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Broken Windows Traffic Policing

eye on the news

Broken Windows Traffic Policing

How to stop scofflaw New York drivers from killing people May 18, 2017
Public safety
New York

If Mayor Bill de Blasio wanted to get better results from his “Vision Zero” traffic-safety plan—which cut driver and passenger deaths from 81 in 2015 to 67 last year, even while the number of walkers and cyclists mowed down by cars rose from 153 to 165—he should stress vigilant traffic policing more. Most of those pedestrian and cyclist deaths occurred in crosswalks, and drivers would be more cautious there if they thought the cops might be watching. De Blasio would also recognize that the “Broken Windows” theory of policing—that small crimes of disorder, left unchecked, lead to more serious crime—holds true with traffic infractions as with any other kind of lawbreaking. So here are five Broken Windows actions that the mayor could take right now, which, if past experience holds true, ought to protect citizens from lethal drivers.

First, cops should crack down on “boom-box” cars—those with radios blasting loudly enough to be heard blocks away and to shake your windows as they pass by. The law forbids excessive noise—reasonably enough, for a dollop of civility from all is what makes life in a packed-together city possible. Anyone who inflicts drive-by pandemonium on his fellow citizens is doing so merely for the pleasure of aggressive self-assertion, and such belligerent behavior suggests the kind of driver who would swing into a crosswalk so quickly as to cut off a pedestrian crossing the street. But any miscalculation in such me-first driving can be fatal, and such drivers need to learn early that cops expect uniformly responsible motorist behavior.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani toyed with the idea of simply impounding boom-box cars on the spot, and he contemplated with a certain glee making some swaggering youth walk home to New Jersey in the middle of the night. But then the planes crashed into the Twin Towers, and the demands of the unfolding emergency left no time for refining these forms of quality-of-life policing.

Second, the NYPD should ticket truck drivers on residential avenues where the law forbids commercial traffic. Residents pay a premium to live on streets closed to the rumble of eighteen-wheelers, the roar and stink of diesel engines, and the squeal of air brakes, but they no longer get their money’s worth in this respect. Truckers use these residential avenues, in preference to commercial ones, to save time, but of course a speeding truck is the biggest imaginable danger not only to pedestrians and cyclists but also to ordinary drivers. It would take only random police enforcement to keep truckers off these streets, so it would be a high-return use of scarce police resources. It might even be possible to develop a traffic-camera technology to record the license plates of trucks as they rumble down these avenues, so that ticket issuing could become as automatic as that which catches drivers who run red lights or toll evaders on highways and bridges. An interim step might be to equip traffic officers—once called meter maids—with cameras to snap license plates and phones to call colleagues down the avenue to look for a particular truck. If it appeared 20 blocks further down in five minutes, a time-stamped photo would prove it was not merely making a delivery. Four minutes would also prove it was speeding. These unarmed officers can’t write tickets for moving violations, but they could relay such photographic evidence to higher authorities.

Third—and this is a step even the lionhearted Giuliani never took—such city employees as sanitation men who race their trucks down residential avenues to the depot, or bus drivers who cross an intersection just as the light is turning against them, blocking crosstown traffic as they wait for the light to change again, should get tickets. Of course no mayor courts union hostility, and one public-union member would be loath to penalize another. But New Yorkers (and even Americans at large) already sense that public servants, with their porcine retirement and health-care benefits, have become the public’s masters, and that they are exempt from the rules that bind everyone else, so nothing could be more salutary for restoring trust in government than ensuring that public employees respect rather than flout the law. Can you imagine the electric impact of seeing a cop writing a ticket to an MTA bus driver on Fifth Avenue in midtown, a sight I have never seen in over half a century as a New Yorker? A mayor with the guts to make unionized workers follow the same rules as everyone else—there could be no more potent message that the rules count than that!

Fourth, officers need once again to enforce the law against “spillback”—blocking an intersection because you tried, and failed, to beat the light. Again, camera-equipped meter maids could do this job. Traffic in midtown is currently chaos, thanks to the congestion resulting from various ill-advised traffic-control innovations of the current mayor and his predecessor. A little damage control would help.

Finally, to prevent the kind of mayhem that happened in Times Square at lunchtime today, when a suspected drunken driver with two previous drunk-driving citations killed one pedestrian and hurt at least 22 more, drivers should have their licenses suspended after one such conviction and revoked after two. So also with those who drive without a license or with a suspended one. They are lawbreakers, pure and simple, and a continued career of such wrongdoing ultimately should send them to jail.

But don’t hold your breath. The de Blasio administration seems to care more about protecting those who don’t follow the rules than those who do, as a recent NYPD directive forbidding cops to answer noise complaints by entering apartments to break up rowdy, late-night parties suggests. That’s the usual instinct of left-wing Democratic mayors, and it inevitably, if gradually, produces urban rot.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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