KOMANOFF: Transparency is Why DOT, Not NYPD, Should Oversee Crash Investigations

File photo: Gersh Kuntzman
File photo: Gersh Kuntzman

In advance of Wednesday’s hearing on a City Council bill to have the Department of Transportation serve as the lead agency investigating car crashes (currently, the NYPD is the lead agency), Charles Komanoff prepared the following testimony specifically related to transparency, an issue that was not widely addressed at the hearing:

My name is Charles Komanoff. Some committee members may know me as “re-founder” of the bicycling-advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, whose revival I led as TA president in the late 1980s and early 1990s. You may also know of my traffic and transportation modeling work, including my “BTA” spreadsheet for evaluating congestion pricing and my report published last month urging the city to charge Uber and Lyft for the time their affiliated vehicles are occupying space in the Manhattan taxi zone, without passengers.

I speak today in a different capacity, as an organizer with the grassroots, direct-action safe-streets group, Right Of Way. You probably have stumbled upon — literally — one or more of the hundreds of street memorials to New Yorkers run over and killed by drivers that we stenciled onto city streets and sidewalks in the late 1990s and from 2013 to 2015. You may also have heard of or read our 1999 monograph, Killed By Automobile, Death in the Streets in New York City, 1994-1997, the first systematic investigation of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in an American city. Killed By Automobile’s finding that a clear majority of those fatalities were the result of careless or reckless driving helped change the climate of opinion around traffic danger from vulnerable-victim-blaming to driver culpability.

Toward a Pedestrian Agenda _ sidebar _ p 60 _ KBA _ annotated for Item 6 (inquests), truncatedI refer you to Recommendation #6 in the 10-point agenda at right, from Killed By Automobile: that the City of New York “require inquests into all pedestrian and cyclist fatalities, and make the findings public.”

Your bill, Intro 2224-2021, will help accomplish this goal, which Right Of Way enunciated 22 years ago and have urged ever since.

The key part of that recommendation is underlined in green: “make the findings public.”

Since we published Killed By Automobile, the NYPD’s Collision Investigation Squad (formerly, Accident Investigation Squad) has produced an estimated 4,000 analyses and reconstructions of vehicle collisions that killed pedestrians or cyclists across the five boroughs. This collection of forensics could have served as a resource to help crash investigators, health professionals, transportation officials and street-safety advocates determine the types of behaviors — pedestrian behavior, cyclist behavior and, especially, driver behavior — that are most prevalent in serious-injury and fatal crashes suffered by people walking and biking in New York City.

This data — a literal treasure-trove — could have informed: policing, by identifying dangerous behaviors as just noted; road design and street treatments, by pinpointing not just the locations but also the geometries and layouts that are most (or least) prone to serious crashes; driver education, by highlighting motorist maneuvers that most often causes crashes; justice administration, by putting crash adjudication on a more evidence-based footing; and legislation, by helping lawmakers better distinguish enforcement, education and engineering strategies that reduce crash risks from those that do not.

Yes, these carefully wrought and expensively developed CIS forensics could have done that. Alas, they have not. NYPD and CIS squirrel away their reports in drawers and cabinets, to be seen by no one, save the attorneys in each particular case. Crash investigators don’t get to review them, health professionals can’t comb them, transportation officials don’t review them, street-safety advocates never see them.

This must change, and Intro 2224-2021 will make that change. Right Of Way commends Committee Chair Rodriguez, Council Members Lander and Levin, and Speaker Johnson for sponsoring this bill.

I would like to propose two friendly amendments.

First, that the new crash investigation and analysis unit within the city DOT be mandated to publish annual reports that distill the analyses and findings from the prior year’s crash investigations. The reports should include capsule summaries of each crash, as a way to apprise the council, health and transportation professionals within the administration, and members of the public as to the dimensions of traffic violence in their community and the city at large.

Second, that the language in the bill be modified to make clear that the investigation and analysis unit’s purview extends to driver, cyclist and pedestrian behavior, not just street design and infrastructure.

Finally, this point: Please resist any blandishments from NYPD that they, and only they, can satisfy the aims of Intro 2224-2021. The Police Department has had decades to establish protocols and procedures to release their crash investigations, to distill their forensics into conclusions and recommendations, and to otherwise accomplish your aims and mine. In all this time, they haven’t lifted a finger.

Indeed, whereas in 2000 the AIS (now CIS) helpfully shared a couple dozen crash investigation reports with Right Of Way, since then they have clamped down completely. Through their closed-door stance, the NYPD have proven that they have no interest in having their crash work improve street safety. The only corrective is to “transfer primary responsibility for investigating serious vehicular crashes from the police department to the department of transportation,” as Intro 2224-2021 will do.


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