By Ryan McGreal
Published March 06, 2012
this blog entry has been updated
In New York, the key phrase is: "No criminality was suspected." In Hamilton, it's: "Speed was not a factor."
That's the general conclusion the police draw when a pedestrian or cyclist is killed after getting hit by a motorist.
A recent essay by Sarah Goodyear in The Atlantic Cities explores New York's recent efforts to come to terms with the institutional acceptance that the routine maiming and killing of pedestrians and cyclists is just part of the territory:
Run a red light and kill somebody? Speed and kill somebody? Fail to yield in a crosswalk and kill somebody? You might get a summons for a moving violation. But hey, "no criminality was suspected," and so you, the driver, don't have to worry about any further consequences.
The running joke on blogs like Gothamist and Streetsblog is that if you want to kill somebody in New York and get away with it, a car should be your weapon of choice. And for years, it seemed like no one in government was ever going to challenge that status quo.
The numbers are sobering. Last year, 241 NYC pedestrians or cyclists were killed by drivers, but only 17 drivers responsible were charged with a crime.
Charges under a new law that was supposed to empower police officers to charge drivers for carelessness causing death are routinely thrown out because judges determine that the officer needed to personally witness the incident to file the charge.
To put the city's priorities in context, the NYPD issued more summonses to cyclists last year than to truckers.
|Moving Violation||Criminal Court||Total|
Story after story demonstrates astonishing ineptitude on the part of the NYPD for their investigations of collisions that kill pedestrians and cyclists. It's hard not to notice a pattern of carelessness: pedestrian and cyclist deaths just aren't important enough to the authorities to bother assembling a coherent picture of what happened and charge the driver when the driver is responsible.
A police collision study in Toronto a few years ago concluded that in the overwhelming majority of collisions, the driver was responsible for the collision.
Yet the public perception persists that irresponsible cyclists and pedestrians are to blame for their own injuries and deaths, and Hamilton Police Service routinely announce enforcement crackdowns on jaywalking pedestrians and cyclists running Idaho stops.
Back to the Atlantic Cities piece: the author argues that the underlying problem is a broad cultural acceptance that dead cyclists and pedestrians are a normal part of city streets. Her prescription is to de-normalize the kinds of petty traffic violations that make more serious consequences possible.
The Broken windows theory of criminology is the theory that the persistence of graffiti and vandalism in an urban setting normalizes and encourages further criminality. George L Kelling and James Q Wilson, the authors of the theory, explained it this way in their original March 1983 Atlantic article:
Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.
When communities and authorities get serious about petty crime - broken windows, gang tags and so on - and refuse to let them stand as signals that no one cares, the rates of all kinds of criminal activities tend to go down.
The author concludes:
New York has made amazing advances in traffic safety in recent years, mostly by redesigning streets to slow cars down and give more space to pedestrians and bicycles. But it hasn't been enough. We need the NYPD to get out from behind their windshields and start systematically ticketing people who run red lights and rocket down residential streets and blow off stop signs. Catching the small stuff can change the culture and avoid the worst outcomes for everyone.
Because as New York councilmember James Vacca said at yesterday's hearing, "We don't accept gun violence as a way to die. We shouldn't accept traffic deaths as a way to die either."
The New York Times took up the call in its "Room for Debate" series, featuring several short essays in response to Goodyear's article:
Update: edit to correct date of original Atlantic essay on the Broken Window theory.