Saturday, February 21, 2015

Zero Tolerance for Killing Pedestrians

One of New York mayor Bill de Blasio's first initiatives was a law that makes it a criminal offense, punishable by up to 30 days in jail, for drivers to kill or injure pedestrians who have the right of way. This "failure to yield" law is under attack now by the union representing New York's bus drivers:
The union, Transport Workers Union Local 100, says the arrest on Friday of the driver, Francisco DeJesus, a veteran with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, was uncalled-for; it has supported a proposed amendment in the City Council to exclude bus drivers from the law. The union created a hashtag — #LetsBePerfect — for its 10,000 bus operators, protesting that the mayor’s policy, Vision Zero, unreasonably demanded perfection.

Mr. DeJesus was charged with failure to yield after his bus struck the girl as she was crossing the street with a walk signal in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on her way to school. She was pinned under the front of the bus, and her leg was severely injured.
Here's a great legal and moral question: is it unreasonable to impose serious penalties for people whose mistakes lead to the deaths and injuries of others? When is it reasonable to demand perfection?

More broadly, what level of accidental death is acceptable? Is our right to get around conveniently and quickly worth the 30,000 American lives lost to vehicle accidents every year?

Obviously it is rarely possible to reduce any accident rate to zero. On the other hand, treating accidents as just something that happens is an invitation to more of them. The airline industry has reduced accidents to a fantastically low level by treating every single accident as something that ought not to have happened. Hospitals are now trying to use the same techniques to reduce their accident rates.

Yet one thing airlines and hospitals have discovered is that blaming people for mistakes is rarely effective; what is effective is changing whole systems to make mistakes less likely. I suspect that the only way to really curtail vehicle-pedestrian accidents is the physical separation of vehicles and pedestrians, and in New York that would be hard to achieve.

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

So long as cars and pedestrians share the same space, people will get run over. Unfortunately, many of New York's roads were designed for foot traffic and the occasional horse-drawn carriage, rathatn than for automobiles. Combined with the sheer population and traffic densities, some of the highest in the world, such accidents are understandably commonplace.

The thing is, New York and other "old design" cities will have to modernize eventually. It certainly can't be done over night, but putting off even just preparing for an overhaul later on doesn't help anyone one bit. The fact that it's going to be "hard to achieve" is unfortunately, but ultimately irrelevant from both a practical and moral standpoint, and certainly no excuse for just ignoring the larger problem to be left for future generations to handle.

Yet at the same time, people are loath to pay taxes, and a massive reconstruction of one of the world's largest cities is going to require some serious tax money to finance. People are also loath to tolerate the inconveniences of construction, and this would be one of the largest scale construction projects in history. Worse still, it would last a long time - decades, most likely - during which time people will continually grumble about the cost and inconvenience.

Perhaps the comparison to hospitals is apt, however. Typically the longer one waits to begin treatment, the less effective the treatment ends up being, and the longer and more painful the recovery is.