May/June 1999, p.16-17

Killed By Automobile

Transportation Alternatives aggressively protests the killing and injuring of cyclists and pedestrians by automobiles. We strive to change the government decisions and laws that place motor vehicles before the well-being of those choosing to travel on foot or by bike.

However, achieving these goals and changing the deeply ingrained "Windshield Perspective" of officialdom will take the energies of many New Yorkers. Since late 1996, the members of Right of Way, led by former T.A.President Charles Komanoff, have taken up the banner of pedestrian and bicyclist rights. The group is known for its "street memorial" project in which is has stenciled the outlines and names of 145 pedestrians and cyclists at the locations they were struck and killed. Right of Way's newest project is the report Killed by Automobile, which was researched, written and produced by a dedicated team of volunteers who spent hundreds of hours typing in nearly 1000 police crash reports.

T.A. applauds the work of Right of Way and appreciates the opportunity to bring you excerpts from this important report.

Those interested in reading the full text of Killed by Automobile can order it by sending a check for $7.50 to Right of Way, 305 Broadway, #402, NY, NY 10007 or download it from

Ten Key Findings
1. Motor vehicles killed 1,020 pedestrians and bicyclists in New York City during the four-year period 1994-97; this toll was 25 percent greater than the 800 motor vehicle users who died in crashes in the same period.
2. New Yorkers age 65 and older were more than twice as likely to be killed by an automobile as to be murdered during 1994-97.
3. Drivers were largely or strictly culpable in 74 percent of pedestrian fatalities and partly culpable in another 16 percent, meaning that drivers were at least partly culpable in 90 percent of fatalities.
4. The most frequent causes of fatalities were vehicles turning into pedestrians in crosswalks, followed by speeding, and driving through a red light or stop sign.
5. Buses killed 53 persons during 1994-97 - one for every 11.4 million miles, or over five times the rate for all vehicles driven in New York City, and triple the rate for heavy trucks.
6. Automobiles were equal-opportunity threats, killing New Yorkers of every income level and ethnic group roughly in proportion to the group's share of population.
7. Motorists killed 50 pedestrians on sidewalks during 1994-97 (one pedestrian was killed by a bicycle on a sidewalk during the same period, out of a total of five pedestrians killed in collisions with bicycles in New York City during the four years).
8. Neighborhoods where officials clamored for crackdowns on bicyclists to safeguard pedestrians had unusually high rates of pedestrians and cyclists killed by automobile.
9. Drunk driving was known to be present in only four percent of pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities (less than three percent in 1997 alone), suggesting that DWI is now a relatively small subset of a larger class of dangerous and aggressive driving, which is routinely ignored in law enforcement and media campaigns.
10. Drivers were summonsed for moving violations in only 16 percent of pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities during 1994-97; police cited only seven drivers, or fewer than one percent of those who killed pedestrians, for violating laws specific to pedestrian safety.

Killed By Automobile: Death in The Streets in New York City 1994-1997
by Right of Way

Killed by Automobile addresses the ongoing slaughter of pedestrians and cyclists on New York City's streets: it asks, who is dying? and who, and what, is causing the killing?

These questions should have been asked, and answered, long ago by the government bodies charged with transport policy, driver licensing and public safety. Instead, how the streets are used and who dies using them, is rarely discussed. Transportation policy in New York City, if it can be called that, is a question of how best to squeeze the most cars in, and move them at the highest speed. Even here in New York, the nation's only city where drivers are a minority, this "windshield perspective" governs, deflected neither by moral consideration of its costs, nor by factual analysis of local conditions and needs.

Killed by Automobile seeks to fill the gaps in the data. It is an analysis of 1,000 deaths of pedestrians and cyclists in New York City in the most recent four years for which data are available. What emerges as well is an indictment of the police, transport, driver-licensing and criminal-justice authorities for failing in their duty to make the streets safely available for all.

Killed by Automobile was conceived, researched and written by Right of Way, an organization seeking to end vehicular entitlement and stop vehicular violence in NYC.

NTSB to NYC Peds and Cyclists: Drop Dead

The National Transportation Safety Board sprang into investigative action when a tour bus to Atlantic City crashed and killed eight passengers last Christmas Eve. But the 50 people run over by buses in New York City during 1994-97 didn't merit a second look from the agency.

The NTSB could mandate several design changes in trucks, buses, and cars that would save the lives of untold cyclists and pedestrians each year. If side doors were shaped differently, the rates of bicycle dooring deaths would go down. Engineers need to design buses with greater driver visibility, since a third of pedestrian victims are killed during turns. Truck safeguards, widely used in Europe, are available to prevent cyclists from being swept under the wheels. Enforcing a local law already on the books, limiting truck length to 55 feet, would have prevented other deaths.

Since its charter, NTSB investigators have had a mandate to look into "recurring accident modes". "Aren't 250 pedestrian and cyclist deaths a year in New York City alone recurrent enough?" Right of Way has asked. Their reply: the resources are not available.

Drunk Pedestrians? Hardly

The New York Times laid a egg on May 9, 1993, when it trumpeted statistics from 1991 that 32.7% of pedestrians who died in auto collisions were intoxicated. The source of the figure, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was instead measuring alcohol detected, including blood alcohol content levels as low as 0.01%, one-tenth the level of legal intoxication.

This glaring misreading of government statistics is compounded by problems of human biology. A study published in the British Medical Journal by a forensic pathologist at the University of Dundee determined that blood samples taken postmortem often overstate the level of alcohol in the bloodstream at crash-time. Microbes produce alcohol after an organism dies, and organs or airways contaminated with gastric material diffuse the substance through the body.

Of course, the pedestrian's state of mind should have no bearing in determining culpability when a driver speeds, mounts the sidewalk or otherwise violates the pedestrian's right-of-way, as occurs in most New York City pedestrian fatalities.

Police Accident Reports

Right of Way received the accident reports on which this study is based in paper form, and we spent hundreds of hours inputting the information to a computer database. This was an illuminating experience in itself.

Each report, seen individually, is a little narrative, and a rather postmodern one at that, often featuring two levels of plainly "unreliable narrators": the police officer making the report, and the driver who is, all too often, the sole source of the information in it.

The first-order unreliable narrator, the driver, is pretty much what might be expected, remarkable only for his flawed sense of probability: we are told, over and over, that a 70-or 80-year-old New Yorker has darted from concealment and hurled himself beneath a car.

More surprising, and disturbing, is how frequently the second-order narrator, the police officer, is an accomplice to these fabrications. A pedestrian is flung 60 feet after impact, but there is no reason to suspect excessive speed. A driver is making a left turn when a pedestrian walks into her vehicle. A cyclist runs a red light and then he strikes a car (man bites dog?), killing himself.

More routine, but no less depressing, are the reports where there is no such whopper, but every grudging, minimal entry bespeaks an indifferent functionary wearily going through the motions, utterly unconcerned to find out what really happened. Indeed, far too often, the paperwork isn't even done conscientiously: a witness is mentioned, but no witness statement is present; citations are mentioned, but no violation codes are given.

Coding the reports was hard work; but above and beyond the strain on hand and eye, this effort took a certain toll on the spirit. Reading what happens to people is bad enough; realizing how little anyone cares compounds the pain.
- Michael Smith

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