After three pedestrians died last week on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the NYPD stepped up traffic-law enforcement. But something went awry: Kang Wong, an 84-year-old immigrant ticketed for jaywalking, wound up on the front page of Monday’s New York Post, bleeding and looking confused. The officers who collared Wong may have thought that punishing pedestrian infractions is a good application of Broken Windows policing—after all, ticketing a guy for ignoring a crossing signal beats writing up a report after he died under a bus. But targeting errant pedestrians is something like arresting someone who breaks a window because he’s trying to escape a fire.
What—or who—causes pedestrian deaths in traffic-choked New York? Sometimes pedestrians themselves precipitate their own downfall. People who cross mid-block put themselves in peril. “Don’t cross the street in the middle of the block, nor from between parked or double-parked cars,” J. P. Patafio, an MTA bus operator, counsels. People who remain immersed in their texting or music as they step in front of moving vehicles are another danger. “Don’t walk and talk; stand to the side and still if you’re on the phone,” Patafio says. Finally, “stay on the curb” if you’re waiting for a walk signal, “especially at corners where buses are making turns.” And: “Don’t lean into a busy street.” Good advice.
The problem with police officers imparting such advice through ticket-writing, though, is that it leaves pedestrians with a misleading—and sometimes deadly—impression: that following traffic laws will keep them alive. Such a strategy doesn’t work in New York, at least not yet. Officers presumably targeted Wong to change his future behavior. But by doing so, Wong could put himself in greater danger.
According to news accounts, Wong was crossing two-way 96th Street and Broadway with a crowd but against the light. Had Wong waited for the light, though, he would have had no guarantee of safe passage. At 96th and Broadway, as is typical of a Manhattan intersection, pedestrians and drivers going in the same direction both get a green light at the same time. A pedestrian crossing a side street thus shares the same “go” time with drivers turning from the main avenue onto that side street. Wong could have patiently waited for the light to change and then assumed that any turning drivers would respect his right of way. That’s what 72-year old Maude Savage did last November, stepping into a Brooklyn crosswalk only when she received her signal. “You [can] see Savage [on video] waiting for the pedestrian signal and looking both ways before stepping into the street,” reports Streetsblog’s Brad Aaron. After she did, a speeding driver turned into her. She died from her injuries two months later.
Savage’s fate was no aberration. A 2010 report on pedestrian safety in New York City concluded that “surprisingly, most (57 percent)” of deaths at intersections between 2005 and 2009 “occurred while the pedestrian was crossing with the signal.” Savage died, in part, because she expected New York’s laws to protect her. Wong may have kept himself alive because he’s not so naïve.
Indeed, Wong, if he’s like most elderly people, is not a risk-taking daredevil. He likely takes crossing the street quite seriously, as Savage did, and for good reason. The same report noted that senior citizens, while only 12 percent of the population, comprise 38 percent of pedestrian deaths. Wong has statistics on his side if he felt safer crossing with other people rather than alone, even if that decision meant breaking the law. He may have feared that if he were to wait, a driver wouldn’t see him all by himself, after everyone else had crossed. Keeping drivers’ attention is critical. The same 2010 report blamed “driver inattention” for more than one-third of deadly or seriously injurious crashes. If Wong had waited, he could have found himself crossing alone at dusk, trying to beat a turning driver even as he looked for potholes and other hazards to older walkers.
Pedestrians, then, should assume that other people—in vehicles far more powerful than a human body—will break the law. It’s startling the extent to which New York’s street-war veterans focus on how following the law can get you killed. “Do not assume vehicles are adhering to the rules of the road,” says Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “Unless you meet eyes with a driver, you can’t assume the driver sees you, or will take the steps necessary to avoid a collision with you,” says Steve Vaccaro, who litigates traffic-injury cases at his Vaccaro & White law firm. “Don’t cross in front of a truck”—even if you have the right of way—“until you see the whites of the eyes of the driver,” says Sam Schwartz, former New York City traffic commissioner. “If a truck is turning in front of you, back up at least six feet. Rear wheels can off-track that much so that the front of the truck doesn’t touch you but the rear wheels will run you over.” “Never assume that drivers are going to stop for a red light, or that turning drivers are going to yield to you, even when you are in the crosswalk with the light,” says Paul Steely White of Transportation Alternatives. And finally, here’s Christine Berthet, cofounder of the Clinton Hell’s Kitchen Coalition for Pedestrian Safety (CHEKPEDS): “Never assume a driver will obey the traffic laws. Walk the streets as if you were in a battle.”
All of this makes sense, as does the most obvious piece of advice: Look both ways before you cross the street, even if it’s a one-way street. But these insights also make clear that punishing pedestrians without first targeting bad drivers is the opposite of Broken Windows—instead of deterring bad driver behavior, it enables it, by teaching walkers that they must expect drivers to drive badly.
Officers should target drivers who, according to the 2010 report, are disproportionately likely to kill or injure. That means drivers who speed or who recklessly turn. A pedestrian is three and a half times more likely to die if someone hits her at 40 miles per hour rather than at 30—the city’s default speed limit. Officers should ticket any driver who races down an avenue or takes a turn too quickly, and they should watch for aggressive or distracted drivers. Someone punching a keypad, screaming into his phone, or eating a meal is a danger to himself and others. Ticket him—and men are driving in 80 percent of crash deaths—before he kills someone. Officers and prosecutors should also pay more attention to crashes that don’t cause death or serious injury; the careless driver’s next victims may not be so lucky.
When New York’s streets are safe for law-abiding pedestrians, then police should go after those who don’t follow the law. But until officers—supported by better state laws and assertive district attorneys—have changed the behavior of bad drivers, even careful pedestrians are still taking major risks.