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Make a Better New York Times Story

September 26, 2012

Matt Flegenheimer’s story in the Times about the recent uptick in traffic fatalities leads off with the impression that bike lanes and pedestrian plazas have not contributed to an overall increase in safety, despite the DOT’s own statistics.   In fact, the sequence of the first two paragraphs — We have been told bike lanes and pedestrian plazas have made New York safer, but here is a study with some disquieting info — creates a completely illogical connection.

Five paragraphs into the story is this buried lede: “A preliminary analysis suggested that the crashes were concentrated on highways, far removed from many of the areas that have been the focus of the city’s initiatives.”  In other words, the Times, for whatever reason, chose to use the city’s “bike lane battles” as a framing for a story totally unrelated to bike lanes.  Eighth Avenue may be safer with a bike lane on it, but it’s a bit of a stretch to expect the Eighth Avenue bike lane to stop dangerous driving on the BQE.

In light of this, I decided to re-order Matt’s story in a more logical manner.   I left in the bit about bike lanes and pedestrian plazas, but I left out all the stuff about the LOOK! campaign and Janette Sadik-Khan’s Ryan Gosling impersonation.  (That Janette saved three or four distracted pedestrians is a fun anecdote, but it’s no more relevant to overall fatality rates than Ray Kelly tackling a purse snatcher would be to robbery stats.)  I left out the “distracted walking” speculation since I don’t typically see too many pedestrians on the Cross Bronx Expressway.  I also left out the quotes from James Vacca, since someone could stub a toe in Times Square and Vacca would call Janette before the City Council to explain herself.   I rewrote nothing:

Traffic fatalities from July 2011 through June 2012 were up 23 percent from the previous year — to 291, from 236. It was the first increase since 2007, when there were 310 traffic fatalities, after years of consistent decline.

Though overall crashes fell slightly for the second straight year, 176 cyclists or pedestrians were killed in crashes, up from 158 the previous year. The other 115 deaths were motorists or their passengers, a sharp rise from the 78 drivers and passengers killed the year before.

According to the Mayor’s Management Report, speeding, driving while intoxicated, and running red lights or stop signs accounted for a combined 54 percent of motorist or passenger fatalities. A preliminary analysis suggested that the crashes were concentrated on highways, far removed from many of the areas that have been the focus of the city’s initiatives.

The release last week of the Mayor’s Management Report, a twice-yearly collection of city measures, revealed a disquieting figure.  Total moving violation summonses fell by nearly 15 percent from July 2011 through June 2012, to a little over one million. These included over 150,000 summonses for prohibited use of a cellphone, a decrease of about 22 percent.

The Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The Transportation Department typically compiles figures for the calendar year, Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said, so the agency wanted “to reconcile what’s going on.” She allowed, however, that “it does look like there’s a rise.”

For years, the New York City Transportation Department has held a trump card in the roiling debate over its many roadway interventions: When officials said the measures, like pedestrian plazas and bike lanes, had made streets safer, the numbers appeared to back them up.

The traffic data appears more encouraging when set against figures from past years, before the city experienced its recent sharp decline in annual deaths. There were 243 traffic fatalities in the calendar year 2011, about a 38 percent reduction from 2001.

Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a cycling and pedestrian advocacy group, called the new statistics “alarming” and attributed much of the uptick to what he deemed lax police enforcement of traffic laws.

“Anyone who walks or bikes across a New York City street knows that motorists are getting away with reckless driving, day in, day out,” he said.

The announcement came five hours after a 38-year-old cyclist was struck and killed by a vehicle on Queens Boulevard in Kew Gardens, and about 14 hours after Francisco Camacho, 59, was fatally hit as he crossed the Cross Bay Boulevard in Ozone Park.

The police, Mr. White said, are “not doing their job.”

  1. Steve O. permalink
    September 27, 2012 11:01 am

    Bravo, Doug.

  2. Evan W. permalink
    September 27, 2012 11:12 am

    23% increase in fatalities. 22% decrease in cellphone tickets. Conclusion: why aren’t bike lanes making us safer?!?!?!?!?!?!!!!!????

  3. Andrew permalink
    September 27, 2012 9:22 pm

    Looks like they revised the part where PSW says the cops aren’t doing their job.

  4. pjonat permalink
    September 28, 2012 10:08 am

    please send this to the public editor of NYT.

  5. September 28, 2012 10:38 am

    Right on…the logical next step would be to install bike lanes on all highways….

  6. October 6, 2012 10:56 am

    I also saw the NYT story – and was dispirited by the complete lack of logic. I’ve given an alternative version of events on my blog here:


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