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‘A long way from zero’: NYC takes on traffic fatalities

November 23, 2014 at 12:26 PM EDT
Although New York City streets over the past few years have been the safest in decades, traffic accidents and pedestrian fatalities have recently started to tick back up. Now, city officials are looking to "Vision Zero," an initiative based on a model from Sweden. The plan hinges on expanded enforcement, new street designs and legislation to increase penalties for dangerous drivers. NewsHour's Hari Sreenivasan reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A remarkable amount of the time, all these buses and taxis, cars and bicycles, joggers and walkers, manage to coexist on the streets of New York, but when something goes wrong, it can be horrible, leaving families devastated.

Listen to what happened in front of Dana Lerner’s home last January.

DANA LERNER: “I got a call from our doorman. I didn’t know what the hell I was gonna find. So I ran down there. And I saw my husband, you know, just screaming, lying in the — lying in the road. But he was — I could see he wasn’t horribly hurt. And I looked over and my son was, you know, lying there.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: Lerner’s 9-year-old son, Cooper, had been walking across the street, hand-in-hand with his father. They were in the crosswalk with the light on their side, when a cab turning left hit her husband and their son.

DANA LERNER: “He was lying completely still. There was blood coming of his ears. And I’m a real optimist. And I kept saying — and my husband’s kept saying, “It’s bad. It’s bad. It’s bad.” I was like, “No, he’ll be okay. He’ll be okay.” And, and he wasn’t.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: Months earlier while running for Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio had made traffic safety a top priority. Just weeks after being inaugurated and following the deaths of several pedestrians, including Cooper, the mayor, a father of two himself, launched what was known as Vision Zero at a press conference, surrounded by parents who had lost loved ones to traffic collisions.

MAYOR DE BLASIO: “When I read about these horrible moments, when I read about these tragedies, and this loss of life it’s very personal for me because I can see it through the eyes through my fellow parents. And of course every one of us thinks what if that was my child. And the goal is literally to reduce fatalities on our roadways to zero.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: The mayor said zero, that includes all traffic deaths. 178 pedestrians died in the city last year.

Now given, New York City streets are dramatically safer than they were 25 years ago, but traffic fatalities, including motorists and pedestrians, have started to tick back up since a low in 2011.

BILL DE BLASIO: “Some people here the phrase ‘Vision Zero’ and they ask what’s really possible. They ask if these are new ideas, speculative ideas. But we want to emphasize today is that these are tried and tested ideas. Ideas that work. They have been working in other parts of the country, they have been working around the world.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: Most notably in Sweden.

MATTS BELIN: “So it’s going from very safe to something much, much safer.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: Matts Belin helped design the Vision Zero approach in Sweden. We caught up with him when he was in New York for a symposium on the Swedish innovation. Belin says the initiative starts with the idea that it’s not acceptable for a single person to die on the roads and that engineering, not enforcement, is where the emphasis should be.

MATTS BELIN: “In Vision Zero, we put the major, the first responsibility on the system designer. And, of course, the road users still have a responsibility. But it goes back to the system designer.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: Belin points to the example of a busy intersection without a traffic light.

The traditional approach is to put one up. But Belin says that’s flawed. Collisions would go down dramatically, but those that still occur would likely be at high speeds and severe.

Belin says, the better approach would be to create a rotary or roundabout, forcing drivers to slow down.

MATTS BELIN: “The crashes will probably increase because it becomes a little bit more complicated for the traffic. But those that will happen will be less severe. And actually the roundabout might be the difference between life and death.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: As part of Vision Zero in Sweden, the country added thousands of miles of dividers, added Breathalyzer in many cars, and runs one of the largest speed camera systems in the world, not to make money, Belin says, but to slow drivers down.

Sweden rolled out its Vision in 1997 when seven people per 100,000 died in traffic. In ten years, Sweden cut its rate in half, and today the US’s rate is more than three times as high.

And other people outside New York have noticed Sweden’s success: Minnesota, Utah and Washington State have all implemented Vision Zero-style programs and seen reductions in fatalities fall faster than in states without them. And many other cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago, have joined New York in recently implementing Vision Zero-style initiatives.

Here in New York, the plan calls for increased public education. Vision Zero street teams made up of police and transportation workers have raised awareness handing out pamphlets and PSAs have been produced about the impact of reckless driving.

And like Sweden, New York’s Vision Zero called for more changes in infrastructure, beyond those made in the previous administration, which had already seen decreases in fatalities.

The city has put aside more than $40 million dollars for the plan this fiscal year.

HARI SREENIVASAN: “As part of Vision Zero, the Department of Transportation pledged to make safety improvements at 50 locations each year, some of those changes are already here, the intersection where Cooper was struck and killed. The DOT installed pedestrian islands, added time to the walk signals, and took out the parking spaces on the corner to increase visibility.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: The plan also called for changes in laws, including one that would change how taxi drivers who kill or seriously injure someone are treated. Like the one that struck Cooper.

DANA LERNER: “After a few days, when I was sort of getting a little bit more, you know, sort of wits about me, I thought, ‘Where’s the guy that killed him? What happened to this guy?’ And then I found out that you can kill someone in New York City and you don’t get charged with anything. So in other words, this cab driver literally could’ve killed my son, stayed on his shift and gone on, made — taken another fare.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: “How is that possible?”

DANA LERNER: “It was possible then because there was absolutely no law that said that that didn’t have to happen.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: Lerner and other activists helped push for New York City to adopt proposed legislation. In April, Lerner testified before the City Council in favor of a bill dubbed Cooper’s law. It would suspend licenses of taxi drivers pending an investigation. And Lerner was looking on in June as the mayor signed it into law, along with 10 other bills related to traffic safety.

And just this month, the newest law related to Vision Zero went into effect.

HARI SREENIVASAN: “New York City recently changed its speed limit from 30 to 25 miles per hour, unless otherwise posted. That might not seem like much, but studies show that that tiny decrease actually doubles the chance of survival, if a pedestrian is hit by a car.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: But asking New Yorkers to slow down isn’t without detractors.

Darkuah Adigun-Bomani is a New York City cab driver, as a mother of three, she sympathizes with the desire for safe streets, but says that for cab drivers like her, being forced to slow down literally costs her money.

DARKUAH ADIGUN-BOMANI: “The more you pick-up the more money you make, so when it’s pretty busy, we just can’t move with a 25 miles per hour, we just can’t move.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: And Adigun-Bomani says that her customers, famously impatient New Yorkers, want her to step on it.

DARKUAH ADIGUN-BOMANI: “They pretty much, pick it up, pick it up because, you know, the customers are used to, you know, speeding up, make up this light.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: But if she does, a lead foot might mean a better chance of getting a ticket.

That’s because in New York, unlike in Sweden, Vision Zero does include stepping up enforcement, for instance, more aggressive ticketing by police.

The number of tickets issued for speeding and failing to yield the right of way to pedestrians is up 50 percent compared to last year.

HARI SREENIVASAN: “It’s been 10 months since Cooper died at this intersection and Mayor de Blasio launched Version Zero.”

HARI SREENIVASAN: From January through the end of October here in New York City, 209 people have died in traffic crashes, including 101 pedestrians. That’s a decrease from last year, but still a long way from zero.