Out on Deadly Streets: Pedestrian fatalities rose 24% last year
IN THE NEVER-ENDING stand-off between New York City motorists and the pedestrians who dodge them, one number overshadows all else: Every 37 minutes, another pedestrian gets hit by a driver somewhere in the five boroughs.
Thirty-nine times a day, with terrifying regularity, police rush to the scene of yet another crash between man and motorist, new state Department of Motor Vehicles records show.
And increasingly, like the 31-year-old nail salon clerk hit by a truck on Third Ave. on Jan. 29, those pedestrians are getting killed.
Last year, pedestrian fatalities in New York City rose a shocking 24%, from 245 to 302, a sharp increase after years of gradual decline.
More cars in the city no doubt played a role in the spike, but most believe the main cause was a simultaneous 32% drop in the number of summonses for moving violations.
"Motorists in this town will do whatever they can get away with, so I think if you back off on enforcement and this was a 32% back- off it is going to show up," said Charles Komanoff, an economist long active in pedestrian and bicycling causes.
The ticket slowdown, part of an unauthorized job action by police, is now said to be over, with summonses for January up 34% this year from the same period last year. But police officials said last week they are still studying last year's troubling fatality rate.
"One of the factors being looked at is the enforcement levels," said Police Inspector Michael Collins, "as well as other preventive measures routinely engaged in."
Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro said the Giuliani administration "had done a tremendous amount to address both traffic safety and pedestrian safety," He cited the installation of 600 new traffic lights and the mayor's proposed crackdown on jaywalking as two examples.
Still, the increase in fatalities occurred at a time when the number of people murdered by strangers in the city, by contrast, dropped to fewer than 150 last year.
"The chances of being killed by someone in a car in this city are now far greater than getting killed by a stranger with a weapon," said John Kaehny, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a pedestrian and bicyclist rights group. "That's the grim reality."
An even grimmer reality, however, say the families of killed pedestrians, is that motorists involved in such accidents are almost never prosecuted criminally in New York City, even in cases where drivers were clearly at fault.
As a group, these families harbor an immense frustration.
Take the family of Dante Curry, a 6-year-old boy who was killed in October while crossing Wales Ave. near 147th St. in the Bronx. When he was hit, Dante was running from a Rottweiler and toward his father, standing on the other side of the street.
The driver of the car, Jacob Rivera, 27, of Newark, told investigating officers he was traveling 65 mph in the 30-mph zone when he hit Dante, the accident report shows.
In a written statement later given to police and obtained by the Daily News, Rivera then admitted drinking rum earlier in the day although a sobriety test determined he was not legally drunk and having problems with the right front tire of his red Pontiac Firebird.
But Rivera was let go with a $60 speeding ticket.
"This man was given a $60 ticket, while I was given a $12,000 funeral bill and the last sneakers my son had on," said Evelyn Cancel, the boy's mother. "Where is the justice in that?"
Lawyers in the office of Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson say the problem is not lack of concern, but state laws, which set a very high standard for prosecuting deadly drivers in New York.
In essence, the standard for criminally negligent homicide, the lowest charge possible, requires that drivers be guilty of at least two infractions, such as speeding and drunkenness, to be successfully tried, officials say.
"That comes out of a long line of cases over the years that say just going through a red light, for instance, is insufficient to charge criminal negligence," explained Joseph Petrosino, a deputy district attorney in Brooklyn.
But a less-than-aggressive approach to prosecuting pedestrian fatalities, so easily written off as accidents, also seems to be at play, critics charge.
In the Curry case, for instance, investigators went out of their way to cast doubt on the driver's assertion that he was going 65 mph and that alcohol may have played a role. They say an analysis of skid marks at the scene suggests he was going no faster than 50 mph, and that because Rivera's alcohol level was .03 less than the legal limit of .1 prosecution was a waste of time.
"We cannot present a case to a grand jury where we believe the evidence is insufficient," said Anthony Girese, counsel to Johnson.
Pedestrian advocates say they have tried to push for a loosening of the state law and for more aggressive prosecutions. But they say many district attorneys, already overburdened and understaffed, won't listen when it comes to pedestrian fatalities.
"And if we don't have prosecutors willing to push the envelope, why go after the Legislature?" asked Janine Bauer, an attorney for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a pedestrian advocacy group.
An equally large frustration, say many victims' family members, is the glacial pace of the NYPD's accident investigation squad, which gathers evidence in pedestrian fatalities for consideration by district attorneys.
Marianna Regina's father, Michael, was killed by a man driving a Chevrolet Suburban backward up a curvy portion of Lafayette St. in Manhattan on Aug. 9, 1996. But nearly 18 months later, the case has yet to make it to the district attorney's office, officials confirmed.
"I don't expect a happy ending, because there is no happy ending," said Regina, 27, whose father was killed in front of his SoHo shop, Regina's Auto Service Center. "I just want an ending."
If nothing else, Regina said, her family would like the driver, Cesar Cardona, 29, of Yonkers, to have at least some kind of "permanent mark" on his driving record for killing a pedestrian.
"For all I know, he may have other accidents," she said. "It might make a difference in someone else's life."
Cardona has since lost his license but for speeding. A review of state Department of Motor Vehicles records shows that since Cardona was allowed to leave the scene of Regina's death without even a ticket, he has racked up three major speeding tickets, including one for going 84 mph in a 50-mph zone in the Bronx.
Cardona, who could not be reached for comment last week, also received two other speeding tickets before the accident, records show. State law requires a license to be revoked when a driver collects more than three speeding tickets in any 18-month period.
"Oh my God," said Regina when told of Cardona's record. "Obviously this guy hasn't learned his lesson."
There are other lessons, however, that both pedestrians and drivers can learn by looking at state DMV data on pedestrian accidents in New York City. An analysis of the 14,241 pedestrian accidents and fatalities in New York City in 1996, the most recent year available, for example, suggests that:
Almost twice as many New Yorkers are hit crossing with the signal than crossing against the signal.
The most dangerous time of the week for New York pedestrians is Friday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., the weekend rush; 496 pedestrians were hit or killed during those hours in 1996, the most for any three-hour period of the week.
Privately owned cars accounted for 66% of pedestrian accidents in New York City in 1996. Taxis and buses, by comparison, caused 14%; trucks, 9.2%; emergency vehicles, .8%, and motorcycles, .5%.
Men were four times more likely to hit a pedestrian in the city in 1996 than women.
CITY PEDESTRIAN STATS
FATALITIES BY YEAR
TOTAL INJURED OR KILLED
IN INTERSECTION 9,414
STATEN ISLAND 7
STATEN ISLAND 355
ACCIDENTS RESULTING IN INJURY OR DEATH
Crossing w/ signal 3,337
SOURCE: NEW YORK CITY POLICE DEPARTMENT: NEW YORK STATE DIVISION OF MOTOR VEHICLES
In 1996, roughly 39 pedestrians a day were killed or injured on the streets of New York. That is one person every 37 minutes.
Of the 13,869 drivers involved in pedestrian accidents, 92% were not charged.
Men were four times more likely to hit a pedestrian in New York City in 1996 than women.
Friday is the most dangerous day of the week for New York pedestrians, especially from 4 p.m. - 7 p.m.
CARS OUT OF CONTROL
Privately owned cars accounted for 66% of all pedestrian accidents in New York City in 1996. Taxis and buses caused 14%.