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Tech by VICE

New York Has a Plan to End All Traffic Deaths with Data, Cameras and Lasers

All that's missing are the robot-driven cars. And the support of a privacy-conscious state assembly.

by Meghan Neal
Feb 20 2014, 2:00pm
Image: Flickr / Timothy Krause

New York City's newly crowned mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan this week to eradicate what he calls "traffic violence" in the crowded metropolis he runs. The plan is called Vision Zero, as in reducing transportation-related deaths by 100 percent. And his administration plans to use street design, laser cameras, and data to make it work.

If traffic deaths seem like a strange fight to pick right out the gate, it shouldn't. Last year the number of people killed by vehicles in the city (286) almost matched the murder rate (333). This being New York we're talking about—read: Dustin Hoffman's "I'm walkin' here!"—the majority of those deaths were pedestrians or bikers hit while crossing the street.

Last month, the police commissioner appeared to pin the blame mostly on pedestrians, just as tickets for jaywalking rose. But data indicates that 70 percent of pedestrian fatalities from 2008 to 2012 involved “dangerous driver choices,” and the mayor has insisted that jaywalkers are not a target of the new proposal, which calls for the NYPD, the taxi commission, the Department of Transportation and others to help bring that number to zero.

Image: Flickr / Sidelong

Speed cameras: The city wants to install more red light cameras at high-risk intersections to scare drivers from running red lights, a solution that's been proven around the world. Part of the plan also involves lowering the speed limit from 30 to 25 mph. Speeding is the leading cause of motor-vehicle homicide in the city, and it's estimated that over two-thirds of the city's drivers exceed the current limit. The difference is one of life and death: pedestrians hit at 20 mph have only a five percent chance of dying, while those hit at 30 mph have a 45 percent chance of death.

But both the city's new speed limit and the cameras to enforce it will require a vote, and likely a fight, in the state legislature. After a spate of traffic fatalities last year, Albany legislators granted the city use of 20 mobile speed cameras to be used near public schools in June. Because of privacy concerns, however, the cameras are allowed to operate only from one hour before the school day begins to one hour after school activities end. The penalty of speeding—you must be going more than 10 mph over the limit to get caught—is $50, with no license points attached.

Since the movable cameras went into use last month, the program has handed out a measly eight tickets per camera per day. De Blasio will need a much stronger endorsement from the State Assembly—and from the chairman of its Transportation Committee, a Rochester Democrat who has often blocked traffic cameras for privacy reasons—if the mayor hopes to add more of them to the city's intersections.

Low tech: The plan calls for safety engineering improvements at 50 intersections and corridors, 25 new arterial slow zones, eight new neighborhood slow zones, and 250 speed bumps. Street lighting—which is also thought to reduce other crimes—will be improved at 1,000 intersections. 

Laser guns: Critics have complained that for the police after 9/11, traffic became a stepchild to homeland security, and they've blamed the police for failing to enforce laws and to properly investigate accidents to determine culpability. "The police have a lot of things to do," de Blasio's predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, said during his radio show last year. "They focus on the most serious things and when they have time, do these others."

Fast forward to last month, just after De Blasio's inauguration. “A life lost is a life lost, whether by murder or by traffic accident, and the department is committed to every way, shape and form in reducing the loss of life,” the city's Police Commissioner, Bill Bratton said at a ceremony announcing Vision Zero. To wit: the NYPD will get some new surveillance gear to enforce traffic laws. Traffic cops will be given LIDAR guns that use lasers to measure the speed of vehicles more accurately than radar can.

Image: Wikipedia

Crash analysis: The police will also be expected to investigate all traffic accidents causing critical injuries—not just fatalities. To do so they'll continue to rely not only on nearby surveillance cameras but also on a vehicle's "black box" to gather details about its behavior just before a crash. (Currently, only in about 40 percent of cases will the NYPD's black box readers work with a given car’s computer system, "often because the manufacturer will not allow access to the data," according to the Times.) More controversially, police could use data collected by city-mandated dashboard devices to target and penalize offending cab and limo drivers—something privacy advocates say can too easily be abused.

Anti-speeding taxi meters: Still, since they command such a presence on New York's streets, taxi drivers could shoulder a lot of this safety crackdown. De Blasio has proposed that taxis be fitted with data-recording devices that can track anything from seat belts to steering, amassing a trove of data on driving habits. In New York's taxis, the black boxes will be used to alert both the driver and passenger if the cabbie goes over the speed limit, or even automatically pauses the meter. (I don't know whether to look forward to a cheaper fare or worry that trips will take twice as long.)

Image: Flickr / Salim

More data: The city will better leverage its data about traffic accidents to plan for and design against dangers. Critics have complained that the NYPD has been reluctant to release traffic accident data, and when it eventually did, that it offered the data in a format that was difficult to access. "Technologies can be updated to provide more data points," the report states, and calls for the authorities to develop a "data-driven citywide enforcement strategy." It's a win for the open data advocates, one of whom has already hacked together his own map of NYC traffic accidents, albeit with only a rough accuracy. 

Data lies at the heart of the mayor's proposal, which was inspired by the Vision Zero plan inaugurated in Sweden in 1997. There and in other cities that have followed suit, traffic fatalities have fallen by an average of 25 percent. Now the idea is taking root in Chicago, San Francisco, and Portland, among other cities.  

What daytime traffic looks like at one intersection in New York City. Video: Ron Gabriel

New York City’s scheme is just the latest attempt to leverage the latest technologies to eliminate traffic accidents and urban congestion. The future is pushing toward network-linked cars that can talk to each other using vehicle-to-vehicle wireless communication, which could, theoretically, transform chaotic streets into a controlled, collision-free transportation system, like a train.

This year's CES gave us a peek at how quickly vehicles are becoming computerized, step one on the long road to driverless cars; automakers believe that cutting the driver out of the equation could reduce traffic-related fatalities down to zero.

New York's plan isn't so techno-utopian as that. And certain parts will require approval from the state before de Blasio can fully put the rubber to the road. But if he can, he's likely to bring down traffic violence, and give New York something new to brag about.