NYPD Data Show Cracking Down on Cyclists Isn’t Preventing Cyclist Deaths

Eight months into Vision Zero, and after weeks of targeted enforcement during “Operation Safe Cycle,” department data show NYPD isn’t moving the needle much on cyclist injuries and deaths.

NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan can save lives and prevent injuries by concentrating traffic enforcement on reckless drivers, rather than cyclists. Photo: NYC DOT
NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan can save lives and prevent injuries by concentrating traffic enforcement on reckless drivers. Photo: NYC DOT

Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg announced Wednesday that drivers have killed 17 city cyclists so far this year. That’s a 142 percent increase from the first nine months of 2013 — but fatalities can vary widely from year to year, and with 10 total deaths, 2013 marked a record low. This year’s figures are on par with 2012, when motorists killed 17 people on bikes through September, according to NYPD.

Injuries are not as prone to random variation, and numbers have held relatively steady for the last three years. Through August 2014 (the latest data available), NYPD reported 2,575 cyclist injuries. There were 2,684 and 2,599 cyclist injuries through August of 2013 and 2012, respectively. Thanks to new bike lanes and Citi Bike, more people are cycling in New York, so any given cyclist is safer, but to reduce the absolute number of injuries and deaths, NYPD has to raise its game.

Based on NYPD crash reports from the late 90s, research from Charles Komanoff and Right of Way showed that driver behavior was the principal cause of 57 percent of crashes that resulted in cyclist deaths, and that motorists were partly responsible for an additional 21 percent of cyclist fatalities [PDF]. Leading causes of crashes were unsafe passing, drivers turning in front of cyclists, speeding, and drivers running red lights and stop signs.

NYPD summons reports show police are citing more drivers for speeding, running red lights, and failure to yield than in 2013 and 2012, while enforcement for driving while using a cell phone is down. Enforcement continues to lag in significant ways, however. For instance, one of the most valuable tools police now have to deter traffic violence — Section 19-190, the new law that makes it a crime for a driver to injure a pedestrian or cyclist who has the right of way — remains virtually unused.

Targeting those who are being harmed won’t get NYC to Vision Zero. To reduce cyclist injuries and deaths, NYPD has to reduce the incidence of motorist behavior that puts others at risk.

  • Joe R.

    Let’s be realistic. Even the NYPD probably knows this enforcement does squat for safety. The only reason they give bikes tickets is to placate the people at community boards who complain about bicycles violating traffic laws. If the NYPD had any backbone they would break out statistics and tell the complainers we only enforce laws when doing so measurably increases safety. In this case, it doesn’t. Now we have the statistics to prove it doesn’t.

    These bike ticket blitzes are massive misuses of expensive police manpower. The premise that they’re done “for the safety of cyclists” only adds insult to injury. Cyclists are the first to arrive at the crash if they screw up breaking traffic laws. They already have a vested self-interest to not hit motor vehicles or pedestrians. The police are treating adult cyclists like children on the assumption that they’re incapable of making sound judgements as to when to cross an intersection. To add to the hypocrisy they don’t ticket pedestrians for jaywalking. The assumption then is pedestrians can judge when to safety cross but put that same person on a bike and suddenly their judgement goes out the window.

    It gets even worse when you consider that ongoing ticket blitzes can only put a damper on bicycle use. That in turn makes it more dangerous for those who remain. The NYPD has lots of really bad policies, such as stop-and-frisk, but ongoing ticket blitzes against cyclists probably come close to topping the list. They’re a lose-lose situation for everyone. Sooner or later some cop stopping a cyclist for a red light or sidewalk violation will misinterpret a gesture, shoot the cyclist dead. That’s exactly why this needs to stop. Police stops of citizens should be limited only to those highly likely to be a public danger. When large numbers of citizens are stopped for what is at best quality of life offenses, it can only decrease the respect of the average citizen for the police. Let’s end this now. A good start might be a reds as yields law as we’ve seen the police can’t exercise good judgement when deciding which cyclists to stop.

  • BBnet3000

    Ignoring road design (why not, everybody else does), it seems to me the two biggest things that could be done to make cycling more comfortable (and probably objectively safer) is ticketing drivers who double park (forcing cyclists into the traffic flow) and drivers who fail to signal.

    Drivers failing to signal before turning or pulling into a parking spot is by far the top cause of close calls that I have had while cycling. This has included cops as well as those blue corrections buses on Jay Street.

    Obviously, it hasn’t helped that DOT has designed turn conflicts right into all the most recent “protected” bike lanes. Oops, I said I was going to ignore design…

  • Bolwerk

    Vampire policing. They were supposed to fight crime, but there isn’t very much (and it was going away before they were ever hired). Now they have nothing else to do but harass the citizenry with onerous fines to sustain the “offender-funded justice system.” They just need to pick offenders.

    Oh well. It’s worse in places like Ferguson.

  • WalkingNPR

    But when it comes to enforcing motor vehicle issues, there’s (supposedly) not enough manpower or resources to do it…

  • Anxiously Awaiting Bikeshare

    I wish I could find the link (maybe someone with better google skills could do it) but I remember an article here saying the most frequent types of auto on bike accidents were where the auto turned right as a cyclist was overtaken or on a 2 way road where the auto failed to yield to the oncoming cyclist on a green light while turning left.

    These are both very hard to enforce as they require a collision to be a violation. This is why road design needs to step up as it can’t all be on the police.

  • Anxiously Awaiting Bikeshare

    It is hard to free up resources when every single muslum in NYC gets a 3 man surveillance team

  • Cold Shoaler

    This is all spot on. It would be difficult for me to overstate the degree to which Operation Safe Cycle plus the ongoing NYPD golf cart parade on the Brooklyn Bridge have diminished my respect for the police recently. It’s just such lazy, BS, make-work ‘police work’.

  • walks bikes drives

    Is this a surprise to ANYBODY? There are definitely cyclists out there that at reckless and dangerous, but those are not the cyclists sought out in these ticket blitzes. I got a ticket for stopping at a red light, fully, waiting for traffic (both vehicle and pedestrian) to clear, then turning right through an empty intersection. And what did that do? Now when I see the cop sitting there, I hop off the bike, take two steps into the intersection, turn the bike 90 degrees, and ride on. I entered the intersection as a pedestrian and my bike was facing the direction of traffic with the right of way when I got on it. Perfectly legal. And that makes me safer how?

  • walks bikes drives

    They are probably thinking they can lower fatalities by the threat of the bogus tickets, or senseless tickets, which will convince the cyclist that they shouldn’t bother riding, because they will either have to pay a fine or waste time fighting it in court. Thus, one less rider is one less possible person to get killed. This would explain to me why I have only seen NYPD target recreation and commuting cyclists in these blitzes and not delivery cyclists, because they know a ticket went keep them from riding. I have watched delivery cyclists blow the same light I was ticketed at and receive nothing.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if their thoughts are: if it weren’t for the ticket blitzes, we’d have many more unsafe riders with even more deaths than those 17.

  • Cold Shoaler

    I see people do crazy, rude, reckless things on bikes in this city every day. I have never seen one of those people get a ticket. The NYPD is too lazy to make the effort. The only cyclists I’ve ever seen the NYPD stop are the ones going slowly who did something that was totally harmless but illegal (or at least the cop thought it was). What a joke.

  • Andres Dee

    Is it news that when authorities impose special rules on “out groups” (like people who don’t drive cars) “for their own good”, it generally isn’t really?

  • Andres Dee

    No. They think they can take “bicyclers” off the road by harassing them. It’s for motorists’ convenience, not for cyclists’ safely.

  • Tyson White

    It’s important to note that the majority of cyclists’ deaths were outside of Manhattan. This year, there were only 4 in Manhattan, while the rest were mostly in Brooklyn and Queens. I believe there was only one this year in the areas served by citibike. This supports the theory of safety in numbers. Nothing makes cycling more safe than more cyclists, and in turn, driver awareness.

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