Report: Cops Can Measure Traffic Violations, If They Try

failure_to_yield.jpgTransportation Alternatives documented failure-to-yield violations at the rate of 24 per hour, per intersection. Photo: TA

Lawless driving in New York City is about as ubiquitous as scaffolding, pigeons, and Duane Reade put together. You just can’t escape the constant background presence of motorist misbehavior: Ask New Yorkers what concerns them the most, and traffic safety ranks at the top. But if you ask the NYPD to crack down on dangerous and illegal driving, the response is always the same: Cops are out on the street issuing summonses, and traffic deaths are declining, so what’s the problem?

Transportation Alternatives is out with a new report today, "Chaos to Compliance" [PDF], documenting the sky-high rate of moving violations on city streets, and the NYPD is sticking to its script. Here’s the police response to TA’s report, which appeared in the Post:

"Contrary to the report, the NYPD posts traffic enforcement resources where they are needed most," said Inspector Edward Mullen. "Traffic related fatalities in New York City are down 15.5% so far this year, and down by more than 35% since the Bloomberg administration took office in 2002."

"We expect to end the year with fewer than 260 traffic-related fatalities compared to 393 in 2001, and 1,360 in 1929, when highest number of traffic-related fatalities was recorded," he added.

But there’s not much evidence to support the implication that NYPD has caused the decline in traffic deaths (going eighty years back, no less), as opposed to changes in street engineering or advances in emergency care. "The fact is, NYPD doesn’t know the violation rates for the most dangerous driving behaviors," said TA’s Wiley Norvell. "They don’t know how many drivers are speeding, running red lights, or failing to yield. Because they don’t, it’s impossible to attribute New York City’s decline in traffic fatalities to enforcement."

To get an accurate sense of whether enforcement is deterring dangerous driving, police first need to measure the rate of compliance with traffic laws. How do you do that? Chaos to Compliance suggests it’s not that complicated.

TA stationed observers at four intersections during the morning and evening rush. At each intersection, two people stood at fixed points and catalogued the number and type of violations that occurred at pre-determined locations.

Here’s what they tallied at 96th Street and Broadway:

  • An average of 117 violations an hour
  • Drivers disregarding traffic signals 44 times an hour — a total of 350 incidents
  • Drivers disregarding traffic signs 23 times an hour — a total of 180 incidents
  • Drivers disregarding roadway markings 16 times an hour — a total of 127 incidents
  • Drivers failing to yield to pedestrians 14 times an hour — a total of 113 incidents

Equipped with information samples like this, NYPD could deploy its traffic enforcement resources more effectively and bring the same level of rigorous analysis to traffic violations that the agency has used to reduce violent crime the past two decades.

NYPD’s TrafficStat program, which is presumably what Inspector Mullen was referring to when he said that police deploy "traffic enforcement resources where they are needed most," identifies problem areas where
crashes tend to occur but doesn’t capture any data on actual violations. Meanwhile, as TA reported in Executive Order, NYPD has abandoned the practice of accident-prone location deployment, a metrics-based enforcement strategy the agency could quickly re-adopt. NYPD’s public information office has not returned Streetsblog’s inquiry as to whether police intend to bring the practice back.

While the candidates for Manhattan DA pledge to reduce vehicular crime and increase pedestrian safety, the NYPD’s commitment to those goals is still an open question. All we can say is that they won’t acknowledge the lawlessness on city streets, and they don’t appear interested in measuring the type of behavior that causes 260 traffic deaths every year. "It’s frustrating that we’re not using data in an informed way to bring those deaths down to zero," said Norvell.

  • glenn

    If the NYPD can’t focus on this issue, I propose that they drop “public safety” from their mission and we have a new agency to focus on public safety issues. No guns, just to authority to issue tickets and summons to appear in court.

  • JK

    The fundamental implication of this report is that street safety cannot be measured by the number of injuries and deaths alone. It is obvious that the chaos on city streets deters huge numbers of New Yorkers from considering bicycling, and sometimes even walking. How many people would ride everyday if dangerous driving was corralled? How many more people would ride with their kids to school?

  • buford puser

    As I have posted over & over on this site, all comments of this type are based on several false premises. Among them:
    a) The NYPD is not a mayoral agency, whatever the organizational charts say. Mike can’t give Ray an order. The deal between Ray and Mayor Mike is: don’t run for mayor until I (MM) am term-limited out (whenever he runs out of $, apparently) & you can do whatever you want with the PD, as long as crime stays down.
    b) The NYPD does not give two shits about traffic or traffic deaths & won’t until there is a police commissioner who can be held accountable by a mayor who thinks traffic deaths matter. Mike may ride the subway for PR value, but his values are 100% Upper East Side chauffeur-driven, despite his support for Sadik-Khan.
    c) The NYPD’s job is to arrest minority teenagers for smoking weed. This serves both to pay many policemen’s suburban mortgages and orthodonture bills through the overtime revenue generated, and to provide something to trot out at community meetings in poor communities when residents complain of the PD’s ineffectual response to serious crime in their neighborhoods.
    While ticketing dangerous motorists might have infinitely greater public-safety payoffs than having each narcotics squad in each precinct on each shift arrest 8 teenagers every day, since traffic offenses are mostly summonsable & not arrestable, how would such enforcement generate adequate overtime payments for police? This displays the final faulty premise of this critique: the idea that the NYPD is run for public benefit, rather than for the financial & political benefit of upper PD management.

  • Doug Irvine

    I think I saved a guys life today. He’s watching the white “go” pedestrian signal at 34th and Ninth this morning while a traffic cop is waving a bus through the red light straight at him.

    If I didn’t yell, he could have been run over.

    Those signal police do this all the time.

  • I don’t agree with everything Buford says but I totally agree that Giuliani and Bloomberg have similiar attitudes about NYPD: If crime stays down, do whatever you want. Obviously, Giuliani combined this with being a huge jerk but the overarching theory remains the same. Now add the NYPD’s role in anti-terror work and it’s easy to see how the NYPD became politically untouchable.

    As if I couldn’t possibly imagine that the NYPD was more out of touch with the livable streets agenda, today I saw the a squad car “patrolling” the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. I cannot think of a place that is less suited to cars than that kind of pedestrian space.

  • MRB

    I think it is unfair to assign blame to drivers for failure to yield. Pedestrians are not obeying any traffic laws either, jaywalking at well and walking out in front of cars regardless of traffic control status. In this type of environment, a driver cannot simply yield to pedestrians and expect to make progress in any reasonable amount of time.

    Simply put, New York does not have a culture of compliance, and it affects EVERYONE, from drivers to pedestrians to NYPD. The city has a me-first, my-time-is-more-important-than-yours attitude that simply must change if we want to see serious drops in the pedestrian fatality rate. In my opinion, the amount of vigilance in enforcement that would be required by NYPD would make a significant impact on their ability to police “real” crime. Citing a driver who is attempting to make a left turn in midtown or pedestrian walking downtown streets is unlikely to be met with popular support.

  • Jim Mearkle

    There are definite correlations between crash frequency and GNP. People drive less during recessions, and there are some indications that they drive more carefully.

    So, how much of that 15% decrease is a true, sustainable decrease, and how much will evaporate once the economy recovers?

  • Marty Barfowitz

    If nothing else, I appreciate Buford’s tightly knit and entertaining worldview on these matters. He’s like the James Howard Kunstler of NYC government bureaucracy.

    So, let me see if I’ve got this straight:

    Years after the US military dropped it, the NYPD is actually using a body count to measure traffic safety outcomes on NYC streets. In Iraq and Afghanistan the US military now measures the overall rate of “violence” as a way to determine success and failure. But here at home Ray Kelly is still boasting about his declining body counts. That’s somewhat astounding.

    I’d suggest the NYPD do something similar to the US military. In NYC the “violence” you want to measure would be things like horn honking, blocking the box, pedestrian and cyclist INJURIES, motor vehicle speeding, car crashes, trucks using illegal routes, double-parking. These are, clearly, the things that need to be accounted for in measuring the safety and successful management of our streets.

    Someone with access to the Commissioner needs to let Ray Kelly know how moronic he sounds in citing a body count as his primary measure of success in managing NYC streets and traffic. Or someone in the mayor’s office just needs to take this entire street management portfolio away from the NYPD and let DOT add enforcement to its portfolio. As Buford notes, good luck with that.

    BTW: I suspect that one of the reasons why fatalities dropped in recent years is because of increasing traffic congestion. More traffic congestion means slower vehicle speeds. Slower speeds mean that people die less often when they are hit by cars.

  • They need to put more and more moving violations on the handheld computers that Traffic Enforcement Agents use.

    Last year Brian Kavanagh and Andrew Lanza got a law passed that enabled TEAs to use their handhelds to cite for “blocking the box,” and Dan Garodnick’s got a bill in City Council that would do the same for idling.

    I don’t know if those were the first times the idea was used, but it needs to get a lot more use. From what I gather from drivers, TEAs issue summonses very consistently, while, as the recent T.A. reports corroborate, regular cops don’t.

    And finally, an irresponsible thing to speculate, but I’ll say it anyway: I worry that the more TA comes out with reports like this, a greater sense of spite among NYPD people will grow (just look at Inspector Mullen’s tone above), which could conceivably result in even worse enforcement, if temporarily. Check out NYPD Rant–one of the biggest themes there is “don’t like us? Then we won’t do anything for you.”

  • The Opoponax

    I drive around as part of my job, in addition to commuting by bike, and the number of violations and wacky “what planet did you learn to drive on?” B.S. in one short trip around the city is absolutely appalling. And I’m not just talking about your typical stuff like speeding and stopping in crosswalks.

    I’ve had people pull around me (via a bike lane or empty parking spot) at a light in order to pass me in the intersection as soon as the light turns green. I’ve seen cars cross double yellow lines at intersections with traffic going both ways, again in order to pass just one car which was traveling at an ordinary speed.

    I have yet to EVER see a driver come to a complete stop at the stop sign at the corner of Eagle and McGuinness in Greenpoint. Not a single car. And I’m at that intersection at least twice a day. Which is especially funny since drivers seem to expect me to dismount my bike and do jumping jacks at every stop sign.

  • Doug

    Forget about safety and saving lives. Each of those hundreds of violations, especially the more flagrant violations such as running red lights, represents a missed opportunity for the NYPD to issue a ticket and collect some cash. With the city’s budget shrinking every day, the money that could be pulled in simply by enforcing the law could go a long way to making sure our police department doesn’t have to suffer any more cutbacks.


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