Sight to the Blind: How the NYPD Can Take Control of NYC's Unseen Traffic Problem

Police officers are infamously vigilant when it comes to ticketing people loitering in City parks after hours. There's no chance of a transit cop looking the other way with someone scrawling graffiti on a subway station wall. And yet it's all too common to watch police officers stand idly by as vehicles run red lights. Failing to stop the driver who doesn't yield to a pedestrian in the crosswalk—how many times have you seen that? How many times have you seen that today?

In the first eight months of 2009, 173 New Yorkers died while walking, biking or driving on our streets. And if those crashes follow the pattern of years past, the majority were the result of car drivers speeding, running red lights and failing to yield. The NYPD's indifference to the lawlessness behind these deaths stands in sharp contrast with their vigorous pursuit of other crimes—even those once considered too minor to merit any enforcement.

In a 1982 article in Atlantic Magazine titled "Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety," George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson first explained the theory that would become the backbone of the NYPD's crime reduction plan:

"At the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing."

The Broken Windows Theory changed law enforcement forever, especially here in New York where William J. Bratton, an intellectual disciple of George Kelling, was Police Commissioner. In 1990, New York was the murder capital of the nation, with 2,245 homicides committed in that year alone. In 2009, the murder rate is on track to be less than a quarter what it was in 1990.

Today, reductions in violent crime, like the homicide rate, are the product of obsessive data analysis and weekly meetings called Compstat, which bring together precinct commanders and department heads to create deployment responsive to real-time crime data. Once a week, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly knows how many murders, turnstile jumps and incidents of public urination occurred in New York. Yet he and his police department remain ignorant of how many red lights were run, at what rate drivers sped, and how many pedestrians were terrified by incidents of vehicles failing to yield. The NYPD fails to enforce traffic crime in part because the NYPD does not track traffic crime. And part of the reason the NYPD doesn't track traffic crime is because deterring it doesn't bring the same clear rewards as more traditional law enforcement.

"In the grand scheme of what cops can potentially do, traffic safety seems unimportant," Peter Moskos, a professor of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, explained in a recent interview. Moskos worked as a Baltimore City police officer from 1999 to 2001, and is the author of the book Cop in the Hood and a blog by the same title. "It's barely considered real police work, I think, because deep down, they know anybody can do it." "It doesn't draw on the skills police see themselves as having. It is annoying and time-consuming for officers to do traffic stops," Moskos says. "Partly because the people you are helping aren't there to appreciate how you are helping them. There is not much gratification for traffic work on a personal or professional level, because the people you are helping are not there to thank you."

Changing Course, with a New Mayor or a Third Term

Given that mindset, shifting the NYPD's priorities and changing its deeply-ingrained culture seems an insurmountable task. But T.A. has accomplished this sort of revolution once before. In 2005, Mayor Bloomberg won election to a second term and the priorities at his Department of Transportation consisted of moving traffic, and little else. Barely four years later, the New York City DOT employs the most bike- and pedestrian-savvy planners and staff in the country, has greened Times Square into a pedestrian-friendly plaza and has dedicated itself to the introduction of hundreds of new miles of bike lanes.

In 2009, Transportation Alternatives set out on the first stage of a multi-year campaign to elevate traffic safety, especially where cyclists and pedestrians are concerned, as an NYPD priority. It started by publicly challenging the NYPD's lack of concern for traffic safety and demonstrating to elected officials and the media how under-enforced our streets really are. The year began with T.A.'s landmark report on the pervasiveness of speeding on city streets. "Terminal Velocity: NYC's Speeding Epidemic" demonstrated exactly how common New York's most deadly moving violation is, finding 39% of drivers speeding on city streets. The study broke as front-page news and put the NYPD in reporters' line of fire.

The press wasn't the only group asking questions: T.A.'s speeding exposé brought forward as many questions as it answered: Why are the moving violations that are the most dangerous according to the DMV's own statistics some of the least enforced by the NYPD? How does the NYPD set its priorities for traffic enforcement? How much further would traffic fatalities decline if the NYPD moved to rigorously deter the most dangerous driving behaviors?

"I don't know what they're talking about."

To find answers, T.A. devoted six months of research and completed interviews with over 30 experts in public safety, enforcement and traffic to produce "Executive Order: A Mayoral Plan for Traffic Safety," released in June of this year. The report took a comprehensive look at all the systems in place to deter dangerous driving, and exposed the loopholes and the skewed priorities of authorities that cause the system to break down. "Executive Order" found that dangerous drivers have little likelihood of reprimand for their actions, with the chance of a driver being ticketed for "failing to yield" a staggering 1 in 579,983 and the startling fact that a driver could speed everyday through New York City and be ticketed only once every 35 years.

In August, T.A. followed up with "From Chaos to Compliance: How the NYPD Can Grasp New York City's Traffic Safety Problem," which employed and recommended methods for how the NYPD could start monitoring rates of traffic law infraction around the city. T.A.'s study found traffic law violations occurring three times per minute at the average intersection, and in all the hours of surveying not a single summons was issued for any violation. This extensive body of research pointed again and again to one disheartening conclusion: For dangerous drivers in New York City, there are no deterrents to deadly driving behavior.

On the day T.A. released "Executive Order," NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly was attending the graduation of a new class of officers. A reporter from NY1 asked the Commissioner to respond to the study's findings, and Kelly's response was terse. "I don't know what they're talking about. In 2007 and 2008 we issued 1.2 million moving violation summonses." This claim is echoed by the NYPD in response to New York's traffic safety problems again and again. But in a city where 1.5 million automobile trips are made in and out of Manhattan's Central Business District daily, and each day 1.23 million red lights are run, the NYPD's claim of issuing 1.2 million summonses a year is not an accomplishment—particularly when many of those summonses are issued for minor infractions like failure to wear a seatbelt. When drivers are violating speed limits, red lights and pedestrians' right of way millions of times each day, 1.2 million summonses for moving violations in a year is simply not creating a deterrent against illegal behavior. Moreover, the NYPD's use of its summonsing statistics in place of real data on the actual level of traffic crime is part of the problem. Without any knowledge of the frequency with which traffic violations occur, any change in summonsing activity does not equal a change in compliance with the law, no more than the number of prescriptions a patient takes would be indicative of their overall health. The NYPD has come to measure the safety of our sidewalks by using hard numbers on street crimes like robberies and assaults; why can't they start measuring the safety of our roads in the number of traffic law violations? Broken Windows Mended: How about Broken Streets?

Applying the rigor of the Broken Windows Theory to traffic enforcement would change the way the NYPD measures and deters traffic crime. The new regime would end the practice of consistently ignoring moving violations spotted through the patrol car window. But more importantly, as the application of Broken Windows did with street crime, it would indicate to drivers that they cannot get away with it, that the lawlessness police ignored in the past will no longer be tolerated in the present. "There is no question about it, you would have to do this on a regular basis, almost consistent basis, to be effective," says Lou Riccio, Commissioner at the NYC Department of Transportation during the Dinkins administration. Riccio was one of several traffic experts interviewed for the "Executive Order" report. "That's the problem with enforcement, it is random. [Behavioral psychologist B.F.] Skinner said [you need] random rewards and certain punishments. What we do is no rewards and random punishments, and they may actually exacerbate the problem. If [drivers] get caught, they think it's just the bad luck of the draw. And therefore they don't change their behavior."

Reworking enforcement of the most dangerous driving violations to appear consistent and not capricious is the key to creating a credible deterrence. The first step in correcting New York's traffic enforcement problem relies on creating an Office of Road Safety at City Hall, in charge of reducing traffic violations, crashes, injuries and fatalities.

An Office of Road Safety would bring together relevant agencies to analyze aggregate traffic crash data and begin to detect patterns and problem areas in the safety of traffic, along with the liberty to use this data to make recommendations to improve traffic safety and reduce crashes. The most powerful tool of the Office of Road Safety should be the scientific and relevant measurement of the problem. To properly enforce traffic laws, there needs to be an understanding by the NYPD of how often, where and how the law is broken. While the NYPD currently has no idea how often the law is broken on city streets, an Office of Road Safety could commission sampling studies of moving violation frequency, creating a map of where the problem is worst and where increased enforcement is most necessary. As we encourage the NYPD to reemploy their former practice of Accident Prone Location Deployment, in which Traffic Safety Officers were deployed to the most crash-prone intersections, this additional data would allow deployment based in moving violation pervasiveness as well. The net impact of smarter deployment and more rigorous enforcement of the most-deadly infractions will be creating a credible deterrent to dangerous driving.

"I have a theory called the Golf Course Theory of Traffic Enforcement," muses Lou Riccio. "There is very little crime at golf courses. When people enter that environment they tend to behave. So what I want to do is create safety zones. You put a big sign up there that says: we will enforce every traffic violation, guaranteed. If you go in and you speed or you run a red light, you're going to be guaranteed to get a ticket. If you do that in an area, people who enter become like golfers; they behave how they are supposed to behave," opines Riccio, envisioning a city where drivers no longer have a blank check to break the law. "You're entering New York City: Behave properly now."