Atlantic Cities

Maybe the 'Broken Windows' Strategy Could Cut Down on Traffic Deaths Too

Maybe the 'Broken Windows' Strategy Could Cut Down on Traffic Deaths Too
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Can the "broken windows" approach to policing work on traffic crime?

That's the argument from two "broken windows" experts, who spoke at last night's "Closing the Enforcement Gap to Save Lives on NYC Streets." Both argued that there's no reason the city can't reduce traffic deaths using essentially the same approach it took to cutting homicides.

"There needs to be an increased focus on this issue," said Bill Bratton, former police chief of New York, Los Angeles, and Boston. "More can be done, and I anticipate more will be done."

The panel was organized by advocacy group Transportation Alternatives to bring attention to the NYPD's lackluster attitude to enforcing the city's traffic laws. Executive Director Paul Steely White is one of many advocates who have been calling for a new approach to policing the city's streets. White pointed out that while traffic deaths have come way down over the past generation, they have now plateaued. He argued that lax enforcement is part of the problem. Last year, 148 pedestrians died in traffic crashes on New York streets, and 18 people riding bicycles were killed.

Every 30 hours, White said, a New Yorker is killed in a traffic crash, and every 2 hours someone suffers a life-changing injury. The majority of the victims are pedestrians. "Is this acceptable?" he asked. "Is this the city we want to live in?"

No one from the current administration was on the panel to answer for the NYPD. But a couple of months ago, Commissioner Ray Kelly said that while he thought the city “could always do a better job in every area," there was only so much progress that could be made in terms of street safety.

"We do have a daytime population that’s over 10 million people," he said. "You’re going to have a lot of traffic and you’re going to have accidents."

But Bratton, who was trailed by a throng of press looking for clues as to whether he's in the running for the NYPD's top job under the incoming de Blasio administration, sees room for improvement. De Blasio said during the campaign that he is committed to "Vision Zero," a concept that originated in Sweden in which government aims to bring traffic deaths down to nothing through a combination of street design, law enforcement, and culture change.

Bratton touted his own history on street safety by recalling his days as a 6th grade traffic monitor in his hometown of Boston. "Not a single student was hit in my intersection," he said. 

He sang the praises of New York as a walking city, but suggested the city could be made safer for people on foot and bicycle if the police focused on it. (Bratton admitted he himself only rides a bicycle in Central Park because he doesn’t feel comfortable doing it on the city's streets, although he blamed the potholes rather than the cars.)

George Kelling, a professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University who published the influential 1982 "Broken Windows" essay in The Atlantic, was also on hand. Kelling, who was instrumental in shaping policies that dramatically improved the atmosphere in New York's subway system in the late 1980s, said that he believed dramatic change could happen on the city's streets in a relatively short time – if certain conditions were met.

"The first thing is, you've got to get the problem right," said Kelling. In the case of the city's subways, he remembered, many observers identified homelessness as the problem. But it was really lawlessness – people jumping turnstiles, strong-arming other passengers, and so on – that led to the subway system’s pervasive atmosphere of menace.

Kelling said that once the cops started cracking down on those turnstile-jumpers, who often had outstanding warrants for their arrest, "within three months, the subway was an orderly place." Kelling said that a similar approach could work to cut fatalities and injuries on New York streets.

 "Not all bad drivers are criminals," said Kelling. "But a lot of criminals are bad drivers." He and other panelists cited several studies that show people who run red lights, for instance, often have other violations such as speeding on their record. And speeding is one of the riskiest behaviors that drivers can engage in.

The panelists advanced a number of measures that could be taken to make the streets safer, such as more pedestrian refuges, red-light and speed cameras at every intersection, and lower speed limits on residential streets. But Kelling said that "getting the problem right" would be the first step. And part of that, he suggested, would be a radical shift away from the Ray Kelly–era view that traffic deaths are the result of mere “accidents.”

"The dichotomy between regular street crime and traffic crime," said Kelling, "is a false dichotomy."

Top image: John Roman Images /Shutterstock.com

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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