The New York Post recently reported a shocking fact: over the past five years in New York City, at least 21 taxi drivers had accidents that injured or killed pedestrians and bikers, but only one was ever charged with a crime. That, along with a long string of fatal accidents in our city, prompted Mayor Bill de Blasio to call for a new initiative called “Vision Zero.” Additional surveillance equipment, more traffic cops and a new, specially trained accident investigation team are planned for a unified effort at reducing traffic fatalities to zero.
While approving that effort, one expert thinks something else — something fundamental — will be needed before the car accident rate will genuinely drop. Activism.
Barron H. Lerner, M.D., an NYU professor of medicine and population health, spent much of his career studying how effective change in driving behavior is accomplished. In 2011, he published “One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900,” a history of drunk driving and society’s response to it. As late as the 1970s, he says, police and prosecutors commonly ignored whether a driver was intoxicated. Even fatal wrecks were viewed as accidents. Victims were told their loved ones had been “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
That cultural indifference was a fixture until the 1980s, when groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Remove Intoxicated Drivers fought to change public opinion. They made us believe that getting behind the wheel while drunk is a choice — a choice that friends don’t let friends make. They got laws passed that criminalized drunk driving itself instead of relying on traffic charges.
Tragically, part of Lerner’s insight also comes from personal loss. Earlier this month, his 9-year-old nephew was killed in a crosswalk. An NYC taxi driver, for whatever reason, didn’t see the boy or his 6-foot-3 father crossing with the light. He turned left, striking them both and killing the boy.
Afterwards, Lerner says, the first question people asked was whether the cabbie was drunk. He wasn’t. The fatal accident is still under investigation, but the driver wasn’t intoxicated, just tired, or distracted or careless.
Or reckless. Lerner fears that society is as apathetic about reckless driving today as it was about drunk driving in the 70s. For the Vision Zero program to have a real impact on the carnage from car accidents, Lerner says, that’s what will have to change.
- The New York Times’ Well blog, “Treat Reckless Driving Like Drunk Driving,” Barron H. Lerner, M.D., Jan. 24, 2014
- The New York Post, “21 cabbies involved in tragic crashes, only 1 charged,” Natasha Velez and Natalie O’Neill, Jan. 12, 2014