Pedestrians in Peril


By Charles Komanoff


(Originally published on the New York Times Op-Ed page, January 27, 1998)



Ask New Yorkers if their city has grown safer under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and the answer is likely to be a resounding yes. The drop in crime has been little short of spectacular.

But in another respect, New York has become more, not less, dangerous. The number of people struck and killed by cars rose almost 25 percent last year. What's more, the jump appears to be linked not to greater carelessness on the part of pedestrians, but to a yearlong ticketing slowdown by the police that cut sharply into the No. 1 line of defense for pedestrians: strict enforcement of the traffic laws.

The Mayor, however, doesn't seem to view the rise in pedestrian deaths as a problem. Indeed, Mr. Giuliani's recent experiment with crosswalk barriers in midtown and a crackdown on jaywalking reinforce the idea that drivers are entitled to the road and that it is the job of pedestrians to get out of the way.

The rise in pedestrian deaths ends what was an encouraging trend. Throughout the 1980's, pedestrian and bicyclist deaths averaged more than 300 a year. The figure dipped below 300 in the early 1990's and reached a low of 245 in 1996, the result of better lifesaving techniques, tougher sanctions against drunk drivers and an overall crackdown on crime.

Last year, however, automobiles killed 302 pedestrians and bicyclists. If 1997 was like 1996, very few victims were reckless or drunk. Many, if not most, of the people who died had the right of way, and a disproportionate number were children and senior citizens.

Pedestrians and cyclists have only the law to protect them. And sadly, only tough enforcement will persuade some, if not most, drivers to follow traffic rules.

Yet the city seems to be looking the other way. From 1996 to 1997, there was a 32 percent drop in police summonses -- to 819,000 from 1,213,000 -- for moving violations like speeding and running red lights.

As it was, drivers often went unpunished. In 1996, drivers received summonses in only 20 percent of the nearly 6,400 accidents where cars struck pedestrians and the police found the driver to be at least partly at fault, according to an analysis of Department of Motor Vehicles statistics.

Maybe it's too much to expect Mr. Giuliani to become pro-pedestrian. But shouldn't we at least expect the city to vigorously enforce the traffic laws on which our safety depends?

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