March/April 2000, p.3

Publisher's Letter: Act of God

An "act of God" is what insurance companies call random, unavoidable events - like the Mir space station plunging into your kitchen. Similarly, the word "accident" is defined as anything that happens unexpectedly, without known cause; chance or fortune.

When a bicyclist or pedestrian is killed, the police department's Accident Investigation Squad is called. They measure skid marks, photograph the scene and make diagrams. All very scientific. Or is it? When homicide detectives are called in, they assume that a murder has occurred. So they look for evidence to find the murderer. Accident investigators are different. When a cyclist or pedestrian is killed, they tend to assume that an "accident" has occurred. The reasoning is that motorists are not out to kill cyclists and pedestrians. Not surprisingly, police accident investigators in NYC rarely pin fault on the driver. More often, they find either no one at fault, or that the victim made a mistake and the driver just happened to drive into him or her.

Thus, it was important the mayor bluntly declare that the surge in cycling deaths was caused by aggressive drivers. The mayor properly compared aggressive driving to drunk driving. A critical analogy, since aggressive driving, like drunk driving decades ago, is often considered a victimless crime - a matter of manners. He also noted that drunk driving plunged after police took vigorous action. The mayor seems to understand something about speeding and dangerous driving that the police and district attorneys do not. Mainly, the intent and motivation of dangerous drivers are irrelevant. It is their actions that count. After years of work by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, society considers drinking and driving dangerous and irresponsible, even potentially murderous. It is time for Americans to take the next step and understand that speeding and aggressive driving are just as irresponsible and should be criminally and socially sanctioned like drunk driving is. Just this year, Great Britain's police are to begin treating traffic deaths more like crimes than accidents.

Ironically, while the mayor clearly understands that dangerous drivers should be held responsible for their actions, he misses the larger culpability his policies have in the recent cycling deaths. In the last five years, traffic in NYC has grown by 17%. While a robust economy and suburban sprawl has much to do with it, so does the expansion of mega-stores and this administration's other traffic promoting policies. For instance, the mayor's DOT has persistently favored traffic flow over cycling and pedestrian safety. Traffic lights are timed to move traffic, not reduce speeding, and numerous bike lanes and sidewalk projects have been stymied in favor of moving more cars.

Neither the inundation of NYC by an invading army of automobiles, nor the murderously irresponsible behavior of individual drivers are accidents or "acts of God." They are, to paraphrase the mayor, behavior that can be changed by the right policies.

John Kaehny
Executive Director

P.S. Thanks to everyone who has responded to our emergency appeal - your support is imperative to winning the safe streets we all deserve. If you haven't yet given, I hope you'll consider making a special gift today.