Just two weeks after his inauguration, New York mayor Bill de Blasio did something safe street advocates have been demanding for years. The mayor outlined comprehensive changes in the city's approach to traffic fatalities, treating the issue as "a public health problem" and ordering city government branches to pull together to reduce those deaths to zero.
De Blasio held a press conference announcing implementation of his "Vision Zero" plan in the schoolyard of P.S. 152 in Queens. It's where eight-year-old Noshat Nahian was headed last month when he was struck and killed by the driver of an 18-wheeler. The driver had a history of reckless driving and was allegedly operating with a suspended license.
During last year's mayoral campaign, de Blasio made Vision Zero a key part of his platform. That earned him the endorsement of a nascent political action committee formed specifically to fight for safer streets. Since the November election, de Blasio had been relatively quiet on traffic safety, even as a high-profile spate of deaths grabbed headlines around the city. Eleven New Yorkers have died since de Blasio was sworn in January 1, seven of them pedestrians. Just last night, neighbors held a vigil on the Upper West Side, where a 9-year-old boy and a 73-year-old man were killed in separate collisions two blocks and half an hour apart last week.
In his remarks on Wednesday, de Blasio put traffic safety in the spotlight. "I said on Inauguration Day that we were here to make changes, and I meant it," he said. "This is an example of where we will act immediately."
The mayor pointed out that last year, the city hit a record low of 333 homicides, but that nearly as many people – 286, by last count – died in traffic. "It is shocking to see how those two numbers correspond,” he said. He noted that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of injury-related death among New Yorkers younger than 14, and the second-leading cause of injury-related deaths among New York's seniors.
The mayor's approach calls for an unprecedented coordination among the NYPD, the city's Department of Transportation, its Department of Health, and the Taxi Commission. De Blasio said he wants to see detailed plans from the leaders of those agencies by February 15.
At the news conference, new police commissioner Bill Bratton talked about how he'll make streets safer. He said he'll grow the number of officers in the highway division to 270 – a 50 percent increase from the level under predecessor Ray Kelly. Late last year, Kelly dismissed a question about the police role in preventing traffic deaths by saying, "you're going to have a lot of traffic and you’re going to have accidents." Bratton also said his officers will investigate not only crashes in which victims die, but also ones that result in critical injuries.
De Blasio wants the city to have more authority to regulate speed and deploy more camera enforcement, measures that currently require approval from the state legislature in Albany. Drivers speeding in the 20 "school zones" where cameras were activated in September can expect tickets rather than warnings as of today. De Blasio also said he thinks penalties for negligent drivers, most of whom receive only traffic summonses when they kill people, need to be rethought.
The mayor's decision to come out hard against traffic violence immediately raised the profile of the issue within the city, with reporters from most major news outlets showing up to cover the event. It was one of the first indications that de Blasio isn't going to sit back and let the clock tick on major campaign promises.
If the efforts to reduce fatalities succeed – and that is a big "if" – Vision Zero could conceivably serve as a national model, similar to former mayor Michael Bloomberg’s anti-smoking and street re-design campaigns. The new mayor's tone, however, was markedly different from Bloomberg. While he invoked hard data, de Blasio also emphasized his emotional identification with the losses suffered by the people around him in that Queens schoolyard – mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters whose family members had been killed in an instant by careless drivers.
"They are right to hold us accountable, they are right to demand more," he said. "I feel so much for them, and I also have so much admiration that they are trying with all their might to protect others.... And that is entirely noble, and they, to me, are moral arbiters in this fight. And we want to show them the kind of focus and commitment they deserve.”