expressway in early morning, a dry park road on a bright afternoon. Miles and worlds apart, but for the awful suddenness and seeming randomness of their deaths, and the grief left in their wakes.

And this too: excessive speed almost certainly played a part — perhaps the key part — in the crashes that killed them both.

Although Tarlov died of brain trauma from her head striking the pavement, the fact that she was unable to break her fall suggests that the cyclist struck her at high speed.

Williams was thrown from the NYPD van “when the cop driver lost control as he rounded a sharp corner on the rain-slicked Bruckner Expressway in Hunts Point,” the Daily News reported, and smashed into the highway median. Needless to say, the Bruckner Expressway does not have sharp corners — it has curves. The Daily News employed the language of our automobile-centered culture that attempts to conceal the simple fact that the driver was going too fast for the conditions.

By now, the authorities probably know how fast the cyclist and the driver were operating their vehicles. The cyclist who struck Tarlov was widely reported to have been a habitual user of Strava, a mobile app for tracking athletic activity that records real-time speeds via GPS and uploads them continuously from watches and phones to a central database. The NYPD seized the cyclist’s phone and thus presumably has access to the data feed with his second-by-second position and velocity as he rode toward Tarlov on the park loop road. As for the NYPD 2009 Ford Econoline that crashed on the Bruckner, it likely had an event data recorder or “black box” recording the van’s speed in the moments immediately preceding the crash, which would be available to the police.

Yet it is now three weeks and counting, and no data has been released about either crash. Of course, the NYPD never releases its collision investigations, even though the public has every right to that data, and keeping it hidden impedes efforts to prevent future tragedies.

The public’s stake in knowing the vehicle speed in the Tarlov crash, the Williams crash, and indeed every serious-injury and fatal crash in New York City is enormous. There simply cannot be informed discussion of operator culpability, roadway design, traffic enforcement, prosecutorial responsibility, and, indeed, road traffic culture and governance, if this most basic and crucial parameter is habitually hidden from the public realm.

This has been all too apparent since Tarlov and Williams were killed.

In the first, the cyclist who killed Tarlov was immediately accused of speeding. The cycling community roundly condemned unsafe operation of bicycles. But in order to effectively advocate for changes to Central Park and its cycling cultures that might prevent future tragedies, we need to know if the cyclist who killed Tarlov was traveling at a speed that is unsafe at any time, or if a graduated speed limit to reflect the varying density of pedestrians in city parks at different places and times would be more appropriate.

Conversely, no one has yet accused the driver in the crash that killed Williams of speeding. Instead, discussions of the crash on the Bruckner have been restricted to the apologetics mentioned above: the “sharp corner,” the “rain-slicked” roadway, and least often, the fact that neither Williams nor most of his fellow cops were wearing seatbelts. Again, if we are to advocate for proper retraining of drivers, especially the drivers charged with enforcing the rules of the road intended to save lives, we need to know what role, if any, speeding played in this crash.

If the driver of the NYPD van helped precipitate Williams’ death by going too fast, we have a right to know. If enforcement can be retooled to prevent more crashes like the one that killed Jill Tarlov, we have a right to know.

We have the right to know what leads to every consequential crash on our streets. And if NYC is ever going to fulfill Vision Zero, we must know.

  • sbauman

    “Although Tarlov died of brain trauma from her head striking the pavement, the fact that she was unable to break her fall suggests that the cyclist struck her at high speed.”

    It does not! It takes 0.6 seconds to fall from 5 to 6 feet due to gravity alone . Reaction time for the unexpected is on the order of 0.75 to 1.5 seconds.

  • Anxiously Awaiting Bikeshare

    Haven’t we already discussed that the police can’t access an event data recorder without a warrant, and they need probable cause for that?

  • com63

    Can this information be released through freedom of information requests?

  • Joe R.

    Reaction time is probably on the higher end of that for someone walking who is not really in a hyperalert state. On the flip side, reaction times can be well under 0.2 seconds for someone who is highly alert and highly trained.

    Here’s a good game to test reaction time:

    http://gamejolt.com/games/arcade/reaction-time/20702/

    My averages were usually 0.3 to 0.4 seconds. I had minimums of 0.2 seconds a few times.

  • sbauman

    There are many techniques for improving reaction time. Repetition (learning) is one. You will note that I qualified reaction time with “for unexpected events.” Unless a person has taken a judo course that teaches falling, losing one’s balance while walking should qualify as unexpected.

    The figure 0.75 seconds is what is used for determining how long the yellow light should be. There have been studies showing that 1.5 seconds is more accurate for an older population for the same context.

  • walks bikes drives

    I watched a girl today fall down the stairs. She was walking slowly, but slipped and was unable to break her fall. I don’t buy the excessive speed as the reason she couldn’t break her fall any more than you.

    I don’t doubt he was speeding. I don’t doubt he wasn’t. But I agree with the need, and the principle, of what Charles is saying that the NYPD needs to release this information.

  • Komanoff

    Amazing, the lengths to which humans go to avoid facing reality.

    If my stringbean 16-y-old son pushes me on the chest, I have a fighting chance to recover/maintain my balance. If Cleveland Browns football legend Jim Brown pushes me on the chest at speed, I’ll be propelled backwards so violently I’ll be utterly unable to catch myself or manage my fall.

  • wkgreen

    I think that the whole idea of incriminating Marshall with Strava is pretty useless. The speed that he was going in the wee hours is meaningless. But as long as it keeps coming back, it might be useful to note that his average speed for the month, if one does the math (693 miles and 46 hours/44 min’s), was a “whopping” 14.8 MPH. Of course it’s difficult to know how much of that was in the park, or how much of it (if any) was done in city streets waiting for traffic, but he certainly was not burning up the pavement for all of that Strava time. At 20,449 ft. of elevation gain, or 29.5 ft./mile, there was also not much hill climbing that might have brought the average down. His story, that he was only going 8 or 9 MPH at the time of the crash could well have been closer to the truth, especially if he knew that the police had access to whatever tracking device that he was carrying. If he was telling the truth, it would certainly be in his interest for NYPD to release that information.

    Be that as it may, a graduated speed limit for time and place would be the way to go. A blanket 20 MPH, as has been suggested, is too fast at the crowded south end at midday, and is really pretty close to the speed that an unencumbered fast cyclist would be going most of the time anyway.

  • Hart Noecker

    Nobody should be surprised by any of this. The police were created as slave patrols in the early 1700s. That mentality has never changed. Protecting people walking and biking will never be their priority.

    http://rebelmetropolis.org/liberals-and-their-love-of-law-enforcement/

  • Joe R.

    His rather low average speed for a so-called “racer” is really what caught my attention, especially given the huge number of miles he’s been doing. During years when I barely break 1,000 miles my overall average tends to fall more or less around 14.5 to 15 mph. Note that this includes time slowing/stopped, and also includes riding with winter clothing for a good part of the year. When I’m in better shape by virtue of doing 3,000 or 4,000 miles, it usually ends up reliably past 16 mph once I’m back in shape. I’ve never done 6,000+ miles in a year like him, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that put my averages near or past 17 mph. Now Marshall is 20 years younger than me, and rides in cycling gear. I ride in regular street clothes. Those two things should work even more in his favor. Bottom line-they picked the wrong stereotype for this guy. He just sounds like someone who likes to do a lot of cruising but wants to look the part of a racer. Or he might be more a sprinter, reaching terrific speeds in short bursts, but unable to keep them up over the long haul. The real racers out there, or even the serious amateurs like me, go a heck of a lot faster. I recall doing 10 miles in 25 minutes once. On a Huffy. If I had money for a decent bike back then, I’ve little doubt I could have done that distance in 3 or 4 minutes less time.

  • Joe R.

    Some people trip on a flat sidewalk. Others virtually never trip. My 75-year old mom almost never falls. She slipped on wet stairs early this year but that’s the first fall I recall in literally decades. She has a friend who falls seemingly every week.

    I don’t buy the excessive speed argument, either. Maybe if he hit her squarely, but there’s no indication what type of hit it was. Then again, a hit at 5 mph may well have caused her to fall. When have no way of knowing if she was one of those people who trip easily, or was as sure-footed as a goat.

  • Cold Shoaler

    “The NYPD seized the cyclist’s phone…” Is this known? Has the NYPD ever seized the phone of a motorist after a collision (fatal or otherwise) to determine anything pertinent to the prosecution or public shaming of the offender?

  • sbauman

    “pushes me on the chest”

    Who said Ms. Tarlov was struck in the front and fell backwards?

    My understanding is that she fell face down. Given she was crossing west to east and the cyclist was travelling south, she was hit either on her left side or in the back.

    Either way, she did not have benefit of knowing she was about to be hit to take the “fighting chance to recover/maintain her balance.” She might have had only one foot on the ground when she was hit because she was in the process of crossing the drive.

  • lop

    Sometimes they subpoena cell phone records to determine if a driver was on the phone.

  • walknseason

    This is the key the Paul Steely Dans will never understand as they appeal to cops – they aren’t our friends, or the friends of any public good.

  • Youjorupertmurdoch

    Scumbag move to capitalize on the current anti-cop climate and disregard the effect this has on those who lost loved ones. “A right to know” = you enjoying a better holiday bonus. Media is disgusting these days.

  • com63

    I think the police often find partially typed text messages on phones of accident victims who were texting and driving.

  • Keegan Stephan

    Actually, few things are more damaging to those who have lost loved ones to traffic violence than the initial “anonymous” reports that tend to blame victims. Can you imagine hearing the public and every newspaper and television station blame your loved one for their own death, over and over again? These often-inaccurate anonymous reports and the negative press and public opinion they spawn, can only be disproven and reversed by making public the more complete CIS reports, which often absolve the victim of most if not all guilt. Trust me, for the families of victims, this cannot be done soon enough.

  • Bolwerk

    The hell? A right to know is your right, as a citizen, to know what we are getting from the public officials we pay. Even Tea Party authoritarians generally agree with that.

    We could use a good dose of anti-cop climate, but unfortunately even the so-called liberals still have their heads high enough up their asses to not see how rife police culture is with brutality, dishonesty, and other antisocial behavior. The blue wall needs to be toppled.

  • J_12

    You are trying to infer the distribution from the first moment? Seems like there is not enough information to say anything.

  • Joe R.

    Liberals aren’t anti-cop for obvious reasons. Get rid of the cops and the logical end result is armed citizens responsible for their own protection. For some reason liberals like that idea less than cops, even corrupt cops. Unfortunately, history shows whenever the group which is supposed to protect is more heavily armed than the group it’s protecting, corruption or worse results. You have the SS, the KGB, the Red Guard, Pol Pot, and now the NYPD. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

    By default, the NYPD shouldn’t have firearms because most citizens in NYC aren’t allowed to. They could have the option of firearms for certain types of duty (i.e. drug busts) but the average cop on the street needs at most a taser, better yet just a nightstick.

    In general, the police (with rare exceptions) should be less well armed than the citizens they’re protecting.

  • Joe R.

    The data is there in gory detail at Strada. I think you may need to be a member to look at it (I’m not), but I’ll bet good money this guy generally isn’t a consistently fast rider. He may reach high speeds in bursts, but any consistently fast rider will also have a high average speed.

  • Eric McClure

    My understanding is that CIS would like to start releasing more details of crash investigations, but there are privacy concerns. Any First Amendment experts care to weigh in on that?

  • Bolwerk

    I’ve never, ever seen a bad situation get better because the police showed up. At best, things came to a head and chilled out by the time police arrived. At worst, tensions and stakes just went through the roof because not-very-bright hotheads with guns were introduced to a situation that already had not-very-bight hotheads, but no guns.

    I understand why liberals are reflexively pro-police, but usually they at least expect basic human rights be respected. (As opposed to conservatives, who tent when they see something like Eric Garner’s murder video.)

  • wkgreen

    There is not enough information available to the public, but we are all busy trying to infer anyway. We could spin inferences well into the night with the incomplete and irrelevant information that would point in any number of directions. All of them are meaningless because none of it tells us exactly how fast he was going at that moment. Whether he was a “real racer” or not, it doesn’t matter, there were plenty of recorded moments that he was not going all that fast. But the particulars that are being referenced, including available Strava data, are in the New York Magazine article that Komanoff linked to.

    http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2014/09/did-a-cycling-app-contribute-to-bike-death.html

  • Youjorupertmurdoch

    Valid point. The initial point was specific to the NYPD accident – in that case, Officer Williams was the only one lost, but he was not the only victim. The driver – and everyone present – were victims, regardless of whether speed was a factor. The author of this article, along with the majority of the media, capitalizes on a current, politically constructed anti-cop climate, via a sensational headline. The demand for details of what was a horribly tragic accident feeds right into the distractionary agenda of NYC’s current political administration. The media wastes their platform and opportunity to inform citizens with significant information they have a right to know about – what laws are rewritten, why the economy is not recovering, what the significant restrictions on gun rights are about and what that will mean when society really starts to feel the fact that we are in an economic depression, the implications of having cameras everywhere, etc.

  • Youjorupertmurdoch

    I’m not anti-cop nor am I anti-armed citizens. My point was that the media should be making this type of demand about significant topics such as gun laws – the implications of restricting citizens from accessing means to protect themselves, particularly in light of our current economic state; how they are muddling mental health with gun laws; how those laws were poorly written and rushed into existence; etc etc.

  • Youjorupertmurdoch

    You clearly didn’t grow up in the hood. Those neighborhoods need police, as does NYC as a whole. Chronic, intergenerational drug use, physical and sexual abuse since childhood, and poverty breed awful crime that NYPD protects against. And Eric Garner was a ticking time bomb – obese and unhealthy and resisting arrest. Let’s stop pretending like he didn’t largely contribute to his own death.

  • Youjorupertmurdoch

    Bolwerk think you’re missing my point bro

  • Youjorupertmurdoch

    Also “traffic violence” is actually a term? And this is actually an entire blog dedicated to transit? I made a wrong turn on the information highway apparently.

  • Keegan Stephan

    CIS may want to start, and opposition may bring up ‘privacy concerns,’ but those ‘concerns’ have no legal legs to stand on, for the reasons Charles describes above, and for the same reason that “traffic cameras are a violation of privacy” arguments hold no water: everything that happens on the streets is happening in clear public view. This is evidenced by the fact that FOILs for CIS reports always come through, whether for litigation or not. But currently that is the only way they come through. One of the many problems with that is that the NYPD FOIL department takes so long to disclose anything that the window to have the meaningful conversations discussed above and below is long gone…

  • Bolwerk

    Literally every sentence in that paragraph has a serious case of {{citation needed}}

    “Resisting arrest,” perhaps after having not done anything, is scarcely a reason to bother using force. At most, he might have been selling loose cigarettes. Staying near him for 20 minutes to give him time to calm down before citing him or even arresting him probably would have averted a disaster that is going to cause NYC millions. And would have saved the NYPD a lot of bad P.R..

    Also, the man who murdered Garner, Danny Pantaleo, was himself a “ticking time bomb” who attracted at least three lawsuits, one of which was ironically for sexually abusing two men at a traffic stop.

  • neroden

    I have seen bad situations get better when the police showed up — in some cities.

    But never in NYC, never in LA, never in Oakland,… well, you get the picture. Some departments are NO GOOD, they’ve developed a corrupt culture, and they need to be replaced.

  • neroden

    This is a completely inaccurate history of police in New York (though it’s pretty much an accurate history of police from New Jersey southward, which were slave states).

    In New York, the police descend from the Dutch “night watchmen”.

    http://www.nleomf.org/museum/news/newsletters/online-insider/2012/April-2012/early-days-american-law-enforcement-april-2012.html

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