How Tom Prendergast responds to the Metro-North Railroad crash that killed four passengers Thanksgiving weekend will define his tenure as CEO and chairman of the New York State–run Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). People demand rail safety, even if it requires slower rides and higher costs. Similarly, people should demand safety on the streets. Just as Prendergast is responsible for the lives of his passengers, New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio—and his new transportation and police commissioners, Polly Trottenberg and Bill Bratton, respectively—are responsible for the safety of those who walk, cycle, and drive in New York. The early indicator from de Blasio, in office just two weeks, is a good one. Earlier this week, de Blasio said he was directing the two commissioners as well as the city’s health department and taxi commission to make “a top-to-bottom effort to take on dangerous streets and dangerous driving.”
The December 1 Metro-North crash shocked the region. Metro-North had never killed a passenger in more than three decades of operation. And people don’t die in subway crashes, either—at least, not in the past 22 years. After the crash, the federal government ordered changes—including putting two crew members in the front of each train on tricky stretches until the MTA can add more automatic-speed and attention fail-safes. The MTA’s two commuter railroads (the Long Island Railroad is the other) had to give workers an immediate refresher course in safe operation. Prendergast, in charge only for six months, hasn’t questioned these emergency directives.
Contrast this response with the reaction to other news from the same period. The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, three pedestrians and a bicyclist died in New York City traffic. Over Thanksgiving weekend, a city traffic agent died in the line of duty, hit by a truck. Nobody was surprised. That 261 people died in traffic crashes last year through November—including 152 pedestrians—is apparently just part of big-city life. And so far in 2014, seven pedestrians, including a nine-year-old boy, have died.
Public perception of traffic deaths is changing, though, albeit slowly. Bloomberg-era transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan focused on safety, and her efforts mattered—in 2001, the year before Bloomberg took office 193 pedestrians died in crashes on New York City streets. Some people may still make fun of pedestrian plazas and bike lanes, but by slowing truck and car speeds in the city, these design changes have saved lives and reduced injuries, while improving traffic flow (see “Ungridlocked,” Spring 2012).
De Blasio is doing the right thing in telling his commissioners to treat every traffic fatality as preventable. “The [transportation] commissioner should be held accountable, but together with the police commissioner,” says Elliot G. Sander, who served as transportation commissioner under Mayor Rudy Giuliani and as MTA chief executive under Governor Eliot Spitzer. “You need the third ‘E’—enforcement—to complement engineering and education.” Sander noted that he was glad that Bratton was “already talking about focusing on this” as he prepared to take over as police commissioner.
As he works with fellow commissioners on a preliminary strategy report for de Blasio over the next month, Bratton should think of specific tactical ways for the NYPD to adopt a zero-tolerance enforcement approach, as it does in preventing other violent deaths. A car parked in a bike lane, for example, is more than a minor annoyance—it’s willful disregard for someone else’s life. Even small changes could help. The police department releases crash-death information in a category called “traffic data,” which hardly captures the problem’s seriousness. The department should create interactive maps of all fatal and injurious crashes and make the results of each crash investigation public, so that observers can see what happened and how to prevent it from happening again—as will happen with the Metro-North crash. The city should also make clear that a person who drives recklessly could lose his car to civil forfeiture before he kills someone.
In the wake of December’s crash, Metro-North is upgrading its automated systems to reduce the impact of human error. Albany, which is in charge of such things, should similarly allow New York City to install more speed and red-light cameras at intersections. When drivers protest, the mayor and the governor should respond that they’re more affected by the mourning relatives of car-crash victims. Just as Metro-North should immediately fire an engineer who violates safety rules, New York State should revoke the license of someone who has proved—via speeding tickets or other violations—that he can’t drive safely. In his State of the State address earlier this month, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed revoking the licenses of anyone convicted three times in three years of drunk driving – but that reform, while welcome, hardly goes far enough.
Nobody at the MTA will ever forget the crash of December 2013. But the people driving, walking, and biking through New York are passengers, too, dependent on street design as well as enforcement to keep human error from harming them. The December 1 crash notwithstanding, New York’s trains aren’t deadly; New York’s streets shouldn’t be, either.