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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Pedestrian Fatalities in NYC

Air Date: Week of

In New York City, there are complaints that drivers get away with breaking the law -- going so far as injuring and killing people -- without even having to pay a fine. Neal Rauch reports.


CURWOOD: In New York City, pedestrians far outnumber cars. Yet even here, walkers feel they have to take a back seat to drivers. Now, by some measures, New York is safer than it used to be. The murder rate has dropped substantially over the last several years, and police are tough on even petty crimes. But don't step off the curb. Drivers can still get away with hitting pedestrians, without even having to pay a fine. Neal Rauch reports from New York.


RAUCH: Regina Auto Repair sits at this busy corner in the SoHo section of lower Manhattan. Marianna Regina's father owned this shop until he met a tragic end here in August of 1996.

REGINA: He returned to the shop from across the street. And as he was just about to reach the curb, a car backed up at high speed and hit him, throwing him about 10 or 15 feet in the air, causing him to land on his head, breaking several of his ribs, and causing brain damage, massive head trauma, and ultimately he died in the hospital 9 days later.

RAUCH: This is a one-way street, so Michael Regina never expected a car to be coming from the wrong direction. What happened to this guy?

REGINA: Nothing. After a year and a half, we finally got his license revoked. But basically this guy has, you can almost say, committed the perfect crime. He didn't even get a parking ticket, a summons. He's never seen a day in a courtroom.

RAUCH: What especially irks Marianna Regina is that the license of the man who killed her father had been suspended several times in the past, and he's received speeding tickets since the accident. District attorneys say this kind of accident is the most difficult to prosecute, with victims charging criminal recklessness, while drivers claim an unavoidable accident. And at least two traffic laws have to be broken before any criminal charges can be brought against the driver. Cars killed about 250 pedestrians and cyclists in New York City each year from 1994 to 1997, according to an advocacy group Right of Way. Right of Way member Charles Komanoff explains from a site where a fatality once occurred.


KOMANOFF: The majority of cases, the driver was largely at fault. By turning aggressively through a crosswalk, not yielding the right of way, at an unsignalized crosswalk, going through a red light, speeding, backing up, driving on the sidewalk, driving while intoxicated, etc. If you're a senior in New York City, you're more than twice as likely to be killed by a driver as by a murderer.

RAUCH: Right of Way has brought attention to what they call car violence by periodically painting street memorials to mowed down pedestrians.

KOMONOFF: A painted body outline in the street, a kind of police chalk outline that's life-sized. Six feet for an adult, three or four feet for a child, with the name of the victim, the date the person was killed, and the words, "Killed by Automobile."

RAUCH: Since 1996 they have painted some 250 memorials. City officials consider this graffiti, and last winter they arrested Charles Komanoff.

KOMANOFF: We painted a memorial to a 9-year-old kid on the sidewalk in front of the Queens Criminal Court Building, to protest the Queens District Attorney's failure to indict a driver who was unlicensed, who was fleeing the scene of two previous collisions, and who was speeding when he struck and killed a 9-year-old boy in a crosswalk on a sunny Sunday afternoon two days after Christmas.

RAUCH: The driver was only charged with traffic violations, but Charles Komanoff was jailed for 28 hours and fined for disorderly conduct. Komonoff wants to see the city's priorities changed. While he supports tough new sanctions against drunk drivers whose vehicles are seized upon arrest, he says driving while intoxicated only ranked 12th as the cause of pedestrian fatalities. The city, he says, must crack down on all forms of dangerous driving.

KOMANOFF: One way to do that is to charge drivers who kill. Another is to summons drivers for every time they intimidate or threaten or abridge the right of way of a lawfully-proceeding pedestrian.

RAUCH: And what about unlawfully-proceeding pedestrians? Does New Yorkers' famous tendency to jaywalk contribute to accidents? Right of Way's study found that aggressive turning through crosswalks is the single biggest known cause of pedestrian deaths. So the group says, ironically, careful jaywalking may often be the better way to cross in New York City. It's unlikely that city officials would endorse this view, though they declined to be interviewed for this story. City Hall claims that the number of pedestrian traffic deaths declined last year, but it refuses to release the figures. Right of Way has sued under the Freedom of Information Act to see if walking the streets of New York is indeed becoming less hazardous. For Living on Earth, I'm Neal Rauch in New York.



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