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Response to NYC Traffic Violence Rooted in Ignorance

4:11 PM EST on January 25, 2011

Even with New York City pedestrian deaths dropping in recent years, there’s no end in sight to the horror from driver-caused deaths, and little letup in police fecklessness and politicians’ and media grandstanding on traffic dangers.

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This morning brought news of the death of Laurence Renard yesterday evening on the Upper East Side. The 35-year-old French fashion stylist was crushed under a dump truck that turned from 90th Street onto First Avenue and into her path. While details are sketchy, as usual, Renard presumably had the right-of-way over the turning truck, which a witness said “came around the corner like a bat out of hell.” Nevertheless, the only charge filed thus far is for driving with a suspended license.

Renard’s death is eerily similar to that of Jason King last month. King, a 21-year-old student who also worked at nearby E.A.T., had been crossing Madison Avenue at 81st Street when he was run over by a dump truck being driven illegally in reverse. “No criminality was suspected” in King’s death, the NYPD told Streetsblog then, despite a report that King was in the crosswalk when the truck driver backed over him and dragged him thirty feet before stopping. The driver was not charged.

Meanwhile, reports are surfacing of a traffic-related death two weeks ago in Queens Village. According to CBS2, 72-year-old Robert Hudson suffered a fatal heart attack after a dispute that began when police attempted to cite his wife Doris for not wearing a seat belt. Mrs. Hudson claims that officers forced her husband to walk a half-mile home to retrieve her ID, although police officials contend Mr. Hudson did so of his own volition. Regardless, shortly after returning and driving off, and likely stressed from the encounter with NYPD, Mr. Hudson suffered a massive seizure and died at Franklin Hospital.

What links these deaths, beyond their human tragedy, is a traffic “safety” ideology that blames victims instead of perpetrators, fetishizes silver bullets like seat belts and bike helmets at the expense of promoting a genuine safety culture, and misdirects enforcement toward trivia and away from the actual sources of danger. Consider:

    • Robust statistical analysis established over a decade ago (PDF, pp. 33-34) that private dump trucks had the highest NYC pedestrian-kill rate per mile driven — a distinction they almost certainly hold today. Yet no city or state initiatives have ever targeted dump truck driver licensing, enforcement or prosecution.
    • Turning-into-crosswalk kills more pedestrians than any other driver maneuver, the same analysis found. Yet failure to wear seat belts — a behavior that, unlike dangerous driving, puts no other persons at risk — is accorded far more enforcement and “education” than the legal necessity to yield to pedestrian in crosswalks.
    • Bike lanes make streets and roads safer for all users, including pedestrians and motorists. Yet a proposal for a protected First Avenue bike lane, which might have induced the driver who killed Laurence Renard to take his turn more slowly, was withdrawn last June, a possible victim of the drumbeat of criticism that has enveloped DOT’s program to expand the city’s bicycle network.

Just as gun sales reportedly rose after the Tucson shooting rampage, look for politicians like Brooklyn Senator Carl Kruger to react to the deaths of King and Renard by redoubling efforts to rein in pedestrians; and for know-nothings like gossip columnist Cindy Adams to resort to shameless name-calling in the Post’s vendetta against DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.

Better, perhaps, to recall the wisdom of Frederick Douglass: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." Sadly, these words will offer little consolation to the families and friends of Renard, Hudson and King.

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