Op-Ed: Treat Traffic Deaths Like the Measles

Mayor de Blasio needs to declare a public-health emergency

Families for Safe Streets and several other groups rallied at City Hall in May to protest Mayor de Blasio's inattention to street safety. Photo: Stephanie Keith
Families for Safe Streets and several other groups rallied at City Hall in May to protest Mayor de Blasio's inattention to street safety. Photo: Stephanie Keith

Mayor de Blasio declared a public-health emergency this spring when the number of cases of measles in New York City reached 280. He needs to do the same thing for traffic deaths.

New York’s health code states that a public-health emergency occurs when “urgent public-health action is necessary to protect the public health against imminent or existing threat.” 

Yet, with de Blasio’s vaunted Vision Zero initiative well into its sixth year, the mayor doesn’t seem to see the urgency in the spike this year in the number of deaths caused by reckless drivers and other vehicle violence: Cars have killed 80 New Yorkers in 2019 as of this writing.

That’s why Families for Safe Streets is calling on de Blasio to declare traffic violence a public-health emergency — just like measles — and to devote the full panoply of emergency resources to the crisis.

The first step: the mayor needs to show New Yorkers that he’s serious about public safety and sign the Vision Zero Street Design Standard bill, which will help to remove politics from the process of designing safer streets.

Mary Beth Kelly, leading the fight against traffic violence.
Mary Beth Kelly, leading the fight against traffic violence. Photo: Stephanie Keith

The mayor, who often seems to view the world through a windshield, needs to wake up and see the carnage.

Last month, drivers ran down four senior citizens who were crossing streets. And to date drivers have killed 10 cyclists — as many as died in all of 2018.

Does that not sound like an imminent and existing danger?

On average, a New Yorker is killed in a traffic crash every 40 hours, and each year, more than 4,000 New Yorkers sustain life-altering injuries because of vehicle violence. Although those numbers have fallen over the first five years of Vision Zero, but this recent increase in deaths is a grave cause of concern.

The dramatic rise in measles — a disease supposedly eliminated two decades ago — raised alarms. But what about the deadly danger from cars that we live with every day?

Like an insidious virus, traffic violence picks us off one by one. But because we cover it under the bland language of “accidents,” we ignore its deadly consequences — and don’t fear it enough.

Traffic violence is at once devastating and surreptitious, making headlines only when it takes the life of someone who is rich or famous. It thrives on the growth of our car culture and the failures of our transit system.

I’ve learned a few things about traffic deaths. My husband Dr. Carl Henry Nacht was a physician who practiced preventive medicine. Ever since I watched a reckless tow-truck driver take his life 13 years ago, I have made it my business to prevent further death on our streets.

As safe-streets advocate, I am constantly amazed at just how many New Yorkers remain blasé about the serial killer hiding in plain sight. Unfortunately, some of those blasé New Yorkers represent us in government.

We know that measles can be prevented with two doses of the MMR vaccine. No vaccine can immunize us from reckless drivers. But there are data-driven methods to prevent speeding, failure to yield, and distracted driving.

What’s missing is the political will necessary for dedicating the proper resources to eradicating this public-health emergency.

Instead, we get an ineffective, piecemeal approach. Neighborhoods lack life-saving street redesigns because a handful of politically appointed community-board members prioritize the preservation of free parking spots over our lives. Vision Zero — which promised to eradicate traffic deaths — looks as if it’s on life support.

Our elected leaders and public-health departments must take seriously the rising threat of death-by-traffic and administer “urgent public-health action.”

We must raise the consciousness of all New Yorkers to the health crisis on our streets — and turn our forbidding streets into forgiving ones.

The families who have lost the most have carried this burden, but only together will we create a truly livable city with livable streets.

Attention, indeed, must be paid.

Mary Beth Kelly is a co-founder of Families for Safe Streets.

  • Sassojr

    Measles is a virus that can infect a population at an exponential rate. You need to stomp it (and it’s anti-vax causes) out before we lose herd immunity.

    Traffic violence can never reach an exponential phase, and this cannot threaten a population as a whole. The premise of the article, though well-intentioned, is a very false equivalency.

  • Reader

    Congrats for “well actual-ing” someone who’s fighting tirelessly to stop people from dying from preventable deaths.

  • I agree with you here.

    A better approach would be to treat traffic deaths like gun deaths. Both are the result of dangerous behaviour on the part of individuals. And in both cases, there is a systemic solution that, while best in the long term, does little in the immediate timeframe.

    In the case of gun violence, the long-term solution involves eliminating the poverty and deprivation that drives the vast majority of violent crime.

    In the case of automotive violence, the long-term solution involves the redesign of streets to include curves and speed bumps, the reorientation of all development to favour walking, bicycling, and transit, and the imposition of higher costs (through fines, tolls, and congestion pricing) that are intended less to raise revenue than to disincentivise driving.

    The problem is that both of these solutions would require timeframes on the order of decades to implement. Meanwhile, people are dying in the here and now; so some immediate interim approach must be found until the more fundamental strategies can take root. In the context both of gun violence and automotive violence, this immediate solution involves enforcement.

    It is very difficult to increase enforcement against gun violence, on account of one enormous obstacle: the disastrously wrongheaded Second Amendment. But, thankfully, there is no constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to use a motor vehicle. Therefore, increasing enforcement against drivers is purely a policy question that is down entirely to political will.

    In sum, the best way to reduce traffic deaths is to reduce driving in the urban setting.

  • Sassojr

    That’s fine by me, stick to the facts, this place gets enough hyperbole from the regular writers.

  • Sassojr

    I mostly agree with what you’ve said as well. Although I know we disagree on where motorcycles fit on the spectrum of moving people, we can save that for other debates ?.

  • Joe R.

    Good post, and I’m glad you mentioned the primary causes of gun violence. I’ll also add mental illness to the list. The US has higher rates of mental illness than most other countries for a whole host of reasons. We’ve failed to tackle both the root causes and access to treatment. End result is a mass shooting every few weeks. While gun control advocates blame easy access to guns for this, the fact is by definition the people who engage in these actions are criminally mentally ill. They don’t care about gun laws, and will find ways to get guns no matter how hard we make it to get them. The only defense against these crazies who might strike at any time is an armed citizenry, hence the reason the Second Amendment is so important. However, the NRA and all those like them who think the 2nd Amendment means nearly unfettered access to firearms are wrong. A person should be able to get any weapon they choose, within reason (i.e. there’s no need for average citizens to own hand grenades, anti-aircraft guns, mortars, and so forth). However, they should be required to prove their competency with that weapon before they’re allowed to take it home. A small handgun will obviously require a lot less training than an assault rifle. My guess is most people won’t jump through all the hoops needed to own the most lethal weapons. That will make it much easier to control them.

    We can apply the same thinking to motor vehicles. Very small, very light, very slow motor vehicles like e-bikes need require no licensing or training. As you move up the ladder, the amount of training required increases. To drive a large truck or bus should entail a regimen similar to getting/keeping a pilot’s license. And as you said, we should redevelop society to favor non-auto modes and discourage auto use.

    In sum, the best way to reduce traffic deaths is to reduce driving in the urban setting.

    Exactly what I’ve been saying for a long time. The single biggest predictor of the number of traffic deaths is traffic density. We should make it a medium term goal to reduce the number of motor vehicles in NYC by 50% over the next 5 years. We should have a long term goal to reduce the number by over 90% within the next 20. The generation which was just born should be the first to reach their adulthood not being held hostage to the tyranny of the automobile.

  • qrt145

    Measles is terrible, there’s no denying it, but if we go by number of fatalities, traffic violence is worse, even with a zero vaccination rate. According to the CDC, “Before the measles vaccination program started in 1963, an estimated 3 to 4 million people got measles each year in the United States, of which 500,000 were reported. Among reported cases, 400 to 500 died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 1,000 developed encephalitis (brain swelling) from measles.”

    Contrast that with about 40,000 road fatalities (and probably ten times as many severe injuries, but I don’t have the figure at hand).

  • joyauto

    Government will not stem the tide of vehicle crashes. They encourage it and relish in it. Traffic crashes generate an enormous amount of revenue for government in the form of sales and income tases, and they will do nothing to stop the flow. Consider all the transactions that flow from a car crash: ambulance drivers, doctors, nurses, tow truck drivers, insurance claims, funeral arrangements, florists, car dealers, etc. The list is endless. Take the profit motive out of crashes and then they will cease to be tolerated. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/11cbc5a6b51457a5547b7003a8f2a10d2d3ef921883e59d641428d594d9979de.jpg

  • Sassojr

    The ability to have an emergency health declaration is because of the danger posed by the potential for exponential growth, not the instant danger. If 200 more people died of heart attacks in the city, it wouldn’t be an emergency.

  • djx

    Perhaps this is covered by “deprivation” in your statement of the causes of gun death, but I think toxic masculinity is a key part – both of violence against others (eg men killing former girlfriends/partners) and suicide among men. It’s not just poor people doing the shooting.

  • djx

    “by definition the people who engage in these actions are criminally mentally ill.”

    Just stop.

  • Joe R.

    So you don’t think people who engage in mass shootings are criminally mentally ill? While the toxic masculinity you mentioned in your other post plays a role for things like killing former girlfriends/wives/partners, anyone who decides to shoot up a bunch of innocent people definitely has some type of mental illness in my book.

  • That is a good point. Any serious societal effort to address gun violence would have to include a movement for the eradication of the most toxic forms of masculinity, and for the cultivation of healthier kinds.

  • Joe R.

    That’s the same reason the AMA fought electric cars. They would decrease the number of cancer cases, and cancer is among the biggest money makers for hospitals. When something doesn’t seem right, the best way to figure it out is to follow the money.

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