The city is failing to protect vulnerable road users

A stencil for a slain cyclist in 2005. Photo by Peter Meitzler, Time’s Up! volunteer

BY KEEGAN STEPHAN  |      On Mon., Aug. 27, Jessica Dworkin was hit by a tractor-trailer while crossing Sixth Ave. at Houston St. and killed. In a letter to The Villager, Carl Rosenstein (“The Angry Buddhist”) charged that, from the sound of it, the tractor-trailer must have been more than 55 feet long, and thus not permitted to drive in the city. Eyewitnesses say she was crossing with the light. To date, the New York Police Department has issued only two summonses: failure to yield to a pedestrian, and failure to drive with due care — both violations, not crimes. And if history is any indication, no citizen will ever see the N.Y.P.D. Accident Investigation Squad (A.I.S.) report that could give the public the facts to prevent this type of tragedy.

This and every incident in which someone is killed by an automobile on our streets highlights our failure to protect vulnerable citizens, which our society prioritizes in most other spheres. From immigrant laborers to minors, we have infrastructure and laws to protect vulnerable citizens, proper enforcement of those laws, and thorough investigations of abuses. Yet when it comes to creating safe streets, we have nothing similar to protect vulnerable road users. Vulnerable road users are all of us who don’t drive cars, because cars protect their drivers and potentially harm others.

Jessica Dworkin was a vulnerable road user. We should not view her death as an “accident,” or claim she was at partial fault for putting herself in a dangerous situation, as we do all too often. Her death should be taken as seriously as the death of a child at the hands of an adult. We should proactively address all the failures that led to it: enforcement failures, infrastructure failures, legal failures and failures to provide the information needed to prevent future deaths.

Our law enforcement failed Dworkin. The trucker that killed her felt safe driving in our city without proper permits. I am not saying the N.Y.P.D. should stop every truck that enters the city. But I think it would be hard to argue that New York City does not have a culture where automobiles feel safe breaking traffic laws, even when doing so makes vulnerable road users feel unsafe.

Our infrastructure failed Jessica Dworkin. She was crossing with the light. We all know the scene far too well: Crossing as a pedestrian in a crosswalk or cycling in a bike lane when an automobile turns in front of you, nearly misses you, or worse, all because the automobile also has a green light and is not respecting your right of way. Residents near that intersection have proposed changes that might have prevented Dworkin’s death, such as pedestrian-only traffic lights. Imagine how much safer our streets would feel (and be) if cars had to stop, not just yield, as you crossed the street.

Our laws failed Dworkin. Despite teeming with pedestrians and cyclists, New York City lacks the laws that vulnerable road users enjoy in other places as diverse as Holland and Texas, both of which require automobiles to give 3 feet of space at all times.

And these pieces of infrastructure and laws are only the most basic. Many bike lanes in Washington, D.C., are in the middle of two-way streets, protected by concrete dividers on both sides, so neither pedestrians nor cars drift into them. In many European countries, when a collision occurs between an automobile and a vulnerable road user, the burden of proof is automatically on the automobile.

In New York City, the opposite appears to be true. When vulnerable road users are killed by automobiles, drivers are rarely charged with a crime, their testimony is often taken as fact without further investigation, and their reasons are all too familiar: The cyclist swerved unexpectedly; the pedestrian fell in front of me. These should not be excuses. No one should die because they swerve to avoid a pothole or trip on a crack in the pavement. I am not blaming drivers. Neither drivers nor  vulnerable road users should be in a situation where they might take a life or lose their own.

A primary reason New York City lacks the laws and infrastructure to protect vulnerable road users is that our public is not given the facts about these deaths. Families of victims and concerned citizens routinely attempt to use a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request to obtain N.Y.P.D. A.I.S. reports, yet few are successful. As transportation expert Charles Komanoff puts it, “Whatever the police think they’re protecting, the loser is the citizenry, which is being denied a potential gold mine of understanding past crashes and preventing future ones.”

In short, we need to know if the cyclist didn’t swerve, if the pedestrian didn’t fall, in order to have the facts to demand better infrastructure and laws.

We as a public — pedestrians, cyclists and drivers — need to unify around the issue of protecting vulnerable road users. We need to know exactly what happened to Jessica Dworkin so that we can attempt to prevent it from happening to anyone else.

Stephan is a member of Time’s Up!, a New York City-based cycling advocacy and environmental organization.

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