Speeding Kills, and 39 Percent of New York Drivers Are Doing It

alg_drag_body.jpgCould speed have caused yesterday’s pedestrian fatality? We’ll probably never know. Photo: New York Daily News

A new report from Transportation Alternatives confirms what New York pedestrians and cyclists have been forced to accept as a fact of life: A high number of drivers speed through city streets, regardless of the potentially deadly consequences for those around them.

"Terminal Velocity: NYC’s Speeding Epidemic" [PDF] shows that 39 percent of observed motorists were driving in excess of the 30 mph speed limit. Using radar guns and speed enforcement cameras at 13 locations, TA volunteers clocked speeds in excess of 60 mph in school zones and other areas with heavy pedestrian traffic.

Most speeding drivers were traveling between 31 and 40 mph. While a pedestrian struck at 30 mph has a 60 percent chance of surviving a collision, the likelihood of survival drops to 30 percent when the vehicle is moving at 40 mph, TA notes.

The release of the study was coupled with calls for Albany to permit the installation of speed enforcement cameras — are you listening, Assemblyman Gantt? — and for NYPD and the city to keep speeds down through monitoring and improved street design.

Reading the report, we couldn’t help wondering if speed was at play in yesterday’s gruesome dragging death, when an as-yet-unidentified pedestrian was struck by two motorists in Queens. While the Times provided a highly detailed, almost graphic account of what police say happened, there is no mention of either driver’s speed — only that the first driver to strike the man "swerved to try to avoid him" before hitting him "pretty hard."

As Ben pointed out yesterday, the obligatory "no criminality was suspected" line normally means only that the driver was cleared for alcohol and drug consumption. The data in Terminal Velocity leads to the troubling conclusion that speeding — which is, after all, against the law — kills many more pedestrians than police reports or press accounts let on.

Traffic violence claimed the lives of 289 New Yorkers last year. When will lawmakers, police, and prosecutors crack down on this deadly hazard?

  • Dougq

    Actually, as a Zipcar member, Streetsblog regular, pedestrian, transit user, and cyclist, I’m acutely in tune to the risks of driving in the city and I’m certainly not a skittish driver, having lived in the car-culture that is Atlanta for quite a while.

    When I get behind the wheel of a Zipcar rental in New York, I defer to cyclists, yield for pedestrians, and drive with alertness precisely because I’m frequently the one who is biking or walking on a city street. I’m aware that the person on a bike is probably someone not to different from me, and find an immediate commonality with that person. I also know that saving one minute during my drive to the grocery store or to visit family is not worth risking someone else’s life.

    There’s also an argument to be made that the comfortable, experienced drivers are the ones who might take road safety for granted. After all, if you own a car, drive the same route day after day and nothing bad happens year after year, you might grow complacent. If one day something changes, your brain might not be conditioned to expect the change. That’s as likely a scenario for an accident as any other, in my opinion.

    I think we set up a false dichotomy when we assume that people in this city are either drivers or they are not. (Or that they are either used to driving all the time and to every place or they are not.) Some of us are both drivers and pedestrians, depending on the need. I take the subway to work, bike to the coffee shop, walk around my neighborhood, and drive to the grocery store every now and then. The more we make this an “us versus them” battle, the more we fight. But the more we realize that sometimes even the biggest livable streets advocate has to get behind the wheel of a car — or, gasp, even enjoys the occasional drive — the better off we’ll be.

  • Yeah, I do think Livery and cab drivers are by and large excellent drivers; they are familiar with their cars, confident driving them, know the laws, and know what to expect on the road.

    I believe you’ll find they are underrepresented in accident statistics.

    Anyway, just speculation; I’d love some science.

  • Dougq

    I also take exception to the idea that having a Zipcar membership should be a “mark of shame.” Car sharing should be one goal of any livable streets advocate.

    You have to look beyond the streets of Manhattan or Brooklyn to see that some people need cars. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that. Many people in this big city live beyond the reach of a subway line or bus stop. There are certain populations (the elderly, the handicapped) for whom public transportation or walking isn’t always possible. Obviously, what needs to change is the idea that a car can and should be used for EVERYTHING by ANYONE.

    I don’t need a car to commute to work. But I live in a neighborhood with no decent grocery store and walking my granny cart to the nearest one is darn near impossible. So once a month I rent a Zipcar and stock up at Fairway. Hundreds of other people are probably using that same Zipcar every month to do the same thing. Believe me, if everyone only Zipcar or other car sharing services, this city would be a much better place.

  • Doug, no question you’re describing a fine Zipcar situation. My perspective is that of someone who spends 95% of his life on bike, foot, and automobile within 1.5 miles of City Hall, New York; I’d like to confine my opinion to that context. 🙂

  • Incidentally, it is an open question for me why people in my situation and people in yours should have to share a government. We clearly lead wholly different lives.

    Secession is probably a topic that’s more closely aligned with the Livable Streets Network’s goals than we yet realize.

  • J. Mork

    After some more thought, it seems clear to me that because the average Zipcar user spends (presumably) many fewer hours behind the wheel each year that they will necessarily have fewer crashes than someone who owns a car and drives it all the time — hours of exposure surely trumps slight variations in skill (and I still bet that Zipcar drivers are more skillful than you allege, Kaja).

  • I have been asking zipcar to change their model ever since I joined to take advantage of their Metro North arrangement, which Enterprise has since conspired to end. Basically I have no need and less desire to drive in the city, but occasionally it would be nice to easily rent a car once safely transported by train outside our dense, auto-congested, pedestrian rich environment. Then you waive an RFID card in the windshield and drive off into the country. Not bad, compared to car ownership or traditional rentals. It’s still available by way of NJ Transit, but that’s probably not enough to get me to renew.

    I agree with Eric that NYC driving regulars are the pot calling the zipcar kettle black, as a group. I just fought my way home through the going-out-by-car crowd, the worst crowd of them all, and there were no skittish zipcars to be seen among their wrong way driving, crosswalk parking, and general awfulness. Just a bunch of taxis-gone-wild contesting the asphalt with motorized local idiots. I actually stopped for a minute in the “buffered” Lafayette bicycle lane to prevent a taxi from motoring down it, then gave up on him obeying any semblance of traffic law—it’s only life and death!—and rode down the lane with his taxi in tow. Arriving at Grand Street was a great relief as usual. So… when I suggest that city drivers should be held to vastly more rigorous standards, it is with the conviction that most people who see themselves as excellent city drivers, professional or amateur, would be quickly deprived of the privilege of threatening my life.

    Dougq, which Fairway? I’ve started shopping by bicycle at the one in Red Hook, a ten minute ride from downtown Brooklyn, and it is so awesome I don’t know what to do. It has got to be a hundred times more fun than driving and parking a zipcar, and is also free. (See, I just don’t get their model. It exposes the high costs of driving so well, that, you don’t do it.) My only concern is that the handful of bike racks there are going to be completely full this summer when cycling participation hits its yearly peak, which I predict will be at least another third higher than last year’s.

  • Mike

    Make driving inconvenient but possible, like in much of Europe. Discourage but accommodate it. Slow it down and tame it; give priority to more sustainable modes. Agree with DougQ – let’s not create a false choice.

  • Dougq

    The Fairway in Red Hook. Doing once-a-month trips for a family is not possible on a bike from my home. I’m glad it is for you, Doc, and that’s the idea: make cycling possible for those who want to do it, increase opportunities for them to make that choice, but recognize that it’s not possible all the time for every person.

  • So, Dougq, just how much should we be responsible for your “needs.” If I said that unlike you snobs in Bensonhurst (or wherever), I need to fly to Tibet every week to replenish my family’s supply of yak butter, would you agree that my plane ticket should be paid for out of your tax dollars?

  • Dougq

    You are hilarious! When you come back to reality, Cap’n, let’s talk. And I don’t think it helps to generalize about neighborhoods.

    The point is that the government should create a multi-modal system that is based in current realities, with the ultimate goal of moving more people away from everyday car use. Allowing people to make certain trips in cars when a car is the best option seems reasonable. Are you really going to take your anti-car anger out on a guy who uses a car once a month who, when he’s not driving, bikes, walks, takes the subway and, occasionally, joins the streetsblog community for these discussions? Thanks!

  • Dougq, I’m not taking anger out on you for anything. I’m challenging your assumption that anyone in the five boroughs “needs” a car. Yes, plenty of them have locked themselves into lifestyles that require cars, but many of these lifestyles also require seven-figure incomes and/or “adjustable-rate” mortgages that never reset. I’m not willing to put my family at risk in order to support any of these.

  • Dougq

    Cap’n, I think we have to define “need.” I think there are very few people in the five boroughs who need a car to commute to work, especially if they work in Manhattan. But there certainly are parts of this city that look more like the suburbs, making grocery shopping, running errands, or getting around almost impossible without a car. Staten Island is part of the five boroughs and I promise you that a car is, at least right now, a necessity for a large majority of that borough, even if it’s not used to commute to work. So much of this blog is focused on Manhattan and the Brownstone areas of Brooklyn, that it can often seem as if rich jerks who want to rise above the huddled masses on public transit are the only people who drive in this city. That just isn’t true. At least not always.

    We set up a false choice when we say you either need a car or you don’t. It’s much more complicated than that. The good news is that New York is uniquely positioned among U.S. cities to radically remake its infrastructure and transit system to make sure even fewer people “need” to drive in the city.

  • Once-a-month grocery shopping is not possible for my family whatever the conveyance, but I can see how it makes the zipcar overhead tolerable.

    And I must admit I unexpectedly used zipcar in the city earlier this week, after all my fancy talk about not having a use for it. We bought a table; it was expensive; we rented a pickup for an hour for $17 instead of paying $85+tip for delivery (within a fun two-hour window). There is a garage with zipcar on my block so we were able to unload the table in that garage’s entryway, return the car, then take the table inside. Seeing as this city would rather give parking away for free to my spot-squatting motorist neighbors than let me use a space for an hour a year to unload stuff, it’s nice to have an option aside from illegal and dangerous double-parking.

    But I would happily give it all up in exchange for serious city driving regulation. If an NYC license were appropriately difficult and expensive to obtain, I certainly wouldn’t bother and would just take delivery on such occasions.

  • eddie

    “Surely a reasonable person can see that even with the utmost care and attention, a driver could still accidentally — yes, accidentally — kill a pedestrian or other human being.”

    So, should the motorist be held responsible even though he or she did everything in his or her power to avoid hitting or killing a pedestrian? (Especially an inattentive or confrontational pedestrian)

  • BicyclesOnly


    I’d say no, of course not. That kind of strict liability, in the US, is reserved for “ultrahazardous” activities. So, for example, if the local nuke plant has an “accidental” leak of radioactive waste depsite exercising the utmost care, I’d still want it and its insurers to have to pay. Fort motorists, if the mostrist can prove that s/he violated noew laws and used the utmost care, or even just the reasonably necessary care, and that the other person was at fault, then the motorist should not be held liable. That’s a far cry from where we are now–where the plaintiff (typically, the cyclist or pedestrian) must prove that the motorist was more likely than not the cause of the crash. It’s particulalry hard to do that when the motorist kills the pedestrian or cyclist and is the only witness, as is too often the case.

  • Ian Turner

    Seems to me that automobiles are far more dangerous than nuclear power: After all, nobody has ever died in the US from nuclear power related incidents, but over 1.5 million people have been killed by automobile in the US since 1975.

    Sounds to me that by your standard driving *is* an “ultra-hazardous” activity deserving of strict liability. Indeed, I challenge anyone to find another activity more dangerous to others than driving which is not subject to aggressive regulation of operators and/or strict liability.

  • BicyclesOnly

    Wow, Ian!

    I basically agree with you, but given how widespread low-regulation motoring is, a direct switch to true strict liability strikes me as unlikely, for political and practical reasons. A “vulnerable street user” law that put the burden on motorists of disproving that they are liable for harm befalling cyclists or pedestrians they collide with would move us in the direction in which you boldly point. As a practical matter, burden shifting and a few other procedural tweaks to the system would dramatically raise insurance costs of proven dangerous drivers and have real deterrent value.


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