issue
6

The Ultimate Killing Machine

The year was 1996, Giuliani was our mayor, and the headlines were telling New Yorkers that crime rates were going down. Yet the streets felt dangerous –not from muggers, or aggressive squeegee men– rather dangerous from aggressive drivers. This insight led me to conceive the Stencil Project, where a full size human outline was painted at the site of a fatal pedestrian-vehicle collision with the pedestrian’s name, date of their death and the words “killed by automobile”. Some have made the case that this project introduced NYC to pedestrian activism and the modern idea of pedestrian safety. Today, we call it The Memorial Project and we’re bringing it back in a modern context to areas where unfortunately this thinking is still relevant.

So much has changed since the days when we painted stencils on the streets to bring attention to pedestrian fatalities in New York.

Much of the credit for the success of this  project, needs to be given to Sharoz Makarechi, who suggested that we position this project as a pedestrian focused project.  Stated simply. All drivers are pedestrians.  All cyclists are pedestrians but not all pedestrians are cyclists or drivers.

At the time I identified as a cyclist, and my collaborators and project volunteers were also cyclists who were unaware of the enmity residents had for cyclists, as they didn’t understand the importance frameing the project as a pedestrian project we had a falling out.

stencil project slide.003

We started Citystreets and some of my former collaborators founded another group called Right of Way. With data that we had helped get and a project that we helped conceive  they produced a pamphlet that brought the dangers of Queens Boulevard to the publics attention, which was also picked up by the media.

One of the outcomes of the “Stencil  Project” was a document that contained  a set of strategic recommendations, that Citystreets presented to DOT, politicians, and policy analysts, to make the city safer for residents by rebalancing our streets from space thought of as the exclusive domain for cars, to also include walkers and other road users with a series of innovative ideas and strategic suggestions.

At the time,  pedestrian culture and safety wasn’t part of our urban nomenclature and the terms, while agreeable, were foreign.

My how things and how the city has transformed in the best possible way.

Despite this positive change,  New York was grieving recently from two high profile incidents that led to 4 fatalities.

The first one  was the crash by a speeding BMW that killed Nachman and Raizy Glauber. Raizy was 7 months pregnant and on the way to hospital in a car service when the vehicle she was travelling in was hit so hard that she was ejected from it . Her child was delivered prematurely while the mother was dead. Imagine the emotional roller coaster? The sadnesss of the dead mother and father mitigated somewhat with the joy of the birth of  their living offspring. Then sadly, two days later their premature baby also died. Horrific is a word that comes to mind.

The other fatality was when six-year old Amar Diarassoubba was killed while crossing a Harlem street accompanied by his his nine-year old brother on his way to school.  Amar was killed by a turning tractor trailer.

Lets unpack both of these crashes. The first crash was caused by a driver of a speeding BMW. The images of the car looks as if the car was hit by a tractor trailer not another car.

The driver, Julio Acevedo, who fled at the time of the crash and  has since turned himself in. He had been cited the month before for a DWI which makes us ask why he was allowed to drive in the first place? The car was  borrowed, after the crash it’s owner was arrested for insurance fraud which allows us to ask why the car was on the road? The car, a BMW is advertised as the Ultimate Driving Machine. BMW’s are fast powerful cars that exude an autobahn vibe. BMW’s sensibility as a brand is German engineered performance, that they are faster and handle better. Their marketing really gives people the message that they are better drivers because they are behind the wheel of a better car. Could a false sense of safety and control in part froma multi-decade brand message be a  contributing factor in this crash?

So while Julio Acevedo is certainly persona-non-grata, there are other fingers to point here that should be accountable as they are also culpable for this very sad and brutally tragic crash that left 2 adults and 1 infant dead.

While we will never know what Mister Acvedo’s blood alcohol content was as he left the scene of the crash, we think it’s fair to make an assumption that there was some alcohol in his system, and his knowledge of the consequences of crashing into a car with alcohol in his system might have been a factor in his fleeing. But why was he able to drive in the first place? And why was he speeding so excessively on a city street?  And why do we even manufacture and sell cars that perform so far beyond legal speed limits?

The death of a little boy walking to school with his slightly older but also little brother seems more nuanced–or is it? The school crossing guard was not where they were supposed to be and there is some finger pointing at local business who were against neighborhood plans to mitigate some vehicle access and they pushed back by pointing their fingers at the parents for letting a 9 year old boy walk a 6 year old to school as well. Perhaps this is fair given our environment. But let’s focus on our environment.

Why have we built an environment where streets are not safe for children to use on their own? And why do we tolerate the dangerous conflict as part of our signal sytem?  And if we are to believe the driver that he didn’t see nor did he hear when he ran over and killed a 6 year old boy why, why, why, do we let these vehicles on our roads?

This brought us back to where we had started, or close to it, the document that we  had authored all those years ago, about how to make our city safer for all pedestrians. We were as moved at the time by a similar fatal crash on a Brooklyn street where a child was also killed by a turning truck. The point we made at the time, and one that is still valid today is the built in conflict of how our system is designed. Specifically, that it is legal for a truck with a green light to make a turn into a pedestrian who also is crossing with a green light. There are solutions for this. And if were adopted  Amar would be alive as would hundreds of other people who have been killed by turning cars.

This is a long way to get around to saying that these deaths that we experienced recently which rip our hearts out were not accidents. That both of them were avoidable one by a change of culture and more rigorous enforcement of insurance rules and the rules against drivers with a history of bad behavior and the other death was caused by a failure of signal design and our continued fearfulness and reluctance to ask questions that we asked more than a decade ago namely should tractor trailers be allowed to drive on NYC streets?  The life of Amar is worth more than the economic advantage of a company to use a large truck designed for interstate travel instead of a smaller urban truck to deliver goods.While we  understand that some may not agree with our conclusion, we’re  hoping that you will agree that we do need to do better.

Observations

@ourcitystreets

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  • Driver can not see kids standing in front of car.
    Driver can not see kids standing in front of car.
  • No accommodation for pedestrian during sidewalk construction
    No accommodation for pedestrian during sidewalk construction
  • Improperly placed and maintained signs sends the wrong message to drivers.
    Improperly placed and maintained signs sends the wrong message to drivers.