Sunday 27 December 2015

Rage in South London, a tragedy in Fort Greene - and why it matters to punish bad drivers

It was a frustration as intense as any I’ve ever felt. I’d just been hit as I rode across Newington Causeway, near Elephant & Castle in South London, by another cyclist who’d ridden fast through a red light. Yet, when I made it clear I planned to call the police, he picked up his bike and rode off as fast as he could. A mixture of anger and frustrated impotence welled up inside me. The other rider, I realised, would face no consequences at all for prioritising his own convenience over my safety.

I’ve recalled how I felt following that incident in March 2009 several times in the last few weeks as I’ve contemplated New York City’s response to some of the appalling tragedies on the city’s roads. New York’s law enforcers often seem to shrug off instances of astonishingly poor negligent driving – including many that kill entirely blameless people – as casually as that rider six years ago picked up his fixie and rode off. For example, Marlon Sewell, who drove his SUV onto a sidewalk in Fort Greene on December 6 and killed Victoria Nicodemus, currently faces only two,relatively minor charges: one for driving without a licence and the other for driving without insurance.
Attendees at the vigil for Victoria Nicodemus: killed on the
sidewalk but, as far as Brooklyn law enforcement's concerned,
hey, it's the kind of thing any of us could do.

At a vigil at the site of the crash on December 22, Victoria’s brothers and a series of politicians all lined up to demand Mr Sewell be prosecuted “to the fullest extent of the law”. I recognised anger and frustration similar to what I felt following the crash at Elephant & Castle - though clearly, given the crash’s gravity, theirs was immeasurably deeper and more intense.

It’s a frustration that people concerned about street safety in many parts of the world share. UK cycling and walking activists often express astonishment at the low level of charges that drivers who kill or maim people in the UK face and at the apparently light sentences facing those convicted.

Yet I also occasionally hear dissenting voices. Isn’t it ironic, they ask, that activists who mostly doubt the appropriateness of harsh prison sentences call for them over road crashes? Rabi Abonour, a valued member of New York’s street safety movement, supplied such a voice after Nicodemus’s death, writing that he was “uncomfortable” with the calls for murder or manslaughter charges.

“We have huge problems with criminal justice in this country,” he wrote. “Putting more people in jail doesn't fix anything.”

It’s a complaint that someone writing in the UK could also, to a lesser extent, make, given the UK’s unusual propensity compared with other European countries, for  putting people  in prison.

Pushing for more enforcement, Rabi went on, was almost certainly going to end up meaning more people of colour were prosecuted than white people.

“We need to fix the racism of our criminal justice system before we push for more felony charges against dangerous drivers,” he wrote.

The critical question is how to balance the appropriate demand that drivers face consequences for their bad behaviour with the understanding that the criminal justice system is an imprecise, often unfair tool for achieving that goal.
Occasion for liberal guilt: the corner where I got into a row
that ended in a driver's receiving a worryingly
disproportionate fine.
 I should stress that I yield to no-one in my propensity for liberal guilt. I continue to feel uneasy, for example, about the punishment meted out to a car service driver who grabbed for my camera and bike and yelled abuse at me in March 2014. The driver – who was angry that I tried to take a picture of his vehicle blocking a bike lane – was fined $3,050 – an excessive amount, in my view – after he failed to turn up at the Taxi and Limousine Commission hearing about the case. Drivers who knew how to game the system – enter a guilty plea for far lesser charges and have the gravest counts dropped – generally faced fines of no more than $300. His punishment left me feeling I’d participated in a rather grubby business. There is a tendency across the US criminal justice system for prosecutors to use Draconian charges to scare defendants into striking a plea bargain. It’s unsurprising – and deplorable - that there are many reports of even the innocent being scared into accepting such deals.

Yet those of us on the political left often, I think, misunderstand a critical part of the criminal justice system’s role. The system certainly exists to deter criminals and to reform those who have already committed crimes. But it is also vital that the system expresses society’s rage at those who violate its rules and do unjustified harm to others. There is an inevitable and appropriate element in many criminal sentences related to exacting retribution for the wrongdoer’s violation of the norm that members of a society should not do unjustified harm to one another. It is a vital part of society’s valuing of people’s property, health and lives that it should be so.
New York criminal justice is relaxed about bad driving -
and people wonder how the streets end up looking like this.

It seems to me, based on media reports, that a criminal justice system that valued human life appropriately would indeed charge Marlon Sewell with serious offences resulting in a prison sentence of at least a few years. Sewell’s licence had been suspended in March and he was cited three times for speeding in one week in November. Witnesses say he was driving too fast when he mounted the sidewalk. He can have been under no illusions either that he was legally free to drive or that his driving was of an acceptable standard. The system currently plans to treat Mr Sewell’s killing of her as essentially little more than a matter of not having the right paperwork in order.

While it is, of course, fatuous to call the crime murder – it lacked the targeted malice for that – it can be only because the killer was a car driver that the case is currently being treated differently from other deaths through negligence. It is hard to imagine that if Sewell had been driving drunk – the one type of negligent driving most US prosecutors currently take seriously – he would be facing such minor charges.

Yet the tragedy of many criminal justice systems worldwide lies less in how they treat people like Marlon Sewell once they’ve killed someone than in their readiness to let matters get that far. New York City’s authorities essentially believe it more important that people should be free to drive around the city as they please than that the unlicensed or uninsured should face regular checks to prevent them from doing so. The authorities view it as more important that traffic should flow freely and drivers’ privacy be respected than that 30-year-old Ms Nicodemus should be able to walk down a sidewalk unmolested by speeding vehicles. It is at this stage – where a tendency to dangerous behaviour can be detected, challenged and corrected – that the criminal justice system should be working, in Rabi’s words, to “fix” things.
Two drivers block the bike box while a third runs a red
to make an illegal left turn: scenes from a culture
of consequence-free bad driving

The logic of the existing system, meanwhile, reflects grubby realities about US justice that both Rabi and I would like to alter. Unfettered driving is tolerated at least in part because it is the means of transport that has come to seem “natural” for the US’s rich and powerful. Many in authority significantly underestimate driving’s drawbacks because those who suffer the pollution, deaths and injuries are disproportionately poor and, consequently, members of ethnic minorities. While Mr Sewell is black and Ms Nicodemus was white, the concentration of car ownership among the better-off means that well-off whites are disproportionately likely to be killer-drivers. Poor members of ethnic minorities are disproportionately likely to be their victims.

None of this is to say that those concerned about street safety around the world should shrug their shoulders at the shortcomings of their criminal justice systems and push for harsh punishments for dangerous drivers regardless. It is vital, for example, that cities like New York increase their dependence on automated cameras to detect routine speeding and right-of-way violations. Such a move would, I have argued before, help both to reduce the problems caused by police officers’ racial biases and to prevent appalling incidents like the death of Sandra Bland in a Texas jail after she was stopped for a nonsensical, minor violation. Activists should insist that in traffic enforcement, as in non-traffic crime, law enforcement officials develop plans to detect people who are apt to cause harm to others and seek to nudge them with minor punishments – points on their licences, compulsory retesting or restrictions on their licences – designed to make them address their behaviour and attitudes. Many of New York’s streets are also long overdue redesigns that would encourage better driving.
Allen St in Chinatown one recent morning:
a scene from a city that lets drivers off the hook.

It remains clear to me, nevertheless, that a driver takes on a serious responsibility when he or she starts driving in a car. It is impossible to believe that Marlon Sewell, after multiple run-ins with the law over his driving, can have been unaware how serious the consequences of his behaviour could be. As a result of his negligent driving, he has taken away everything the 30-year-old art curator had and much that her family and boyfriend had. The horror of the event, it seems to me, is less that people are calling for Mr Sewell to face serious charges for his actions than that there is such profound moral confusion over it. The New York Daily News, for example, bafflingly quoted an apparent witness to the tragedy as largely exonerating Mr Sewell, saying that he would have Ms Nicodemus’s death on his conscience forever. The real villain, the piece alleged, was a bystander who, dazed after witnessing the crash, took a bite from the pizza she had just bought.

Standing at the site of the crash on Wednesday with others, it was both horrific to contemplate what had happened there and all too easy to imagine. Other drivers kept venting their frustration at the slight congestion from the vigil by honking their horns, blocking crosswalks and exhibiting the kind of behaviour that contributes to New York City’s appalling street safety record. As Ms Nicodemus’s family and colleagues talked about her, the tragedy was not only that she was clearly a unique and talented individual but to think of how the near-daily other tragedies on the city’s streets must be wiping out others just as brilliant and loveable.

An installation that Victoria Nicodemus'
colleagues made after her death: likely
to prove an empty plea as long as bad driving
is effectively ignored.
A harsh sentence for Mr Sewell would not, of course, either bring back the woman he killed or on its own do much to solve the deep-seated problems. But there was also an unmistakeable sense at the vigil that the criminal justice system had been complicit in contributing to her death. It is appropriate to feel a surge of anger at the behaviour of drivers like Mr Sewell. Good societies must demand that people who breach the law so flagrantly face serious consequences.

It is obviously correct that the criminal justice system’s biases should be eradicated. It  is obviously correct that unthinking, harsh punishments solve nothing. It is also obviously correct that the US  has relied on prison too much to solve its social problems. In particular, the US has imprisoned far too many young black men for drug offences that in a better-ordered society would not be offences at all.

Yet it is equally clearly true, it seems to me, that a system that defines Marlon Sewell’s driving on December 6 as warranting no more than two warrants for technical violations is morally bankrupt. It is a system that will continue to be incapable of preventing other people – mostly poorer, more marginalised people than Ms Nicodemus – from dying. Their being crushed on sidewalks, in crosswalks and bike lanes by drivers will then be dismissed by the authorities as little more than an understandable slip.

Sunday 6 December 2015

First Avenue Harassment, Talking Down to Pedestrians - and a Culture That Needs to Change

There could hardly have been a clearer illustration of what’s wrong with the culture of New York’s city streets. Two Saturdays ago, as I rode my bike up 1st Avenue on the Upper East Side towards the Metropolitan Museum, I succeeded in shouting forcefully enough to get one turning driver to yield to me momentarily – as legally required – as I rode straight on through an intersection. But his brief slowing – more a result of confusion at my shouting, I think, than a genuine effort to let me through – enraged another driver waiting to turn.

“C’mon – let’s go!” he yelled out of his window at the driver who’d slowed, urging him, in effect, to drive over me.
Poorly-designed intersections and illegal maneouvres
by drivers: welcome to First Avenue
It’s the kind of incident I’ve noticed many times in recent weeks as I’ve been trying to understand the persistently high death toll on New York’s streets – particularly a dreadful spate of 12 pedestrian deaths between October 31 and November 11. It’s common to see drivers honk loudly at others who have correctly yielded to pedestrians in crosswalks. I’ve personally been on the receiving end of a fair amount of harassment from drivers who imagined they had a right to overtake me even in places where it was unsafe.

This impatience from city drivers shapes the atmosphere, making pedestrians and cyclists fearful and making the business of using the streets often miserable and stressful for everyone else. Many drivers, traffic planners and police officers seem to accept this aggressive driving culture as an almost charming symptom of the city’s general bustle and as unchangeable as the weather. They seem to regard anyone who breaks the formal law while acting within the limits of this accepted style of driving as essentially not culpable.
New York City pedestrians: their own worst
enemies, except for all the bigger, more
dangerous enemies.
The area’s political class are also worryingly oblivious to the nature of the problem. On November 10, Mike Simanowitz, a member of the New York State assembly, chose at a press conference organised by the New York Police Department’s 109th precinct to criticise pedestrians for creating the problems themselves. It was as if he was complaining about the timidity of his pet mice while doing nothing about the gang of unruly cats rampaging through his house.

“If you're crossing in the middle of the street, you're wrong, you're endangering yourself, you're endangering others, you're endangering drivers," Mr Simanowitz said.

He gave no explanation of how pedestrian behaviour might endanger drivers.

“Cross at the green, not in-between, and hopefully we will be able to reduce the number of traffic fatalities," he added.

There is, of course, something fundamentally nebulous about the claim that a set of observed behaviours adds up to a “culture”. I resist sweeping statements about how “bikers” as a whole behave or stereotypes about British people or white people or all the other various groups to which I belong.

Yet I was struck when visiting Los Angeles in mid-November at how differently the average driver behaved from his or her New York counterpart. Los Angeles drivers seem when yielding to pedestrians to stop the car well outside the crosswalk until the pedestrian is out of the way. Used to New York drivers’ constant harrying of pedestrians to hurry them out of crosswalks, I found their stopping at that point so freakish that I’d hesitate a little, wondering what was wrong.

LA drivers meanwhile had a tendency to creep forward into the crosswalk if anticipating they might be able to make a coveted right-turn on a red light (permitted when no pedestrians are crossing). Once clear of intersections, they would take off at horrendous speeds, encouraged by the city’s wide streets.
Traffic on Hollywood Boulevard: surprisingly accommodating
to basic standards of decency.
The contrasting patterns of behaviour reflect the two cities’ different road conditions. In New York, on Manhattan avenues and many other places, there can be 20 intersections every mile, with each controlled by traffic lights. In drivers, New Yorkers’ famed impatience expresses itself in a desperate desire to reach the next traffic light before it has been red for too long. Angelenos are famously more laid back – and they can make up for any delay at an intersection by speeding up on the long spaces between lights.

The moment one starts looking for the jostling for position in New York, however, it’s everywhere. If I position myself safely at the head of a line of traffic waiting at a red light, I will typically find the driver first in the line creeping up alongside me, putting me in precisely the proximity to him I was trying to avoid. Every morning, as I ride down Smith St in Brooklyn, I find drivers seeking to turn from side streets have turned half-way through the intersection, blocking the cycle lane and crosswalks, to reserve their rightful place in the street’s slow-moving traffic jam. Drivers are so desperate to get out of parking spaces and into the traffic that they seem truly to look at what's going on only once they're under way down the street.

These habits are far more than local foibles like New Yorkers’ tendency to be rude or fondness for street food. New York city bus drivers alone killed three pedestrians in November – two hit by drivers turning through crosswalks and another hit by a driver apparently speeding. The police appear to be attributing a crash on October 31 that killed Louis Perez, 64, Nyanna Aquil, 10, and Kristian Leka, 24, on a sidewalk in The Bronx to the driver’s “medical issue”. But, whatever happened immediately before the crash, the driver was driving a powerful Dodge Charger car at such a speed that it became airborne after hitting another car and landed on top of the victims. A read through Radio WNYC’s list of this year’s traffic fatalities – 228 at the time of writing – reveals a steady stream of people killed by drivers ignoring their right of way, driving too fast or mounting a sidewalk after crashes resulting from excessive speed.
125th St in Harlem: I see excessive speed and fast, risky
turns. But a New York assembly member sees this as a space
spoilt by pedestrians' recklessness.
There is a mountain of evidence about the costs and causes of the current traffic culture. While the number of traffic deaths to the end of November - 224 – was down on the 252 for the same period in 2014, only 127 people died in London – a slightly larger city with more motor traffic – in the whole of 2014. Research by Streetsblog, the campaigning website, shows that only around 7 or 8 per cent of crashes involving pedestrians in New York are labelled a result of an error by a pedestrian.

There's no denying that New York pedestrians and cyclists are also often in a hurry. I am frequently frustrated, for example, by pedestrians' rush to cross the street after cars have passed, without looking out for cyclists. I find it tempting to ride through traffic lights just as they're changing precisely because it means I can avoid jostling with drivers when the lights turn green again. When I run through lights a little later than I should, however, I find an even later car nearly invariably following me through. The behaviour of both pedestrians and cyclists is dictated mainly, it seems to me, by their desire to avoid crossing streets or moving away from lights at the same time that cars are doing so.

Mr Simanowitz’s comments are unusually revealing, meanwhile, about why politicians and the police persist in trying to berate pedestrians and cyclists into solving the problem rather than going after the real issue – driver behaviour. The patronising rhyme – “cross at the green, not in-between” – makes it clear that he regards pedestrians as irresponsible children in contrast to the grown-ups – the drivers – in the streets. I encountered similar reasoning myself recently when I got into a row with a driver who’d pulled out into my path and he quickly fell to insinuating that cycling was a children’s activity.

“You’re a grown-ass man on a push bike!” he yelled, incredulously, as if being an adult in charge of an elderly, collision-damaged Lexus SUV were inherently superior.
The sign says "slow zone"; the design says fast.
Which do you think motorists do?

The rhyme suggests that Mr Simanowitz’s thinking – and, I suspect, that of many other senior politicians – remains dominated by the facile road safety lessons given to children. Those are, typically, predicated on the idea that it’s children’s own job to keep themselves safe. They embrace none of the complexity that the statistics reveal – that most road traffic victims suffer from someone else’s negligence, not their own. It’s as if they were trying to solve the mice’s timidity by giving the mice lessons in strengthening their characters, not keeping the cats at a safe distance.

There’s little mystery about what it would take to alter the traffic culture. Many New York streets at present look designed precisely to encourage excess speed, not to discourage it. The sidewalks and cycle lanes are mostly add-ons that are sacrificed anywhere that cyclists or pedestrians might slow down or otherwise hamper traffic. Enforcement of traffic laws is haphazard and often directed at harassing cyclists and pedestrians, based on the same fundamental misunderstanding of road relationships that Mr Simanowitz betrayed.

London, which has made little concerted effort to address road safety and whose transport policies have many shortcomings, has far better figures largely by dint of having better road design, better places to cross the street and far more speed cameras.

But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the city as a whole for now takes the view of the people I encountered as I rode down MacDougal St in Greenwich Village on Thursday evening. They stepped out into the bike lane to hail a taxi which then, with considerable predictability, veered left into the bike lane cutting me off and forcing me to come abruptly to a halt.

They were superficially apologetic and sympathetic.

“Oh – that’s not right,” one of them said.

But the sympathy wore off in less time than it took me to ask the driver what he thought he was doing.

“Be on your way – we’re in a hurry,” the initially sympathetic man shouted at me, in the stilted tone of a character in a novel.

Then, as I accepted defeat and headed off towards Bleecker Street, he spoke for the city when he yelled after me: “Shit happens – get used to it!”

This blog is the first after a lengthy delay caused by the Invisible Visible Man’s efforts, among other things, to interest publishers and agents in the possibility of a book based on the blog. I apologise for the interruption.

The timing of future blogposts will depend on progress in the efforts to find a publisher. Anyone interested in taking me on as an agent or publisher is free to contact me at robert dot wright at ft dot com.