March/April 1998, p.12-13

Lessons From London

Read the latest news about this issue.

While New York City flounders to find answers to its traffic safety woes, across the Atlantic a success story is shaping up. In London, a great international city very similar to New York in its travel habits, an aggressive anti-speeding campaign has substantially reduced fatal pedestrian and motoring fatalities. Back in 1984, London actually had more pedestrians deaths than New York: 300 versus 293. Yet, by 1997, London had reduced its pedestrian fatalities to 150, compared to 249 here.

Speed Kills
Though misinformed societal attitudes consider it a victimless crime, speeding directly increases both the number and the severity of crashes. The relationship between speed and safety is simple. At higher speeds, motorists have less time to avoid trouble. In crowded traffic conditions like those in New York and London, a multitude of traffic hazards present themselves, and drivers need ample time to react. Recent incidents here involving cars that collided and then deflected into pedestrians on the sidewalk are the products of excessive speed.

Studies have shown that at a speed of 30 mph, New York City's speed limit, 40% of pedestrians who are struck are killed; at 40 mph, 70% are killed. At traffic-calmed speeds of 15 mph, less than 8% of walkers who are struck die. While it seems only logical to strictly enforce and control speeds, New York City in fact devotes little attention to speeding on city streets, as opposed to highways. Fewer than 300 speed limit signs are posted on the city's more than 6,000 miles of streets, and NYC police issue on average only about 50 speeding tickets per day to the millions of motor vehicles sharing the road with pedestrians and bicyclists. Speeding is rampant on NYC streets, even in the heart of Midtown where cyclists on avenues often face cabs whizzing by at speeds of 40-50 mph.

This street was once a common commuter cut-through route. A raised crosswalk with pavement treatments, and the slight curb extension remind drivers this is a neighborhood street.In London, however, government agencies decided in the late 1980's to get serious about traffic safety. They quickly identified stopping speeding as the key. Over several years a three-pronged campaign combining law enforcement, traffic calming engineering and education evolved. These strategies work together to fundamentally change motorists' attitudes towards speeding.

Law Enforcement
London's enforcement strategy begins with more than one hundred automated speed radar cameras, which automatically issue traffic summonses to speeders. London has also introduced red light cameras. Speed cameras have been in widespread use in California and other western states for decades and are credited with sharply reducing speeding and crashes. To date, New York City has been cautious about using this technology.

The city has been more receptive to using red light cameras. The 18 cameras currently in use have been a big success, and the city intends to increase the number of cameras to 30 by late June. This is good, but the city would do better to deploy the one hundred cameras originally proposed in the authorizing legislation passed in 1995.

Traffic Calming
This busy residential street in Sheperds Bush had a high accident rate and too many speeding cars. Here, chicanes, and pinch points, stand out to force slower speeds. London's borough administrations use the full range of traffic calming techniques on both local and arterial streets. In boroughs like Hackney, every crosswalk on the main street is elevated, most schools are surrounded by speed humps, and transit stops are marked by sidewalk widenings and extensions. While London does make wide use of pedestrian fences to deter jaywalking, it balances this with the extensive pedestrian improvements described above and a number of popular pedestrian-only streets. Additionally, some of the newer bike lanes in London are paved with colored and textured asphalt to differentiate them from car lanes and to create a road narrowing effect that slows motorists. London also makes extensive use of "Pelican" crossings midblock. These crossings are marked by striped poles topped with large blinking yellow bulbs where cars must yield to pedestrians. While not every technique used in London may work here, traffic calming techniques applied area wide can achieve an overall change in the way motorists drive and perceive the street.

Public Education
In London, the Mayor and other notables launched with great fanfare an anti-speeding campaign using the slogan "Kill Your Speed, Not A Child." That slogan and others like it were featured in television, radio, print and billboard advertising and were intended to stigmatize speeding and reckless driving in the same way that advertising has been used in this country to stigmatize drunk driving. In the U.S., this advertising reversed public attitudes that 20 years ago found drunk driving amusing. London and the UK are achieving similar success with their speeding campaign. NYC should learn from London and do the same. Funds from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Governor's Traffic Safety Coalition could be used for this purpose.

If New York City matched London's success, every year more than 225 pedestrians and motorists would be saved from dying and thousands more spared horrible injuries. New York City has the money, resources and expertise to mount a London-style traffic safety campaign. But do its leaders have the political will to take a methodical and sober look at this enduring public health and safety crisis?

Pedestrian Fatalities

London in 1984: 300
London in 1997: 152

N.Y.C. in 1984: 293
N.Y.C. in 1997: 246

Motorist Fatalities

London in 1984: 212
London in 1994: 90*

N.Y.C. in 1984: 227
N.Y.C. in 1994: 207

*Last available for London