Sunday, 8 December 2013

A Jersey City leaflet, an East New York death - and why police are bothering the wrong people

It was near a Path subway station in Jersey City that I encountered a ripple from a wave of sloppy thinking currently sweeping the English-speaking world. On a corner on Grove St, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, a woman wearing a high-visibility vest approached me and thrust a leaflet into my hand.

The pamphlet contained a series of safety rules for pedestrians – among them “Cross at corners and intersections” and “Before crossing look left, right,then left again”– and threats of fines for pedestrians who broke the rules. There were also instructions to drivers. But, even as motorists barged past people crossing right by her, the woman kept thrusting the leaflets solely on people walking.
 
Hey, pedestrians: you can't say
New Jersey hasn't warned you
New Jersey’s safety drive is one of many currently under way on both sides of the Atlantic aimed at improving vulnerable road users’ safety by getting them to take more care. In London, a big part of the response to a spate of cyclist deaths has been to station police officers at key intersections to harass cyclists not wearing high-visibility clothing or helmets. In Park Slope, near where I live in Brooklyn, the New York Police Department’s 78th precinct reacted to a series of recent pedestrian fatalities by posting a list of pedestrian safety tips. They included advice that pedestrians should carry flashlights (torches, British readers) at night. People shouldn’t walk in snow or rain, it added.

The implicit assumption is clear. Vulnerable road users are vulnerable not primarily because they lack protection from the behaviour of motor vehicles but through their own irrational actions. Pedestrians wander heedless, according to this analysis, into the path of cars, whose drivers can scarcely be expected to miss them. Cars hit cyclists primarily because cyclists ignore red lights. It’s a view one can find repeated online in the comments under pretty much any news article about road safety – especially if it concerns bikes.
 
Hey, be fair. The card mentions motorists.
It's just that they don't give it to them.
Yet the worry should be precisely that crashes occur despite the best efforts of vulnerable road users to behave rationally – and because motorists correctly feel themselves largely invulnerable. A study  by researchers at Melbourne University, in Australia, found that 88.9 per cent of cyclists in a study were behaving safely and legally before collisions, near-collisions or “incidents” recorded on their helmet cameras. The figures tally with those in a Transport for London study of all the recorded injuries and deaths of cyclists from collisions with cars during 2010. The London study suggests around 74 per cent were the motorist’s fault, while the Australian researchers blamed the motorists for 87 per cent of the incidents. Studies from around the world regularly seem to find motorists to blame in around 75 per cent of bike/car crashes.

For pedestrians, a study in New York found that 44 per cent of those injured by cars were hit when in a marked crosswalk while crossing with the light, while another 6 per cent were hit on the sidewalk. Given that many of the other crashes will also be a result of motorist negligence, a clear majority of crashes involving pedestrians also appear to be the fault of the motorist concerned.

Pedestrians and cyclists appear, in other words, to behave like people who have a lot at stake on the roads and to take their own safety seriously. The crash on November 25 in East New York that killed Maude Savage seems, according to these studies, to be fairly typical. A surveillance video shows Ms Savage, a 72-year-old pedestrian, waiting and looking carefully before crossing, with the lights in her favour. A van then speeds around the corner and through the crosswalk, hitting her at speed. Robert Brown, the van driver, seems, to judge by the video, to have been driving like someone who recognised that, for him, the consequences of hitting a pedestrian wouldn’t be that serious. As things stand, it probably makes more sense for a busy technician like him – he was working for a cable TV company - to prioritise speed over avoiding a crash.
Cars on a crosswalk in midtown Manhattan.
The cars realise it's vital not to impede uptown progress
on 6th Avenue. So they block the crosswalk.

As with many road safety issues, however, many politicians and police officers seem to base their reaction to vulnerable road users’ deaths mainly on gut instinct and intuition. It’s often easy to sense frustration – “Why won’t these cyclists just get in a car or ride on the subway like everyone else?” Lord James of Blackheath, a Conservative peer, took such thinking to its logical – and absurd – extreme on November 22 when he claimed in a House of Lords debate that cyclists longed to be knocked down – to get motorists into trouble.

Even among people trying to make ostensibly saner points than Lord James, there’s considerable misunderstanding about where the risks lie. Politicians and police officers regularly whine about how cyclists allegedly cause crashes by ignoring red lights – but the Transport for London study found cyclists’ failure to obey a light was a contributory factor in only 61 crashes – against 2,650 involving motorists’ failure to look properly. It wasn’t significantly more common for cyclists to cause crashes by running lights than motorists – a motorist’s failure to obey a light was a contributory factor in 36 crashes. There’s a powerful tendency for policymakers to connect behaviour they observe – “some cyclists run red lights!” – to the death toll, without any further examination.
 
This car crashed at 100mph on West St in Manhattan.
How the NYPD thinks pedestrians can protect themselves
against such risks isn't clear.
There are certainly things that cyclists and pedestrians can do to protect themselves. In the Transport for London safety study, the top cause of crashes caused by cyclists was “failed to look properly,” just as it was for cars. “Failed to judge other person’s path or speed” was the second most common cause of crashes for both cyclists and drivers, while “careless/reckless/in a hurry” was number three for both. The Melbourne study of cycle crashes found that cyclists who looked over their shoulders a lot were least likely to be involved in crashes. There is clearly a great deal to be gained for any vulnerable road user through keeping keenly alert and watching out for the negligent behaviour of others.

Most people certainly make some trade-off in their road behaviour between convenience and safety. It’s surely worthwhile for the people with most to lose through a crash to let safety rule their judgement all the time – if only because it’s clear that people protected by metal shells feel free to prioritise their own convenience over other people’s lives. Last Sunday, riding down Garfield Place in Park Slope, I heard a woman in a car behind honking at me so violently that I, unusually, pulled over into the parked cars’ door zone so that she could squeeze past. “You should be over to one side!” she screamed at me as she zipped past too close, her face contorted with rage. The mismatch of concerns was precisely the one the TfL and Melbourne studies would suggest it might be. She was anxious I might hold her up by a few seconds. I was concerned her car might crush me to death.

Yet the fact remains that New Jersey’s police forces, the New York Police Department and Metropolitan Police are all placing a lot of the emphasis in their road policing efforts on berating the victims rather than the perpetrators of crashes. The tactic is reminiscent of the times – sadly, not too long ago in some places – where the answer to preventing sexual assault was meant to be to stop women walking alone at night or wearing “provocative” clothing. It’s a tactic that, by the nature of what causes the crashes, can never work. It’s patronising and demeaning.
 
The true effectiveness of years of "Share the Road" efforts
is clear from this picture of a midtown Manhattan Street.
Note the Cadillac blocking the route of the cyclist
using the bike lane.
The correct solution is hiding in the plain sight of that TfL report and Melbourne University study. There simply aren’t enough incentives for motorists to care as much about vulnerable people’s safety as they care about, say, making that important ‘phone call. The driver who ran into Maude Savage appears, according to Streetsblog, the campaigning site, to face no more than a $500 fine or 30 days’ jail, for example.  He faces that only because he turned out not to have a driving licence. It will be only when drivers face a good chance of heavy fines, losing their licences or imprisonment for negligent driving that the convenience/safety trade-off will start favouring safety more often.

Yet the chances of a big change in attitude soon seem remote. Appeals for everyone to “share the road” have the advantage of seeming even-handed and fair. Pleas for vulnerable road users to look after themselves better have the advantage of addressing those with most interest in improving road safety, even if they miss those best placed to improve the position. The alternative is to start acting on the reality of the picture that the research paints. That is that private motor vehicles – the dominant form of transport in most developed countries – pose big risks to those around them, and most drivers drive as if they didn’t. That seems like the kind of truth that politicians will put off addressing for as long as they possibly can.

32 comments:

  1. Two things: First, have you looked at fines in other European countries for motorist violations? I speak from a position of almost total ignorance, but I recall learning at some point that some fines in Germany were ruinously large (and also that only about 30 percent of people pass their driving test the first time!). Also, one seemingly small thing required in Germany that makes a big difference -- when exiting their vehicles, drivers MUST open their doors with their right hands. Forces them to look behind them for cyclists.

    And second -- I'd love to see a courtesy card sporting some official imprimatur that cyclists can carry to give to motorists (and cops!) who might not understand either cyclists' rights or motorists' responsibilities. Won't solve the whole problem, but it's a small start.

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    1. Elaine,

      Thanks for your comment.

      The fines for motoring violations in the UK (the European country that I know best, what with being British) are, I think, fairly steep. But the biggest thing in the UK is that one stands a reasonable chance of getting caught for speeding, for example, by a speed camera. It's certainly the case that, since the current UK government backed off from supporting speed and traffic light cameras, some of the previous progress on road death reductions has slowed or gone in reverse. That's the biggest difference, I think.

      As for the card, I've gone on the principle that, if I ever had the police stop me and try to claim I'd done something I shouldn't have, I'd show them the back of the New York City cycle map with its tips for pedestrians. But I think someone showed cops booking cyclists for riding on the Willis Avenue Bridge cycle lane the map and it did no good. S/he still got booked.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  2. Ms Savage illustrates why it is much safer for pedestrians to eschew legal corner crossings in favor of illegal (but careful) mid-block crossings. While the driver might have been prioritizing speed, at least mid-block his eyes would have been aimed in Ms Savage's direction unless, of course, he was texting.

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    1. Steve,

      Your point is exactly right.

      The problem is that motorists see such illegal behaviour, tut and think that vulnerable road users are behaving irresponsibly so can't expect not to be hit.

      In fact, the behaviour is often a reflection of a careful calculation as to whether the strict letter of the rules is protecting the user's best interests.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. We don't entirely know that -- if the vast majority of pedestrian crossings are legal corner crossings, then those can still be safer (per-pedestrian) even though they also collect the largest share of injuries.

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    3. dr2chase,

      Thanks for the comment. I'm being careful to say "often" here. I think drivers often misinterpret as reckless behaviour that's more thought out than that.

      But I take the point that it still seems a good idea to use crossings. If 80 per cent of road crossings are on crosswalks with the light and pedestrians crossing at crosswalks with the light account for 44 per cent of injuries, it's still safer to cross in a crosswalk with the light.

      Invisible.

      Delete
    4. Do either of you have solid information on this? Wikipedia, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pedestrian_crossing says that, absent additional safety measures, marked pedestrian crossings are the same or worse than leaving things to the imagination of the pedestrians. Indeed, there are less crossing conflicts when crossing away from an intersection.

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    5. I don't have solid information, other than any time someone reports raw numbers instead of per-something, I get nervous. Otherwise, driving is trivially far more dangerous than cycling, just because there's 30,000+ dead in car crashes every year, versus a mere hundreds in bike crashes. I think driving *is* more dangerous, but the case is not *that* easy to make.

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    6. drchase, your nervousness is well founded. I often take advantage of raw numbers to note there are about the same number of car occupants who drown after their cars fly off the road into deep water as there are cyclists that die from all causes. Where is the cry for all car occupants to carry scuba gear that corresponds to that for cyclists to wear helmets or eschew earphones?

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  3. According to the Met Police in London so far the tickets issued are roughly 2 to motorists to every 1 for cyclists. Having worked in road safety for 35 years we are still getting it wrong by leafleting peds and cyclists mainly because they seem to be the easier target audience to reach. When we have been with police stopping drivers I worry that the "time lost" being stopped is made up by faster driving. Cannot prove it but do worry.

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    1. Peter,

      Thank you for the comment. I've changed the text to say it's been a big part of the Met effort, rather than saying it's been the main part.

      It's an interesting point about drivers' driving faster after being stopped. I also fear that one reason police forces don't stop drivers in these efforts is that they don't want to hold up traffic. Non-motorised road users are seen as fairer game.

      But, of course, a big part of this issue is the allocation of police resources. The money that Jersey City police spent having that woman thrust a leaflet into my hand was wasted. It could have been spent on something useful.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  4. Excellent final paragraph there - 'share the road' is little more than distracting bluster to give the impression that "something is being done".

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  5. Is Maude Savage dead? I thought she was badly injured, but was expected to survive, and I can't turn up a news report indicating otherwise.

    That crash is especially egregious, btw; cutting into the oncoming lane instead of swinging a left turn appropriately wide is so damned dangerous if things go wrong. Also easier to do if, you know, negotiating a turn carefully and at appropriate speed.

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    1. Matt,

      I'm pretty sure she's dead, very sadly. I came upon a number of recent comments under stories about the crash from people expressing sadness at her death, including one from a commenter who had just attended her funeral. I couldn't find a news report confirming her death, however.

      If anyone has information contradicting what I've written, I'll change it, of course,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  6. When I took drivers ed, I was told that if you drive the speed limit, you can still get a ticket for speeding, or perhaps it was some other violation, if road conditions are poor. This makes sense as anyone who has driven when it's snowing or raining at night should know, cars with headlights are hard to see, nevermind pedestrians and cyclists who are damn near invisible, especially when wearing dark colored clothing. The effect behind a windshield is much more pronounced than it is walking or biking. But when I started driving I realized that nobody seemed to care. Speed limit is 30 and the road is wet and it's dark with snow coming down reducing visibility and handling? Drive 35 or more, after all, it's dangerous to be on the road in such conditions, so you should probably try to get where you are going as quickly as possible. Telling people not to go outside in such conditions unless they are in a car is morally bankrupt and all to common. Until the police do their job and ticket motorists that are driving recklessly, and when it's snowing at night, that's damn near all of them, pedestrians and cyclists would do well to remember than motorists won't see them in inclement weather. Flashlights or reflective clothing don't help all that much.

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    1. FKG,

      It's certainly true that motorists do an appalling job of adapting to the conditions. There was a fair amount of ice this morning on Smith St in Brooklyn. Cars were still hurtling down there at 45mph.

      I guess the point of my post is to ask why motorists are so oblivious and what can be done about it. I think we agree that proper enforcement is vital to push motorists back in the direction of behaving safely.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. I've heard several variations of driving traffic is the most frustrating experience that americans endure. There's something to that. Enforcement won't be enough in that the level required to make the streets safe would never be politically palatable, but it definitely has a role to play. Reducing traffic levels to make driving less stressful would make a big difference. That means increasing transit access. As would increasing protected bike lanes. A lot of drivers get stressed out when a car in front of them is going 28 when the speed limit is 30 and they want to go 40 or more. A bike at 15mph isn't going to be received well if they are already stressed out. Where possible, get them out of the way by introducing more physically separated lanes. This wouldn't require banning bikes from the rest of the road, since if drivers pass bikes on the road less they'll be better tolerated. Another big issue is timing traffic lights. Lhota said that would be one of his first issues in office. I have in mind setting them to 20mph or less, probably not what he had in mind.

      Why are so many drivers so oblivious? Well they haven't killed anyone on the road so what they're doing probably doesn't seem so bad. Add to that how little many of those drivers walk and bike and they don't understand what it's like to have a truck swerve inches in front of you when you're in the crosswalk. To tackle this issue, the state should set a very low bar for suspending drivers licenses. It doesn't have to be permanent, and could be as short as for one week in the hope it would get drivers walking or biking just a bit so they can appreciate what's wrong with their behavior.

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  7. I have encountered several car drivers for whom "Share the Road" meant "Share the Lane by getting the %^$@!X!! out of my way."

    Quite frankly, I really don't want to share the road with a two-tonne lethal weapon. The Dutch method of protected cycle lanes and protected intersections is much better.

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    1. Kevin,

      My views on segregated lanes have come and gone with different experiences. I'm coming round to thinking that more are needed, though, for sure. I also think, nevertheless, that it's vital cars be calmed down generally in urban areas even where there aren't bike lanes. For a start, there are some places (like Staten Island) with currently very low cycling rates and very dangerous roads. It clearly makes sense if the traffic is calmed down immediately. It's probably harder to justify a bike network of bike lanes in such areas immediately - but calmer traffic would surely raise cycling levels.

      As for motorist attitudes to "sharing the road", I have only ever had "share the road!" shouted at me by someone who wanted me out of the way. It might be the most stupid slogan ever for a safety campaign.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. I agree. I've had the same thing when someone behind me, said "Hey! "share the road" with me, Buddy". To them it meant get out of their way.
      It's supposed to mean have patience with others in front of you. I now see that slogan as just something or lazy governments to claim they're doing something but in reality not changing the status quo of "might is right".
      I have no interest in being in the same lane as some immature goof who thinks he's more important than anyone else and is driving a (highly subsidized) weapon that can harm me. I want to be able to go everywhere without needing to have anything to do with that type.

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  8. I can't help but think that the US "Right turn on red" rules hinder pedestrian and cyclist safety too.
    At most intersections, the motorist is going to be more concerned about checking if anything big is coming from the left, and will be oblivious to any pedestrians on the crosswalk to their right (to which I belive they are required to yield)
    Since, also, the motorist is looking to cut in to a potential stream of traffic, their view of the traffic coming from the left may well not be well attuned to look for vulnerable and slower road users like cyclists - they just want to get into that gap.
    Moving to the "red means stop" approach removes those potential sources of conflict.

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    1. Anonymous,

      I tend to agree with you - although New York City has no "right turn on red" rule. Cars are nevertheless allowed to turn through intersections where pedestrians have the light. That's a huge cause of death and injury in New York City. Motorists' reluctance to yield to pedestrians and/or cyclists is pretty shocking.

      It would be great if there could be a pedestrian only phase for lights at intersections in the US as there is in the UK. Such an approach was briefly tried a few decades ago in New York. Unfortunately, the arrangement led to near-gridlock and it's hard to imagine its returning.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. Some cities in the US have pedestrian only phases. Many also have cycles that do not default to a pedestrian phase, so unless someone presses a button they won't get a light to cross. And the general approach of cars when they can make a right on red is to slow down, but not stop, and enter the crosswalk at elevated speeds. It becomes necessary to peer around the cars stopped at the light to make sure there isn't a car or truck about to barrel through your right of way. That states have laws requiring cars to stop at the red light before proceeding through the intersection and that require cars to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk seems not to matter.

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    3. In Vancouver, BC, there's an intersection of a major street with the highest used cycle route. (Main St. & Union St.) Recently they've introduced a new thing with a light phase of all-bikes-in-all-directions separate from any other traffic light phase.
      When it was being proposed and I saw the plan I thought it wasn't going to work but in actuality it works very well. There are some concrete islands to direct motor traffic and to make it obvious to them that bicycles are to be expected there and have priority.
      This kind of thing is very cheap and very effective but can politically only happen in a place where cycling is considered a legitimate type of transportation.

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  9. The same campaign you show on the leaflet is playing on the in-station televisions in PATH stations. Not that there aren't people who drive to the train in Jersey, but most of us walk, bike, or take the bus there. Also, my girlfriend has a car and that flyer is about the only one in town we haven't found under her wiper blades. It couldn't be clearer to me who this campaign is being aimed at.

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  10. Great stuff as usual Robert. Would love if this was handed out, nay, "thrust into the hands of the NYPD" at police stations/ idling cop cars in NYC. (Might want to re-write using words of no more than two syllables though...)

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    1. You have my permission, Anonymous, to thrust it into the hands of NYPD officers. But I think that for many of them the language as it stands would be challenging. They might have to move their lips while reading.

      Not that I should criticise a whole group mindlessly. It's meant to be the kind of thing I oppose...

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  11. Meanwhile, in the rest of the world...

    Here is a video from a Dutch safety campaign. Notice how the responsibility is placed squarely where it belongs.

    http://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2012/04/13/i-was-only-speeding-slightly/

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  12. Robert read through the piece and I think there is at least one caption or phrase which implies "the cars are doing this" It isn't the cars, its the drivers of the cars. I think the language of reporting has a lot to answer for in sanitising unacceptable actions and circumstances. People are hurt and killed in crashes - not accidents, and the are hit by the action of drivers not the cars being driven.

    We all do this when we describe road crashes and their outcomes, conditioned by years of the inappropriate vocabulary. It obviously infuses elsewhere, we no longer have wars for example, but the weapons and soldiers are still doing exactly the same thing around the world under a different name.

    Perhaps we should treat any driver involved in a fatal incident with a road vehicle in the same way as we might treat a pilot, train driver, or sea captain. After a fatal incident you get removed from 'driving', pending a full investigation, and often required to re-sit any competence tests. Extend that to serious non fatal crashes and you might find the streets of New York pleasantly less filled with manic drivers.

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  13. Very well written! Thanks, Robert!

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    1. Anonymous,

      Thank you, whoever you are,

      Invisible.

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