What Role Should Police Play in Preventing Traffic Deaths?

"You're going to have accidents," says New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

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Elena Olivo

New York Police Department commissioner Ray Kelly often cites the decline in homicides in New York City as one of his signature achievements. When he appeared at The Atlantic's CityLab summit this week, he was eager to discuss the use of surveillance technology and to promote his department’s success in reducing overall crime rates.

But when asked about what his department could do to reduce traffic fatalities in the city, he didn’t have a lot of answers.

Last year, even as the city’s homicide rate continued to fall, traffic deaths went up, and 148 pedestrians died in traffic crashes on the city’s streets, as did 18 people riding bicycles. In New York, unless drivers flee the scene of a fatal crash or test positive for drugs or alcohol, they are rarely charged with any crime, regardless of what traffic regulations they were violating at the time. "No criminality was suspected" is a phrase that has become grimly familiar to street safety advocates.

Even as the Bloomberg administration has moved decisively to give more street space to pedestrians and people on bikes, the NYPD has been slow to change its windshield perspective, only this spring beginning to reform the way it investigates crashes that result in serious injury or death. And Kelly, now on his way out of the commissioner’s job, doesn’t appear inclined to rethink the way he’s been approaching the problem.

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When asked what the NYPD could do to reduce traffic violence on New York streets, Kelly acknowledged that "we could always do a better job in every area." But he also implied that the toll from traffic violence was just part of doing business in a big city that is getting bigger all the time.

"We do have 8.4 million people," he said. "We do have a daytime population that’s over 10 million people. You’re going to have a lot of traffic and you’re going to have accidents."

Kelly made it clear that he hasn’t reconsidered his department’s less-than-aggressive approach to investigating drivers who endanger others by speeding, running red lights, and the like – all of which are classified as violations and not crimes.

"Some people say that the police are not arresting enough people for reckless driving and that sort of thing. Well, you have to — and there are many court decisions that say this — you have to observe the violation," said Kelly. "It takes in-depth investigation and examination, it takes witnesses, it’s much more complex than you might think."

In other words, too complex to consider devoting resources to investigating these deaths and injuries, from Kelly's perspective.

About the Author

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