We Need 'Broken Windows' for Traffic Crimes

There's outrage in New York City over how many drivers get away with killing people every year. Here's one idea to help save lives.

Image
Flickr/Marcin Wichary

These four words: “No criminality was suspected.”

The phrase is a mantra of sorts when it comes to the New York Police Department and traffic fatalities involving pedestrians and bicyclists. Run a red light and kill somebody? Speed and kill somebody? Fail to yield in a crosswalk and kill somebody? You might get a summons for a moving violation. But hey, “no criminality was suspected,” and so you, the driver, don’t have to worry about any further consequences.

The running joke on blogs like Gothamist and Streetsblog is that if you want to kill somebody in New York and get away with it, a car should be your weapon of choice. And for years, it seemed like no one in government was ever going to challenge that status quo.

On February 15, that changed, if only a little. The New York City Council held a hearing on traffic safety and the NYPD’s handling of bicycle and pedestrian fatalities and injuries. And some of what came out was mind-blowing.

Gothamist, which has been all over this story, did a great job of rounding up some of the salient data that came out at the hearing (snark is theirs):

  • The NYPD issued more summonses to cyclists than truck drivers last year: truckers got 14,962 moving violation summonses and 10,415 Criminal Court summonses, while cyclists got 13,743 moving violation summonses and a whopping 34,813 Criminal Court summonses. Priorities!
  • The NYPD Accident Investigation Squad [AIS] only has 19 detectives, three sergeants, and one lieutenant, but is responsible for investigating fatal accidents for the entire city. But don't worry, there's always at least one detective on duty at all times.
  • The AIS will only investigate accidents in which the victim dies or seems likely to die. If you get hit by a driver and end up in a wheelchair for the rest of your life, there's no AIS investigation. The patrol officers will fill out an accident report, and traffic tickets might be issued, but there will never be an in-depth investigation or follow-up.
  • 241 pedestrians or cyclists were killed by drivers last year. Only 17 of the drivers responsible faced criminal charges.
  • Asked how many criminal charges were filed against drivers in non-fatal accidents, the NYPD reps said they were not aware of any.
  • Hayley and Diego's Laws were created to empower the NYPD to issue "careless driving" charges, but the NYPD says judges have repeatedly thrown out these charges on the grounds that an officer has to personally witness the accident in order to file the charge.

At least some of the focus on the NYPD’s inept and even negligent handling of these traffic cases can be traced to the incredible persistence of one family. Last October, artist Mathieu Lefevre was hit and killed by a truck while he was riding his bicycle. The driver didn’t stop; his story later was that he didn’t realize he had hit Lefevre. He parked his truck a few blocks from the scene of the crash and wasn’t tracked down until some time after it happened.

Lefevre’s parents, who are Canadian, expected some answers from the NYPD. What they got was a whole lot of nothing. Only after weeks of requests did the police even release to the family the evidence they had gathered in the case –  evidence which, it turned out, was incomplete, contradicted earlier official accounts of what happened, and exhibited shocking sloppiness (the camera the investigating officer took to the scene didn’t even work). The family is now suing the NYPD for withholding information on the crash.

You can find detailed accounts of the Lefevre case at Streetsblog (full disclosure: I used to work there) and at Gothamist. When you’re reading them, keep in mind that this case is by no means an anomaly. This kind of thing happens all the time.

In the last two years, two people I knew well were killed by cars while simply going about their business. No charges were filed in either case, although witnesses in one of the cases said the vehicle that struck my friend, who was riding a Vespa, was speeding and running a red light.

She left behind three children under the age of nine.

I am one degree of separation from at least four other people who were killed by drivers of cars or trucks in New York in the last seven years.

Then there are the injuries: The priest who performed my wedding was struck by a car that came up onto the sidewalk and pinned her against a building. Her recovery took months. The same thing happened to a former coworker. She was never able to walk normally again.

“Broken windows” for traffic crimes

Back in the early 1990s, the NYPD started implementing the policy that’s now widely known as “broken windows.” Faced with a record homicide rate—2,245 people were murder victims in 1990—the department cracked down from the bottom up, targeting petty "quality of life" crimes such as public drinking, turnstile-jumping, and, perhaps most notoriously, squeegeeing.

The policy pissed off a lot of people, including me. Civil rights advocates condemned then-mayor Rudolph Giuliani and then-police commissioner Bill Bratton, pointing out that the new measures disproportionately affected poor people and minorities. In a city where race was a constant source of fear and conflict (Bernie Goetz, Howard Beach, Crown Heights) it seemed like this new approach to policing might blow the house down.

Something else happened. The crime rate started going down. And down. And down. Not just the petty stuff – murders, rapes, violent assaults, all started falling. By 2007, there were just 494 homicides in New York City, the lowest rate since 1963.

A lot of different forces were at play during this period, and there’s no consensus that "broken windows" was the deciding factor. But there’s no question that it radically changed New Yorkers’ attitudes toward the inevitability of street crime.

One kind of offense, however, never really seemed to count in the “broken windows” calculus: traffic violations.

The city has never attacked traffic crimes the way it did the quality of life stuff. Cops don’t systematically ticket cars going through stop signs the way they did homeless guys plying their squeegee trade. There’s the occasional ticket blitz here and there, but on the whole drivers in New York know that you can get away with speeding on any street in town. Stop signs are suggestions. Yielding to a pedestrian in a crosswalk? It’s the driver’s choice.

Why? Maybe it’s because people with cars tend to have money and squeegee guys don’t. Maybe it’s because a lot of cops drive cars (and sometimes kill people with them), and it’s easy to imagine yourself hitting someone in a terrible instant. You tell me, because I don’t get it.

New York has made amazing advances in traffic safety in recent years, mostly by redesigning streets to slow cars down and give more space to pedestrians and bicycles. But it hasn’t been enough. We need the NYPD to get out from behind their windshields and start systematically ticketing people who run red lights and rocket down residential streets and blow off stop signs. Catching the small stuff can change the culture and avoid the worst outcomes for everyone.

Because as New York councilmember James Vacca said at yesterday’s hearing, “We don’t accept gun violence as a way to die. We shouldn’t accept traffic deaths as a way to die either.”

Top image credit: Flickr user Marcin Wichary

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.