New York City prides itself on being the best walking city in the nation. But lately, it's been a terrible place for pedestrians.
In less than two weeks, six people walking on city sidewalks were killed by drivers who lost control of their vehicles, including a student at my son's school. Still more have died when struck in crosswalks by drivers who failed to yield. Many of the victims have been children or older people.
The pain caused by these deaths is immeasurable. And they are completely preventable.
On Tuesday night, in Queens, advocates for safer streets held a rally called "Three Children Too Many." It memorialized three young victims of traffic violence, who died in the Jackson Heights neighborhood over the past year. At the rally, the parents of Allison Liao, a three-year-old killed by a driver who failed to yield in a crosswalk in Flushing, Queens, gave voice to their grief. The driver got two traffic tickets but, as is often the case with such deaths, faced no criminal charges.
The Liao family articulated a very powerful message about what's at stake every time a person starts up a car and drives it on a city street. It's worth watching all four minutes of the Streetfilms video showing their speech, but here's an excerpt of what Amy Tam, Allison's mother, had to say:
Allie was behaving exactly the way you would want your own three-year-old to when crossing the street. In the crosswalk, with the green light, hand-in-hand with Grandma. This driver, instead of yielding to a toddler and her grandma, made a conscious decision to muscle his way through the crosswalk in his SUV. This action changed our lives and killed our beloved daughter ... Allie paid the death penalty for crossing the street. This is for you, Allie. It is unbelievable that the driver's penalty is two tickets and our daughter is gone.
Then Allison's father, Hsi-Pei Liao, took the mike:
Our message to all drivers is simple. Please, before you get behind the wheel, realize that the machine you are about to operate can kill people. We may drive every day, but we need to be conscious of the enormous responsibility we have when we get behind the wheel. We urge drivers to pay attention to the road and to slow down. Yield to pedestrians. They have the right of way, and it's the right thing to do. Your vehicles weigh one ton of steel. The average human body weighs a fraction of the vehicle and is made up of fragile flesh and bones.
New Yorkers are always in a hurry. But we challenge drivers to pause and ask, is it worth it? Is it worth running over a child because you are running late? Is it worth picking up the phone when it could mean a family must pick out a grave for their child? Is it worth texting a friend when that message could force a father to text a date and time of their child’s funeral?
Pedestrian deaths have actually declined somewhat in New York City over the last several years, as more space on the streets has been given over to walkers. Traffic-calming measures have also been implemented in many of the city's neighborhoods. According to figures from the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, in 2009, 155 pedestrians were killed by drivers. In 2012, it was 136.
But the recent spate of deaths shows much remains to be done. If the rest of this year plays out the same way the first nine months have, 147 New Yorkers will lose their lives while walking. Many of these incidents, such as the one that killed Olga Rivera on an East Harlem sidewalk earlier this week, are the result of speed, driver inattention, or failure to yield.
As the gut-wrenching pleas of the Tam and Liao families makes plain, this toll is unnecessary.
Long ago, the leaders of New York decided to make reducing homicides a priority. They succeeded spectacularly, bringing the number of murders to historic lows through a variety of tactics, including aggressive policing of "quality of life" crimes. And yet the famously can-do police commissioner, Ray Kelly, said recently that stopping traffic violence is "much more complex than you might think," and that in a city the size of New York, "you’re going to have a lot of traffic and you’re going to have accidents."
Those answers aren't acceptable to the parents of Allison Liao or the loved ones of the dozens of others who have died on New York's streets and sidewalks this year. Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has said that he wants to implement a "Vision Zero" approach to traffic deaths, with an aim to bring the number of fatalities down to nothing. The rally this week in Queens is proof that New Yorkers are ready to hold him to his word.