Saturday, 6 October 2012

Do as you like, motorists - and don't blame us for the deaths

It’s a disturbing scene to encounter on the way to work. Every morning recently that I’ve cycled to the office, I’ve come part way down West 54th Street on a badly-damaged airport shuttle minibus. The passenger doors on one side are mangled; the right-hand front wheelarch obviously took a heavy blow and the front radiator grille is nowhere to be seen. It was, I instantly recognised, the result of a crash with a large vehicle, travelling at high speed, hitting the bus then spinning round to hit it a second time. Some research suggests a Mercedes Benz sped up Sixth Avenue early on September 16 and hit the minibus as it crossed at 50th street. Some witnesses said the driver had been racing another vehicle. He was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving. Not surprisingly, given the vehicle’s condition, four passengers and the bus driver were badly hurt - one had a fractured skull, while others suffered head and neck injuries.
The crushed minibus of W54th street: yet more evidence
that cyclists are the true menace to New Yorkers

Injuries and deaths from traffic accidents like the one involving the minibus are growing more common after years of declines in New York. In the year to June, 291 people died in traffic accidents of various kinds in New York City, up 23 per cent from the previous year. The numbers of pedestrians and cyclists killed rose 11 per cent to 176. The same goes for the UK, from which I've just moved. Statistics released in the last week show 3 per cent more people died in road traffic accidents in the UK in 2011 than in 2010, well above the increase in traffic volumes. Civil servants and politicians in both places profess bemusement at the reversal of fortunes.

But it’s hard to believe the puzzlement is sincere. From a crime point of view, New York City has become a far, far safer place than a couple of decades ago – it's just the city won't use the policies it applied to crime to stamp out bad driving. In the UK, transport officials know that speed and traffic light cameras can sharply reduce road deaths – and have encouraged their removal because drivers don’t like them. The question is how many more minibus passengers and drivers have to be rushed to hospital on both sides of the Atlantic before the various authorities start to do something.

I’m lucky that both my encounters so far with officers of the New York Police Department have been fairly benign. On September 29, when I was riding across the Brooklyn Bridge towards Manhattan, I met a police officer leading thousands of people marching towards Brooklyn for a charity event. It wasn’t safe to cycle, he said, because of the numbers of people. I huffily dismounted and pushed my bike towards City Hall. A few weeks earlier, I’d passed a mounted policeman during my morning ride to work along the Hudson River Greenway. I then dutifully stopped at red traffic lights where a road crosses the path – only for the officer impatiently to tell me to get on with it and keep riding.

A typical Manhattan intersection, making it clear why the police
should prioritise cracking down on cyclists
Other cyclists' experience of the NYPD is very different. Last year, the NYPD issued 50,000 tickets of various kinds – for running red lights and so on – to cyclists, compared with only 25,000 for trucks. The division set up to get trucks to follow the law issued more tickets to cyclists than to trucks. Cyclists – who account for maybe 1 per cent of New York traffic and barely ever kill another road user – received around 5 per cent of all traffic tickets. Cyclists should follow the rules of the road, as should every other road user type. But the NYPD is so keen on ticketing cyclists that even perfectly legal cycling gets the treatment. At the height of the NYPD’s effort to intimidate cyclists last year, the filmmaker Casey Neistat received a ticket for cycling outside the cycle lane – which is simply not an offence.

The NYPD no doubt feels that its crackdown on poor cycling is simply bringing to road safety of the “broken windows” approach that’s generally thought to have helped to bring down other kinds of crime in New York. In the 1990s, Bill Bratton, then the police commissioner, and Rudy Giuliani, then New York’s mayor, told the police to tackle petty, “quality-of-life” pieces of anti-social behaviour, which they'd largely ignored before. Police started arresting vandals and the men who extorted money from motorists by cleaning their car windows at intersections. The approach is generally thought to have played at least some part in making the sitting a significantly less scary place to live. Cyclists certainly seem to be feeling the heat for some of the same reasons vandals and squeegee men started getting arrested. There are stories of community meetings with police where residents' top demand is a crackdown on allegedly scofflaw cyclists.

But it’s hard to imagine that broken windows would have been judged a success if the NYPD had concentrated on the squeegee men at the expense of going after murderers. It’s well documented that NYPD’s current policy for accidents involving cyclists is to investigate only if the cyclist has died or looks like doing so. Even then, the investigations seem to be perfunctory at best. While the fatality figures for the last year don’t give much detail on the nature of the fatal accidents, it’s clear that deaths of car occupants are the ones that are going up sharpest – and it’s essentially impossible that cyclists caused any of them. The city is determinedly not prosecuting motor vehicle crime.

A food delivery cyclist on 6th Avenue:
spreading fear, no doubt, among those he may imminently crush
That view seems in no danger of changing. Amid the alarming reversal in the safety statistics, New York’s latest transport safety crackdown is not on the trucks that I see careering at 50 mph up Sixth Avenue but on food delivery cyclists. I bow to no man in my irritation when I find a vacant-looking man on an electric-assist bike carrying chop suey the wrong way up a bike lane towards me. But, given the numbers of families losing fathers, mothers and children to bad driving, it’s mildly obscene that the focus is on a minor irritant of city life. I would feel even stronger, I imagine, were I, say, a relative of the woman killed in a particularly disturbing incident in late August in the West Village where the truck driver was so oblivious to the woman he hit that he dragged her body in his wheels for two blocks before stopping. The same must hold for the family of the young cyclist killed in an incident on Queens Boulevard on September 25, where the truck seems to have gone straight through a stop line. These are clearly incidents for which no food delivery bike, no matter how poorly ridden, could ever be responsible.

A well worked-out effort to tackle quality of life crime on roads in New York City  - or pretty much any big settlement - would concentrate on prosecuting motorists’ red-light jumping at the most dangerous intersections, failure to yield to pedestrians when required, illegal turning across other vehicles’ paths and excessive speed, especially at the most deadly junctions. Perhaps most importantly, it would try to stop people driving while distracted by their telephones or iPads - an area where prosecutions have fallen sharply even as the habit has become more and more widespread. The strategy, in other words, would seek to catch the kind of person who thinks it’s appropriate to race a Mercedes up Sixth Avenue - and address his behaviour before he ploughs into a minibus. The problem, of course, is that speeding motorists are, by their nature, hard to catch. It can be tough to gather the evidence to prosecute a car driver for dangerous but non-fatal behaviour such as deliberately driving intimidatingly close to a cyclist (a regular event in New York). Police forces everywhere have a predeliction for detecting offences that have a 100 per cent clear-up rate, of which cyclists’ light-jumping is a perfect example. The offence will almost never be reported except by a watching policeman. The offender is easy to catch and unlikely to argue his or her innocence successfully.

The change in tone in the 1990s in policing in New York City – and many other large cities worldwide that followed its lead – resulted from a revolution in thinking. City bosses realised it was no longer acceptable to let crime make parts of the city uninhabitable. The puzzle is why such thinking goes only as far as the kerb, and not onto the roads.

A van yields to pedestrians in mid-town Manhattan:
life would be better if this always happened
The British statistics, meanwhile, take me in my mind back to May 2010 and the day when I and other reporters were ushered into a room in the UK’s Department for Transport to meet Philip Hammond, the then-new UK transport secretary. “We will end the war on motorists,” Hammond told us, a keen glint in his eye no doubt reflecting his personal excitement at gaining greater freedom to drive his sport cars. One peace dividend for the motorists was a cut in funding for speed and traffic light cameras. Local authorities weren’t exactly told to take the things down – but the government did the next best thing. It stopped telling them they had to use some of their central government money for cameras - and cut the funding for road safety spending greatly.

The ensuing changes took me a little under a year later to the village of Nuneham Courtenay, on a stretch of the busy A4047 road just out side Oxford. Residents there had grown desperate enough to offer to pay to have their speed camera restarted. Cars that had been slowing down sharply through the village when there as a speed camera now swept through at 60mph. The same day I visited, Oxfordshire police were reintroducing speed cameras throughout the county after scraping together the money to pay for their operation. Because I knew plenty of places were simply abandoning speed cameras and I'd read research saying they saved 80 lives annually in the UK, I'd known for a long time that the UK's record of improving road safety was likely to be spoilt as it was by the recent statistics.

None of this is to say it's easy to stop future Mercedes bashing into minibuses. There's an urgent need to revise deep-seated attitudes about the priority given to cars and drivers’ rights. The driver who smashed into the minibus might, I suppose, have been a first-time offender whom an effort to target the riskiest drivers would have missed. But there’s a steady, demoralising stream of news at the moment on both sides of the Atlantic – a young musician killed on his bike in Queens, an elderly woman hit on a pedestrian crossings in London, a man hit on a crosswalk in Manhattan. As long as officials put off using speed cameras more and targetting the riskiest motorist behaviour, they're throwing away the chance to slow the flow at least a little.