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New MTA Victim-Blaming Campaign Is the Opposite of Vision Zero

The MTA has released an amazingly tone-deaf series of public service announcements blaming pedestrians and cyclists for being run over by bus drivers.

"The new PSAs, which will air on local broadcast television stations in both English and Spanish, bring the print campaign to life by demonstrating the dangers of walking or cycling while distracted near a bus," says an MTA press release. "They remind users of electronic devices that it only takes a second of inattention for a pedestrian or cyclist to come in contact with a bus."

MTA bus drivers have killed at least seven pedestrians and one cyclist this year, according to crash data compiled by Streetsblog. Only one case reportedly involved an electronic device -- a woman who was run over when she reached under a bus to retrieve a cell phone.

Of the other six pedestrians, all were hit by bus drivers making right or left turns, and in five cases media and police accounts confirmed or suggested the victim had the right of way. There is no evidence that any of the remaining seven victims were distracted by electronic devices when they were struck.

Meanwhile, after a prolonged legal battle, the MTA recently settled a lawsuit with the family of Seth Kahn, a student who was run over by a speeding bus driver with a history of texting behind the wheel.

We asked chief spokesperson Adam Lisberg if the MTA keeps data on how many pedestrians and cyclists who were injured and killed by MTA bus drivers were distracted by electronic devices, or if the agency tracks how many victims had the right of way. Here was his response:

I don’t know exactly how we slice it, but we do a detailed analysis of every collision (with auto, bike, ped, building, etc.) and what factors went into it. Ultimate concern for our enforcement side is whether it was preventable -- could our operator have done anything to prevent it? -- not whether cops write a ticket. Then our safety people look for trends, rising factors, etc., and we also get feedback from the thousands of operators out driving every day. They consistently say texting pedestrians and unpredictable cyclists are a rising hazard. I don’t know if we specifically ask whether cyclists are wearing headphones.

On Twitter, Lisberg said these spots are based on driver anecdotes rather than empirical data. And the tone of the PSAs is snarky, with the bike ad likening a bus collision to a comedian's pratfall.

There is no denying that driving a bus is a grueling and often thankless job, and the MTA driver safety program seems substantial. Bus drivers struck 14 percent fewer pedestrians in 2014 than during the same period last year, and 6 percent fewer cyclists, the press release says.

Based on crashes reported in the media, however, MTA bus drivers have killed as many pedestrians and cyclists so far this year as they did in 2013. Last January, an MTA bus driver ran over 22-year-old Marisol Martinez in a Williamsburg crosswalk, and barely avoided striking her cousin and a family friend as they ran to get out of her path. After that crash, City Council members urged the MTA to participate in Mayor de Blasio's Vision Zero initiative, a request the agency initially brushed off, saying the existing driver safety program was getting the job done.

The press release says the MTA will debut measures in 2015 that add external audible alarms to warn people when a bus driver is turning, as well as a collision avoidance system to alert bus drivers to nearby vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists.

"The PSAs fit within the city’s ‘Vision Zero’ safety initiative. We want to work with our customers and our fellow New Yorkers to make the city’s streets and roads safer," said NYC Transit President Carmen Bianco. "It only takes a few seconds of distraction for a situation to turn tragic. We strive to always improve bus safety, and this campaign helps emphasize the cooperative effort necessary to reach that goal."

But in Sweden, where the program originated, there is no victim-blaming component to Vision Zero. Last summer, Claes Tingvall, director of traffic safety for the Swedish Transport Administration, said Vision Zero should involve "moving responsibility upwards" -- that is, holding fleet operators, rather than individuals, responsible for street safety. To watch these PSAs, this is the opposite of what the MTA is doing.

If the MTA is going to join the Vision Zero initiative in a meaningful way, it would entail steps like minimizing driver blind spots in its vehicles, adding wheelguards, and reevaluating turns on bus routes that have proven dangerous. A much more helpful PSA campaign for pedestrians and cyclists could, for instance, illustrate blind spots on buses, or show how to safely overtake a bus while biking.

These PSAs reinforce the misconception that people killed by drivers are responsible for their own deaths, and play into a culture that already reflexively blames victims.

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