Utility Van Driver: We Need Better NYPD Enforcement to Protect Pedestrians

Had to share this message from Daily News reader Ken Douglas in response to the opinion piece I wrote with Dr. Linda Prine about the health and safety benefits of complete streets. Our essay focused on the engineering side of the street safety equation — street designs like bike lanes and curb extensions that are under NYC DOT’s control. Ken wrote in to point out that better enforcement and education will also prevent pedestrians from getting killed and seriously injured.

I drive a van as part of my duties as a utility worker, and I’m appalled at the lack of courtesy and regard for human life displayed by many drivers.

Given that NYPD has issued 16 times as many tickets for failing to wear a seatbelt as for failing to yield to pedestrians so far this year [PDF], and that retaining a New York state driver’s license is now treated like a basic human right, not a serious responsibility, he makes some good points.

Here’s Ken’s letter, which has been edited and formatted for clarity. The proposals he outlines probably go farther than what many Streetsblog readers would suggest, but there’s no doubt that the principles are sound and would save lives if applied. Keep in mind that driver error causes more than 78 percent of the thousands of crashes that kill or seriously injure New York City pedestrians each year, and that failure to yield contributes to 27 percent of those crashes, according to NYC DOT’s landmark pedestrian safety study.

Dear Mr. Fried,

All the proposals outlined in your article, which appeared in the Daily News on September 26th 2011, are great ideas that need advancing.

Unfortunately, all the sidewalk extensions, pedestrian islands and complete streets are not enough to erase the savagery that takes place on our streets. The fate that met Ms. Renard is not unique, it is sad that she was killed, but on a daily basis I see many near misses, many citizens narrowly escaping injury and possibly being killed just like Ms. Renard.

I drive a van as part of my duties as a utility worker, and I can tell you that I’m appalled at the lack of courtesy and regard for human life displayed by many drivers.

In their rush to nowhere, drivers are not yielding to pedestrians in the crosswalks — even when it’s a mother with a stroller. You can’t stop this callous behavior unless you change the driver’s way of thinking. If they can’t get the message, then we have to hit them in the pocket and hit them hard.

Some pedestrians stand in the crosswalk while waiting to cross the street, with their strollers in front of them and some of them are quite careless, but ultimately it is the driver who has the responsibility of being extra cautious. An irresponsible driver has a potential three-ton killing machine on his or her hands.

Drivers and pedestrians alike must realize that courtesy trumps right of way and we drivers have to respect the lives of everyone using the roads. Here are my proposals.

(1) $1,000 dollar fine — that will be enforced — for failing to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk.

(2) A two-minute freeze on vehicles turning while pedestrians are crossing in busy intersections, and a one-minute freeze in less-busy intersections. (Editor’s note: This signal timing technique is called a leading pedestrian interval, or LPI, and NYC DOT has been implementing it at an increasing number of intersections — though the length of the LPIs suggested by Ken would be extraordinary.)

(3) A massive public education campaign alerting all citizens of the dangers that exist on the roads, especially crosswalks.

Your organization’s approach as well as other ideas ,such as I have outlined, can work to provide safer streets. We need to work on all levels to make it happen, and it can happen.

Yours Respectfully,

Ken Douglas

  • Ian Turner

    I’m with him on the enforcement. New York City streets are generally lawless (not just when it comes to traffic enforcement), which creates a huge number of quality-of-life problems. But, at least with respect to traffic, violations are so commonplace that there is not really any excuse for paltry enforcement.

    I think a major problem is NYPD labor force productivity. My guess is that it actually costs the city money to ticket drivers, even considering the ticket revenue — because of a combination of byzantine procedures, paying sworn officers to complete clerical paperwork, union work rules, adequate and proper training, unreasonable state law, and employee incentives. If the city could get traction on one or more of these, it might be possible to get ticket writing to a point of financial self-sufficiency, at least in the worst areas. At that point, the NYPD could hire more officers to ramp up enforcement dramatically, which would probably have positive knock-on effects on criminal activity more generally.

  • Jeremy

    18% of all traffic summonses given in July by the NYPD 22nd precinct were for window tint.  6% were for failure to stop on red.  3% were for speeding.

    Total bananas

  • Andrew

    As I’ve pointed out before: If I were to point a gun at someone and threaten to kill him if he doesn’t hand over $100, everybody in the area would be horrified, and if a police officer were present, I would certainly be arrested.  But if I were to point a car at someone and threaten to kill him if he didn’t get out of my way (even when the light is in his favor), everybody would consider that perfectly normal, and the police officer wouldn’t bat an eyelash.

    Drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians should be arrested, not fined.

    @7c177865bd107a919938355fe93de93a:disqus This is one point in favor of increased use of red light cameras.  The police shouldn’t have to spend their time dealing with offenses that can be detected automatically.  Currently, drivers know that, at most intersections, they have a tiny chance of being issued a summons if they run a red light, and far too many of them decide that it’s worth the slight risk.  If, instead, running a red light resulted in a guaranteed $50 or $100 fine, I think we’d see a major reduction in red light running.

    That doesn’t leave the police off the hook, of course; it just gives them more of a chance to deal with traffic violations that can’t be detected automatically, like failure to yield to pedestrians.

  • Ian Turner

    Jeremy: Window tint is a serious safety issue. It makes it hard for pedestrians to make eye contact with drivers, or see if they are looking in their direction. And it is especially dangerous for police officers making traffic stops. You ask me, I think we should allow parking agents to write tickets for window tint, perhaps by shining a laser in one window and out the other side of the car.

  • Ian Turner

    Jeremy: Window tint is a serious safety issue. It makes it hard for pedestrians to make eye contact with drivers, or see if they are looking in their direction. And it is especially dangerous for police officers making traffic stops. You ask me, I think we should allow parking agents to write tickets for window tint, perhaps by shining a laser in one window and out the other side of the car.

  • Matt C

    Simple solution:  Crowd Source reporting of reckless driving, and NYC take these reports seriously.  


    Power to the people!  Let pedestrians report moving violations on smart phones, leading to higher insurance, license suspension, fines, or criminal proceedings. 

    Not everyone has a smart phone?  Poor people are left out?  Not so!  Because location is automatically part of the report, traffic enforcement officers can be re-deployed to areas where reports are scant – presumably places with fewer smart phones – and catch offenders directly. 

    Everybody wins!

  • Matthijs van Guilder

    Unless the vehicle and traffic laws (State and city) are changed, updated, reviewed, clarified, prioritized, the cops are wasting their time trying to enforce what the courts do not. And they know it. This system has been a__kissing incompetent, irresponsible, illegal drivers for decades. There are no real consequences, and that’s what it’s all about.

  • Clarence

    One thing that has just gotten completely out of hand at late: the inability of drivers to signal.  I mean it seems like less than 50% of drivers ever indicate with their blinkers.  It’s gotten so bad, everytime I walk or bike I just assume the driver is turning because it is safer to plan for that.

    And another thing – here in Jackson Heights – I don’t know who is teaching driver’s education at the numerous places but I see driver’s ed cars with students (or just teachers) sitting in crosswalks, parked in bike lanes, double parked, on and on – newbie drivers are being taught by folks who don’t even obey the law themselves.

  • Ken Douglas

    I must thank Mr Fried for his clarification on the LPI’s . I have been seeing them implemented at some intersections but there just isn’t enough time ,it’s like 15 seconds then run for your life.The length of LPIs I suggested may be extraordinary but we can make them ordinary.                                                                                                              

    I don’t mind waiting an extra two minutes for pedestrians to cross , what’s the rush?.Countless studies have been done showing that there is no significant  difference in time, between drivers who speed and those who drive the speed limit.                           

    Cyclist ,pedestrians and drivers alike can share the road safely and I think safe streets are the best solution I’ve heard. I applaud all the bike riders, you are some brave souls, unless there is some real change in driver’s attitude towards cyclist and pedestrians, there’s no way I’m getting on a bike. To me,getting on a bike in these five boroughs is like saying please kill me .                                                                                                          

    I drive around the city every day I see it all the time, no regard for human life and when I see the children and the babies on bikes I start praying for them right away ,no joke. 

  • Joe R.

    @affc1b72c61263972e857e273323e34c:disqus Your heart is in the right place, and I applaud you as a driver for putting safety above getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible.  That said, I think there are better ways to accomplish your goal.  Traffic lights/pedestrian signals aren’t really an answer here.  In fact, they’re an implicit acknowledgement of failure.  If things are engineered right, there should be enough natural gaps in traffic so pedestrians can cross without waiting for a signal.  Moreover, traffic should be moving slowly enough (20 mph or less) so that a pedestrian feels comfortable doing this.  Pedestrian signals are an acknowledgement that we’ve failed to do these things.  We should start with road redesign plus disincentives to driving.  Only if both those measures fail should signals be considered (and in many of those cases pedestrian overpasses/underpasses might be a better solution).

    Second, a 2 minute pedestrian phase is both unrealistic and unnecessary.  Even taking the extreme case of ~200 foot wide Queens Blvd., a pedestrian crossing at a mere 1.5 mph (about half the speed of the average walker) only needs 90 seconds to cross.  On the majority of arterials you’re probably looking at 45 seconds or less.  In any case, the maximum time to cross shouldn’t be a basis for signal timing.  Rather, I propose doing things more intelligently.  Have the light cycles set at what they need to be for motor traffic only (in most cases this means a red phase of 15 seconds or less).  However, have pedestrian detectors which extend that red phase however long is necessary if it detects that the crosswalks are occupied.  This way you only delay traffic if someone is actually crossing, not every single light cycle.  Furthermore, extend this idea to motor traffic.  Only have lights on arterials go red on the regular cycle if cars or peds are detected trying to cross.  Same thing with left turn signals.  If the left turn lane in unoccupied, then you don’t steal time from the green cycle for a left turn signal.

    All of the above is really a way to have your cake and eat it too.  You delay traffic as little as possible (ensuring better red light compliance because motortists will hit fewer lights).  And you allow people to cross safely on roads where a signal is needed due to traffic volume.  Engineering safety is a good thing, but it’s incumbent upon the state to do this in an efficient manner.  Traffic lights on regular cycles are a blunt instrument which often forces people to stop and wait for absolutely nothing.  Eventually, people start taking these signals less seriously, especially when red lights are frequent and long.  In effect, we’re creating more problems than we fix.  This paper says it all so much better than I can:



Action Plan Ups NYC’s Commitment to Ped Safety, But Is NYPD on Board?

Mayor Bloomberg discusses DOT’s Pedestrian Safety Study and Action Plan at yesterday’s press conference with several elected officials, Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, and NYPD Chief of Transportation James Tuller. Photo: Noah Kazis "Safety isn’t just about statistics," NYCDOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said yesterday while announcing her agency’s new Pedestrian Safety Study and Action Plan. "It’s […]

Full House at First Bronx Vision Zero Town Hall

Over a hundred people turned out for a Vision Zero town hall in the Bronx on Tuesday, Bronx News 12 reports. The event was hosted by freshman City Council Member Ritchie Torres at the Bronx Library Center on East Kingsbridge Road. Council Member Vanessa Gibson, DOT Borough Commissioner Constance Moran, and representatives from NYPD were also […]