Death stats: some count, some don't

by Michael Smith

January 15, 1998

Mayor Giuliani takes great pleasure in citing, at every opportunity, the sharply lower homicide rates in New York during recent years. Whether or not his policies actually have much to do with these numbers is endlessly debated; other cities have seen similar (if smaller) drops. Nevertheless, to take credit for good news is a fundamental law of politics, and the Mayor can scarcely be blamed for following it.

There are some other numbers, however, for which his responsibility is more clear-cut, and which reflect less favorably on his administration: the Police Department has released the statistics on pedestrians and bicyclists killed by motor vehicles in 1997. They're an eye-opener.

Last year saw a stunning 25% increase -- from 242 in 1996, to 302 in 1997. Numbers are so dry: visualize sixty more corpses lined up along, say, Fifth Avenue. They would occupy almost a block and a half of it. (Sticklers for mathematical accuracy may object that this figure is slightly overstated, since many victims are children and thus would take up less curb space than an adult.)

Non-motorists always constitute the majority of traffic deaths in New York. But between 1996 and 1997, the total number of traffic deaths went up less than the number of pedestrian-cyclist deaths. There were only about thirty new traffic deaths altogether -- from around 470 to a bit over 500. So the pedestrians and cyclists are paying a larger share of the butcher's bill on the roads, and the motorists a smaller one, not just relatively, but absolutely.

It would seem that in Mr. Giuliani's New York, people are being saved from murderers only to be killed by drivers. Fewer drivers are being killed, either by themselves or by other drivers -- a good thing, as far as it goes; but they seem to be using their greater life expectancy to kill more pedestrians.

Unlike the drop in murders, this upsurge in road carnage is not seen in other American cities. Nor is this surprising: Mayor Giuliani is almost unique among present-day municipal officials -- at least, outside of the Third World -- in his unreconstructed eagerness to bring more cars into the city, and move them faster while they're here. Pedestrians are the majority of Mr. Giuliani's constituents; most New York households don't even own a car. Nevertheless, we have seen in recent weeks two very stark demonstrations of his administration's preference for the motorized minority.

First came the staggering folly of the Midtown pedestrian barricades, which delay pedestrians ten times as much as they expedite cars -- and this ratio holds true even if one accepts the Mayor's ludicrous, out-of-the-air estimate of a 20% increase in car speed. (No one seems to have asked how many more deaths would result from such an increase in speed, if it were real.) As an afterthought, the Mayor has suggested that the barricades improve pedestrian safety; but this claim is nonsensical on its face. The barricades require pedestrians to make more street crossings than before, each with its irreducible -- and indeed, increased -- element of danger.

For sheer wrong-headedness, the barricades are difficult to top. But the Mayor has managed. His latest crusade is a crackdown on -- jaywalking!

Some other numbers help put this undertaking in perspective. Along with the 25% increase in pedestrian and bicyclist deaths last year, there was a 30% drop in summonses issued to drivers for moving violations. It is impossible to believe that these numbers are unconnected. Everyone understands that civic conscience is weak behind the wheel, and drivers will obey the law only if it is enforced. Yet instead of curbing the burgeoning lawlessness of drivers, the Mayor has adopted a blame-the-victim approach.

Of course, the Mayor proclaims, with a straight face, that it's for the pedestrian's own good. But there is no statistical evidence at all to suggest that jaywalkers are more likely to be hit. Most pedestrian fatalities occur in or near the crosswalk, not at mid-block. And daily experience teaches that one is often better off crossing mid-block, or against the signal, at a time when no cars are coming, rather than at the crosswalk, with the signal, when drivers desperate to make a turn or squeeze a light famously flout the pedestrian's right of way. So there is no reason to believe that a crackdown on jaywalking will reduce the daily slaughter in our streets; in fact, there is some reason to fear the opposite.

The Mayor is not a stupid man; presumably he knows all this. Why, then, these bizarre, and deadly, pro-car and anti-pedestrian initiatives? Sadly, the explanation seems fairly obvious: the Mayor is running for higher office by attacking the people who put him in his present one.

A statewide or national campaign will require Mr. Giuliani to endear himself to suburban voters -- never an easy task for a candidate from New York City. Now the Mayor is a politician to the bone, and he understands the importance of symbolism. He knows that unlike New Yorkers, suburbanites all own cars and spend a lot of time in them, fuming about anything that impedes their vehicles' lordly progress. And this is the method in his madness. An assault on New York's notorious and characteristic pedestrian culture, in favor of the car-borne, goes to show suburbanites that the Mayor is a regular guy -- nothing like a New Yorker at all, really.

What a pity that those of us who are New Yorkers didn't figure this out sooner.

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