Bratton’s Bad Data on Pedestrian Injuries Won’t Get Us to Vision Zero

Yesterday NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton said that in 73 percent of crashes in which a pedestrian was struck by a motorist in 2013, the pedestrian was at fault. Bratton presented that figure as an indictment of pedestrian behavior, and the stat was later parroted by the press. But more than anything it speaks to the victim-blaming bias that permeates NYPD traffic enforcement and crash investigations — a major obstacle Bratton will have to overcome to implement Vision Zero.

Commissioner Bratton and Mayor de Blasio at yesterday's Vision Zero event. Image: Clarence Eckerson
Commissioner Bratton and Mayor de Blasio at yesterday’s Vision Zero event. Image: Clarence Eckerson

Here’s what Bratton said at Wednesday’s Vision Zero press conference:

“Last year, pedestrian error — and I point this out — pedestrian error contributed to 73 percent of collisions, and 66 percent are directly related to the actions of pedestrians. So while a lot of our focus is on drivers and speed, we also need to work more comprehensively on pedestrian education.”

These numbers came from out of nowhere, and it’s impossible to say what Bratton based them on.

But let’s start with the data we have at our disposal. A tally of NYPD’s monthly crash reports shows there were 14,845 pedestrian and cyclist injuries and deaths from January through November of last year (citywide crash numbers for December have not yet been released). For those 11 months, pedestrian and cyclist “error/confusion” was coded as a contributing factor in fatal and injury crashes involving 1,092 vehicles. That means only about 7 or 8 percent of pedestrian and cyclist injuries were coded as being the fault of the victim.

Other research has also shown that “pedestrian error” is not the risk factor that Bratton made it out to be. NYC DOT’s landmark 2010 pedestrian safety study, based on records of 7,000 crashes involving pedestrians, found that motorist behavior was the main factor in 78.5 percent of serious pedestrian injuries and fatalities. A 2012 report from Transportation Alternatives found that 60 percent of fatal New York City pedestrian and cyclist crashes with known causes between 1995 and 2009 were the result of motorists breaking traffic laws, according to data from the state Department of Transportation. And NYC DOT data from 2011 revealed that half of pedestrians killed in city crosswalks were crossing with the signal.

So the 73 percent figure doesn’t match up with any known dataset or the robust recent research into the causes of serious pedestrian injuries. Yet Bratton’s quote was aired and repeated by several media outlets, including the New York TimesWABC, and WNYC.

We don’t know where Bratton got his numbers, but we’ve asked NYPD. What we know is that the NYPD unit that creates the reports upon which most crash data is based — the Highway Division — has a record of jumping to conclusions that aren’t supported by the evidence.

This is the unit that, for example, blamed cyclists Rasha Shamoon and Stefanos Tsigrimanis for their own deaths based largely on the word of the drivers who killed them. Shamoon was vindicated by a civil jury, which found the motorist almost completely culpable for the collision. Investigators didn’t visit the Tsigrimanis crash scene for 46 days, but still concluded he blew a stop sign based on threadbare, inconsistent accounts. The crash report relied on the recollections of two drivers, including the one who struck Tsigrimanis, even though they admitted they did not see him until the moment of impact.

As Streetsblog has reported for years, the NYPD crash investigation process is in dire need of reform, and data produced by shoddy procedures should be greeted with skepticism. Then there are those crashes — the vast majority — which are not handled by NYPD’s handful of trained investigators at all. Some 14,000 pedestrians and cyclists are hurt each year, yet the NYPD Collision Investigation Squad takes up only 300 or so cases.

If Bratton believes people are causing their own deaths, there is a real danger his NYPD could focus on the behavior of pedestrians and cyclists — “pedestrian education” — rather than the motorists who are causing harm. That won’t reduce the death toll on city streets.

Whoever gave Bratton the 73 percent number, it comes from bias, rather than fact, and that will have to change if New York City is to achieve Vision Zero.