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The Question

February 17, 2015

I’ve been struck by the way in which the coverage of the bus crash that seriously injured a teenager last Friday as she crossed the street with the legal right of way exposes a core philosophy of traffic violence apologists. This philosophy has mostly played out in Pete Donohue’s coverage in the Daily News, but it’s a common point of view anytime an incident like this becomes the subject of debate: Death and serious injury, it seems, are the cost of doing business in the big city.

J.P. Patafio of TWU Local 100 said, “The law of averages has it we’re going to get into an accident.” Donohue, arguing on Twitter, has essentially said the same thing. The occasional bus crash in which a pedestrian is maimed or killed is just an accident and not a crime, and not something that should concern the law in any meaningful way beyond, perhaps, a traffic ticket. Work it out in civil court if you want, but leave criminal charges out of it.

If you accept that philosophy — that in order to keep buses moving on New York City Streets people are going to die every once in a while — then you should have to answer a rather serious question:

If the occasional death or serious injury is the inevitable cost of keeping the city running, how many of your family members would you be willing to lose?

If we take this “law of averages” philosophy to its logical conclusion, then someone has to pay the ultimate price for the greater good. So who loses that lottery? Should it be you? One of your kids? How about a friend or coworker? Is it only okay if you don’t know the person? If you accept these as simply unpreventable accidents, then it’s on you to answer whose death is worth it and how many people have to be hurt.

It’s easy to dismiss street safety advocates as “a zealous bunch of bicycling advocates,” but they’re not the ones saying that keeping the economy humming and the traffic flowing requires some sort of burnt offering to the gods of mobility.

  1. karlfun permalink
    February 17, 2015 12:09 pm

    Reblogged this on Bike Topeka.

  2. Slossy permalink
    February 17, 2015 12:11 pm

    Bravo. Thank you @BrooklynSpoke for continuing to inject some balance into this dialog. Thanks to you, PSW, the folks at Move NY, I see us headed towards positive change.

  3. February 17, 2015 1:33 pm

    Amazing great essay. Thank you. Humans hurt or killed in the abstract are mere statistics. When it’s people you know it’s real heartbreak and tragedy. You can post that if you want.


    Sent from my iPhone


  4. Janice D permalink
    February 17, 2015 4:31 pm

    Is this the Hunger Games school of traffic ?

  5. Alex permalink
    February 17, 2015 5:58 pm

    What the TWU fails to recognize (as well as many others with a windshield perspective) is that there is a difference between actual freak accidents and preventable collisions. They want to group them together and, anytime a bus driver hits someone, assume it was an unavoidable “accident”. But this mentality results in much more injury and death than the REAL “law of averages” would dictate. And if you question that mentality, be prepared for a character assassination by the likes of the TWU or Donahue.

  6. February 17, 2015 9:46 pm

    Also, it’s bullshit anyway that little delays like waiting for pedestrians, even cumulatively, stop the city from running. It’s one of those reflexive thoughts, but it’s not true.

    • February 17, 2015 10:08 pm

      Agree. There are lots of things that delay buses in NYC. Yielding to people on foot isn’t one of them.

  7. February 17, 2015 11:47 pm

  8. February 18, 2015 9:45 am

    We New Yorkers are not going to get to Vision Zero with a zero-defects mentality. We cannot intimidate our way to perfect bus drivers, just as we cannot intimidate our way to perfect train conductors, perfect child-services caseworkers, perfect police officers, or perfect prison guards. Samuelson would like management to take on the responsibility of creating an effective safety program and not just blame the driver for poor outcomes like death or serious injury.

    I am familiar with composite risk management, which is one such safety tool, but I am not familiar with the MTA’s bus safety program. A bus fleet with a vigorous composite risk management program would have these elements: regular safety briefing with all drivers on a shift to bring safety concerns to everyone’s attention; preventive maintenance checks and services completed and documented to ensure that mirrors and other safety equipment were correctly aligned and in functional condition; periodic safety stand-downs to reinforce safe behaviors; regular publication of a safety newsletter; the use of stickers or mnemonics or rhymes to encourage routine performance of safety checks; observation of buses along their routes to discover where unsafe conditions are found, and prompt action to correct these conditions, and most importantly, on-the-route checks by supervisors to ensure safe operation.


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