Who Cares About Dead Cyclists? You Should

by Michael Smith

(Originally appeared on the Op-Ed Page of the Daily News, Jan. 11, 2000, under the title "Don't Let Up On Bad Drivers")

Traffic deaths are up again in New York City. What's a particularly bad sign -- though some New Yorkers may find it hard to believe -- is the huge increase in cyclist deaths: 35 cyclists killed in 1999, according to police data. That's a whopping 75% jump over the 20 killed in 1998.

To hear New Yorkers talk, you'd think that cyclists are the biggest hazard in town. But cyclists on our streets are a little like the canary in the coal mine: when the canary keels over the miners know there's gas in the air.

In the same way, cyclist injuries and deaths are a danger signal of aggressive and reckless driving by motorists.

If cyclist deaths are up -- way up -- it suggests that drivers are getting more aggressive. This has consequences for pedestrians as well as cyclists; and sure enough, pedestrian deaths are also up, from 182 in 1998 to 200 in 1999, a 10% increase.

Unfortunately, the Mayor and his police department see our city through the windshield of a car. The police, individually and institutionally, nearly always accept the driver's view of cyclist deaths: the cyclist did something stupid.

A recent study of pedestrian and cyclist deaths during 1994-1997 by the group Right Of Way observes, "The rate of unknowns for bicyclist fatalities is excessive.... Many accident reports for cyclists were extremely perfunctory.... It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that investigating officers feel that a cyclist is `asking for it.'"

Discussing 1999's jump in cyclist fatalities, police statisticians dismiss it by arguing that according to the police reports, the cyclist was to blame in 75% of cases. Why cyclists should suddenly have become so much more stupid in 1999 than they were in 1998 is a question that hasn't apparently occurred to anybody at 1 Police Plaza.

As for pedestrians, they're a nuisance at best, and the increase in their deaths is just a "blip."

There's no plan to analyze what happened last year, either to cyclists or pedestrians, and the misnamed "public information" staff refuse to give the data out to people and organizations who would analyze them. Instead, the city continues to concentrate on how to get more cars into the streets and how to move them faster.

In 1998, the cops were paying some attention to speeding and reckless driving, and that probably contributed to the lower rate of traffic deaths reported for that year. But the next year, the focus shifted to "gridlock-busting" and the numbers went back up.

"Gridlock-busting" is a polite term for speeding up traffic; and speeding up traffic is a death sentence for dozens of New Yorkers every year.

Cops would do a lot better to target aggressive and reckless driving. This means cracking down on the obvious offenses: speeding, lane-hopping and light-running. Less obviously, it also means aggressively going after drivers who violate pedestrians' right of way. Most pedestrians who die on our streets do so while crossing with the light, in a crosswalk.

Imprisoned in their armor-plated mental automobiles, Mayor Giuliani and his colleagues are blasting down the highway in the wrong direction. We don't need more cars; just the reverse. And we don't need to move them faster; we need to make their drivers honor the rights of other street users.

More generally, our leaders need to learn that the occasional crackdown doesn't do the job. We need to change the balance of power on our streets. And that means a consistent, ongoing effort to ensure that pedestrians -- and cyclists, too -- are protected from intimidation and assault by drivers.

We need a change of heart in City Hall and 1 Police Plaza. Maybe our leaders should get out of their limos and... take a walk.

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