Just before 2 AM on February 28, 2022, after a night partying in upper Manhattan, Edgar Valette, 39, got into his BMW to drive two friends—Kimberly Martinez, 28, and Michael Santos, 30—home. Careening southbound down the Henry Hudson Parkway, he lost control of his powerful vehicle, vaulting over a barrier onto train tracks 500 feet below. The driver and passengers died. Ten weeks later, just before midnight on May 18, 30-year-old Alwayne Hylton lost control of his own speeding BMW on the elevated Bruckner Expressway, north of the Manhattan border in the southwest Bronx, plummeting to the roadway below to his death. Not long after that crash, on May 26, just before 7 PM, also in the Bronx, an unnamed 25-year-old man sent his Mercedes hurtling off the New England Thruway, landing on the street below; he, too, perished. Also in May, a 36-year-old man rode his motorcycle down the West Side Highway; as the sun rose, he slammed into a median barrier, dying on impact. Weeks later, in Queens, a 28-year-old man crashed his motorcycle “at a high rate of speed” down the Utopia Parkway into a brick wall, with the same fatal results.
Since the Covid pandemic hit New York City in March 2020, traffic deaths have skyrocketed, just as they have across the country. Locally and nationally, these deaths have paralleled the same double-digit trajectory upward as homicides and drug-overdose deaths. In 2019, 220 New Yorkers died on city streets, near the record low of 206, set the year before. In 2021, 273 people died, a nearly one-quarter increase in two years. In 2022, as of late May, 93 people have died, down slightly from last year, but 12 percent above pre-Covid levels.
Beyond the human toll, this reversal of street safety was a particular blow for former mayor Bill de Blasio, who left office at the end of 2021. De Blasio had made traffic safety a mayoral centerpiece, promising, in his 2013 campaign, significantly to curtail traffic deaths, building on the double-digit reductions that his predecessors, Michael R. Bloomberg and Rudolph W. Giuliani, had made. By the conclusion of de Blasio’s final term, the increased carnage on the roads would appear, at first glance, to have undone all the improvements that he, too, had notched.
Yet the bad raw numbers hide some successes. The changes that the city has made to its streets over the last decade or so—creating room for pedestrians and cyclists and slowing car and truck drivers—have helped pedestrians, especially, who are dying in fewer numbers relative to a decade ago. The city hasn’t made as much progress in protecting cyclists, but nor have cyclist deaths soared during the pandemic—an achievement, considering how much cycling has increased, as New Yorkers avoid the subway and as food-delivery workers serve people eating more takeout.
Who, then, is perishing now in greater numbers? The victims often fit the profile of those killed in the single-car crashes noted above: younger men, drivers or passengers in motor vehicles, often late at night, often speeding. New York’s increase in traffic deaths, in other words, tends to mirror its (and the nation’s) broader public-safety problem: the self-destructive and dangerous behavior of a young male demographic. As with the recent explosion in violent crime, members of this group are taking advantage of a law-enforcement vacuum that lets them get away with ever more antisocial behavior—until it kills them or someone else. Street engineering has mitigated this problem to some degree, and can do more, but it can’t entirely fix it. Policing and other direct enforcement of behavior also have crucial roles to play.
As in many areas of public safety and public health, New York City started the pandemic with an advantage. In 2019, the city’s 220 traffic deaths—whether people in cars, or pedestrians, or cyclists—represented a per-capita rate of about 2.6 per 100,000 residents, just a small fraction of the 11.1 per 100,000 killed nationwide. Among large, urbanized areas, New York stood out for safety, as well. In Miami-Dade County in 2019, for example, the rate was 11 per 100,000; metro Atlanta’s rate was similar. Even among denser northeastern and mid-Atlantic cities, which have long had lower traffic-death rates than the sprawling south and west, New York performed slightly better than Boston, with its 2.8 traffic deaths per 100,000, and much better than Philadelphia, with its 5.7 deaths per 100,000.
Pre-pandemic, New York’s falling traffic deaths made it a national outlier. Between 2011, when traffic deaths hit a modern low nationwide, and 2019, such fatalities across the country rose by 11.9 percent, to 36,355 annually. In Gotham over this period, by contrast, they fell 12 percent. The difference in pedestrian casualties was especially striking. Nationwide, pedestrian deaths began rising in 2010, after having fallen, reasonably steadily, for at least three decades. By 2019, annual pedestrian deaths had risen from their 2009 low by more than half. But in New York, pedestrian deaths fell by 21.5 percent over the same near-decade.
What made the difference? New York’s decade of reengineering its streets to favor walkers and cyclists indisputably saved lives. Bike lanes and new pedestrian islands and plazas narrowed automotive driving lanes, for example, forcing motor vehicles to go slower and giving walkers and cyclists more room to move and cross. As Alex Armlovich, then of the Manhattan Institute, concluded in a 2017 study, “the evidence is clear that Vision Zero”—the aspirational global slogan to achieve zero traffic deaths—“has improved street safety.” Indeed, citywide, as street makeovers expanded, pedestrian deaths fell from 158 in 2009 to a modern pre-pandemic low of 108 in 2017. Such remade streets were good for the safety of people in cars and trucks, too. In 2009, 90 motorists, including motorcyclists, died on city streets; in 2019, the figure was 68.
Enforcement also saved lives. Notes Michael Replogle, deputy transportation commissioner for policy during most of the de Blasio years, “automated and conventional traffic enforcement,” coupled with a lower 25 mph speed limit on non-highway roads, “expanded greatly to discourage aggressive driving.” Automated speed cameras in school zones, introduced by Bloomberg and widened under de Blasio, have slowed drivers over the past decade (even though, until recently, the state legislature required the city to turn the cameras off on weekends and overnight, when the plurality of crashes occur). Crash injuries fell by 13.9 percent in the year after installation. More than half of drivers getting a speeding ticket in a school zone needed only one such $50 citation to change their behavior, never receiving another ticket, city data show.
Police action reinforced the technology. In 2018, the record-low year for traffic fatalities, police issued a modern record-high number of speeding tickets—152,381—that more than doubled the 2012 total. Whether making a purposeful substitution or not, as police retreated from the tactic of stopping, questioning, and frisking young men allegedly behaving suspiciously on foot, they devoted some of these resources to stopping and summonsing young men behaving dangerously in cars.
The law-enforcement role in making traffic safer had begun much earlier, under former mayors David Dinkins and Rudolph W. Giuliani. Between 1990, New York’s record-high year for traffic deaths (and murders), and 2001, when Giuliani left office after eight years, traffic deaths fell from 701 to 393 annually; annual pedestrian deaths fell from 366 to 193. On traffic safety, remembers Giuliani, “We tried to apply the same process we applied to the other problems . . . find out where the most deaths were taking place, and figure out what is needed to reduce it.” Among other initiatives, Giuliani launched a TrafficStat program, similar to CompStat for crime, to create a statistical map of hot spots for traffic crashes. And his administration also cracked down hard on drunk drivers and reckless drivers, seizing their vehicles and charging reckless drivers with misdemeanors, something rarely done. The city seized so many vehicles, Giuliani recalls, “that we didn’t know what to do with the darn cars.”
The pandemic and related shutdowns that began in March 2020 have imperiled these intertwined successes of street engineering and law enforcement. Over the past two years, New York has performed even more dismally when it comes to traffic bloodshed than the rest of America. In 2021, 42,915 people died on the nation’s roads, up 18 percent from 2019—but New York saw an even worse increase of 24 percent. As Mayor Eric Adams said in May 2022, “we’ve seen traffic violence increase drastically in the past two years. This is a real crisis.”
Even amid these grim figures, however, we can glimpse what New York has done right, relative to the rest of the country. The least bad news, relatively speaking, is the pedestrian death toll. In 2021, 126 pedestrians died. This figure is higher than the annual average of 114 between 2017 and 2019—again, nothing to brag about. But the pedestrian death toll nationwide has risen much more. Further, in 2022, through the end of May, 43 pedestrians had died, down from the same period in 2021 and 2019.
One might argue that fewer pedestrians died in 2021, relative to the increase in other traffic deaths, because fewer of them were on the streets. This hypothesis was true, for a while. In 2020, pedestrian deaths reached a record low. No pedestrians died in April 2020, a never-before-achieved feat. Yet absent the extremity of total lockdown, that’s not how pedestrian deaths work. Pedestrians enjoy safety in numbers, not just from violent crime but from dangerous drivers. Large crowds on foot in intersection crosswalks, for example, deter drivers from speeding through turns. This reality is why dense New York has long had a much lower pedestrian death rate compared with other cities, where fewer people walk.
Nor are cyclist fatalities pushing New York’s traffic-death numbers higher. This is a testament to the safety-in-numbers principle, as well as to New York’s improved cycling infrastructure. Bike riding soared by an estimated one-third on major corridors during the first year of the pandemic and has remained elevated since. The Citi Bike cycle-sharing program has smashed all its daily pre-pandemic records, with 72,298 rides daily in April 2022, up 21 percent from three years before; during the summer months, daily Citi Bike ridership reaches the low six figures. Tens of thousands of delivery riders have also taken to the streets, often riding faster-moving electric bikes that put their riders in greater danger. Indeed, of the 26 cyclists who died in 2020 and the 19 who died in 2021, 11 were “e-cyclists” (not including moped riders or riders on other vehicles without pedals). Working cyclists face disproportionate risk, but this changing mix of danger did not push the overall cyclist death toll up.
New York’s network of bicycle lanes works, where it exists. During 2021, none of the cyclists killed was riding in a well-protected bike lane when he died. One Brooklyn cyclist was killed, though—allegedly by a teenage wrong-way truck driver—in a lane where the city had allowed barriers between cyclists and drivers to deteriorate, replacing physical separations with inadequate lane markings. The provisional takeaway is that the city’s bike lanes and other infrastructure are a success; they are just insufficient to keep up with growing demand. As Sergio Solano, a food-delivery cyclist who has helped organize a trade group, El Diario de los Deliveryboys en la Gran Manzana, to advocate for better safety for working cyclists, notes, “putting . . . barriers between cars and cyclists is working,” albeit “very slowly.”
That’s not to say that New York should be satisfied with these numbers. Deaths remain far higher than they are in comparable European cities. In London in 2021, for example, 55 pedestrians and nine cyclists died—less than half of New York City’s totals, despite similar populations. But in New York, experiencing an explosion in the murder rate since March 2020, let’s declare a modest success when we find one: the city has not lost a decade, or more, of progress in keeping pedestrians (and, to a lesser degree, cyclists) safer.
It’s a different story with motor vehicles. In 2020, 122 motorists died, a 52.5 percent increase over the average between 2017 and 2019. In 2021, 113 car and truck drivers (mostly car) and motorcyclists died, a 42.2 percent rise over the pre-Covid level. The trend is continuing in 2022, with 41 motor-vehicle occupants killed through May, up from 25 for the same period in 2019.
Motorcyclists make up a big share of the increase. Though many motorcyclists are responsible hobbyists, and many others aren’t at fault in fatal crashes with cars and trucks, this category of motor-vehicle death has long been a mark of young male recklessness. Before the pandemic, motorcycles made up just 2 percent of registered conveyances in the city but 14 percent of fatal crashes. As the city estimated in 2015, almost all motorcycle crash victims were male, more than half were under 35, and more than four in ten were driving without a license.
Motorcycling has become far more dangerous since the pandemic began. If you’ve spent time in New York City over the past two and a half years, you’ve doubtless observed more cyclists doubled up on motorbikes without helmets, joyriding. In 2020 and 2021, motorcyclist deaths outpaced the annual average between 2017 and 2019. There’s one rough way to quantify the motorcyclist risk-taking that has helped cause these deaths: between 2017 and 2019, according to my calculations derived from a state database of crash factors maintained by the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research, just 11 percent of motorcyclists killed in New York City crashes failed to wear a helmet, as required by law. In 2020, the figure rose to 17.8 percent, and in 2021, to 25 percent.
The proliferation of electric mopeds (which, like motorcycles, but unlike electric bicycles, require a license plate, and thus fall into the “motor vehicle” category) adds to the problem. In the summer of 2020, three riders on bike-share mopeds operated by the Revel startup died, two helmet-less, despite city requirements. That fall, a Revel moped rider killed a Manhattan pedestrian, a rare but real example of the danger that fast-moving two-wheeled vehicles can pose (nearly all pedestrians are killed by car and truck drivers).
The most significant increase in the death toll since 2020, though, is borne by people driving or riding in cars or SUVs. Since 2020, New Yorkers on foot, on bicycles, and in other cars and trucks will be familiar with a new urban blight: drag racers, drivers accelerating at light changes, and drivers who seem enraged. This translates into real public-safety deterioration. Between 2017 and 2019, an average of 46 vehicle occupants—drivers or passengers—died annually in car crashes. The pandemic smashed—literally—these historically low numbers. In 2020, the death toll was 71, and in 2021, 64—increases of 54.3 and 39.1 percent, respectively. As of May, the situation was worsening: 33 such motor-vehicle occupants have died so far this year, nearly double the average of 17 in the first five months of 2017, 2018, or 2019.
It’s never been a secret that male drivers—particularly, young male drivers driving their own vehicles—are responsible for most traffic deaths. A 2010 city study found that “80 percent of pedestrian [fatal or serious] crashes involve male drivers, while only 57 percent of New York City driver’s licenses are held by males.” In about eight in ten fatal crashes, drivers were behind the wheel of their own vehicle, not a commercial vehicle such as a taxi. Between 2017 and 2019, in more than one-quarter of fatal crashes (across genders), the driver was under 30.
The gender breakdown hasn’t changed much of late. Men continued to be behind the wheel in more than eight in ten fatal crashes the last two years. The other risk factor, though, has grown even riskier: young drivers. In 2020, drivers under 30 were in 100 fatal crashes, up 42.9 percent from the average between 2017 and 2019 and constituting 31.4 percent of the total. In 2021, the trend, though abated, continued, with young males driving in 28.2 percent of all fatal crashes. Just as fewer motorcyclists are wearing helmets, as the law requires, fewer drivers and passengers in fatal crashes were wearing seatbelts, as similarly mandated—40.8 percent were unbelted in 2021 and 2022, up from 31 percent in the immediate pre-Covid years.
More drivers are speeding: 69 such deaths occurred in 2020, a major increase over the average of 42 annually between 2017 and 2019, followed by a new high of 80 such deaths in 2021. And more are drinking. Though drunk-driving deaths fell in 2020—presumably because bars and restaurants were closed for much of the year—they rose past the pre-pandemic average in 2021, as entertainment venues reopened. Finally, more fatal crashes are occurring at night: 114 in 2021; and 97 in 2020, up from the pre-pandemic average.
As former city traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz says, drivers are “behaving outrageously.” Schwartz visited the scene of that single-car February 2022 Hudson Parkway crash that killed three, including the driver—and found no skid marks. In 2020, one could at least argue that drivers were behaving recklessly by accident. With roads devoid of traffic, people could perhaps speed or lose their attention without fully noticing. By 2021, though, normal traffic levels had returned—and the deathly trips continued.
What was the big factor that changed beginning in 2020, apart from the less trafficked roads and the fact that many newly unemployed and out-of-school teens and young men had extra time for motoring misadventures? It’s not as if New York ripped out its new pedestrian plazas and bike lanes. To the contrary, the city made even more such space for cyclists and walkers, and for diners, via its “open streets” and “open restaurants” recreation and dining programs.
Rather, law enforcement changed. Automated cameras continued to issue fines—nearly 4.4 million tickets in 2020 (numbers for previous years aren’t comparable, as the city greatly expanded the program in 2020). But police-directed enforcement of the laws of the road—against drunk driving, speeding, and general reckless behavior—plummeted. Between 2017 and 2019, the NYPD issued an average of slightly more than 1 million “moving violations”—for speeding, red-light running, and other dangerous driving—annually. In 2020, the figure dropped to 510,000, and in 2021, to 508,000. Just as New York drivers were proving that they couldn’t regulate their own behavior, the city severely curtailed its regulation of that behavior.
On the densest streets and avenues, drivers still find some of their reckless behavior thwarted by bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, speed bumps, frequent red lights and intersections, and other physical obstacles, and the city can and should create more such obstacles. But bike lanes and bus lines, especially those without physical barriers to keep out car and truck drivers, aren’t entirely self-enforcing. As A. Mychal Johnson, founder of South Bronx Unite, a quality-of-life advocacy group, notes of his own truck- and car-dominated neighborhood, “traffic deaths have increased because traffic enforcement is not a priority for the NYPD. They overlook double-parked cars, especially their own, vehicles in bike lanes, delivery trucks double-parked, and trucks traversing through residential areas to avoid congested truck routes.” In early May 2022, the driver of a box truck careening through a mid-Bronx intersection struck and killed 16-year-old Alissa Kolenovic, who was walking to school; weeks later, a truck driver killed a bicyclist on Bruckner Boulevard. In both instances, chaotically designed streets, coupled with negligible enforcement of traffic in a semi-industrial area, were to blame.
The law-enforcement absence is most glaring on limited-access highways and wide arterial roads. “We’ve made strides on intersections,” says Matthew Carmody, a veteran transportation engineer at city planning firm AKRF. “But away from intersections, where you have these long, wide boulevards” and “big distances between intersections . . . [drivers] speed.” Wide roads, including highways, are “empty of traffic many hours of the day.” Crash barriers did not stop Valette and his friends from plunging over an upper Manhattan highway embankment to their deaths.
Bad drivers, like other antisocial actors, have proved since 2020 that they’re not going to control themselves. The Adams administration has taken some welcome steps to do so. Most important, the mayor realizes that traffic violence and violent crime go together. “I’m sending a clear message that this city is not going to be a city of disorder,” he said in May, and “vehicle crashes” are a sign of “a city of disorder.” The mayor will revive the Giuliani-era TrafficStat program, pinpointing locations where “people are speeding, driving fast, reckless[ly] driving” for stepped-up police enforcement. The city will also continue to build out speed bumps, new intersection designs that slow traffic with raised markings, and bike lanes.
This spring, the city successfully lobbied the state legislature to let it keep its speed cameras on 24 hours daily. But cameras can’t make up for the human enforcement pullback, especially since, as The City news site reports, drivers are increasingly using bogus or obscured license plates to evade cameras. Police officers must stop drivers with such plates.
The Adams administration can’t ignore the death toll among working delivery cyclists. Most cyclists are independent contractors for apps such as DoorDash and Grubhub. The business model requires them to ride long distances, and quickly, to deliver hot food. A double-digit annual death number that would be unacceptable in any other blue-collar occupation, such as construction, should be unacceptable in this one as well.
As for reckless car and truck operators, repeat dangerous drivers, including the tens of thousands whose vehicles rack up five or more speed-camera violations yearly, should face consequences. Before 28-year-old Tyrik Mott sped the wrong way down Gates Avenue in Brooklyn and killed infant Apolline Mong-Guillemin in her baby carriage in September 2021, his vehicle had racked up 91 speed-camera tickets, as Streetsblog reported. Cops had repeatedly pulled him over, and the state had suspended his license. But Mott kept driving. Similarly, Michael de Guzman, the person charged with drunkenly hitting and killing New York University student Raife Milligan in May 2022, had four speeding violations on his vehicle in just five months. But both still drove with impunity.
To stop such drivers before they kill, Adams should revive the other Giuliani-era program, as well: seizing the vehicles of the most reckless drivers, people caught behaving dangerously several times behind the wheel. “If you get arrested for reckless driving to the point where we charge you with a misdemeanor, we’re going to take your automobile from you,” Giuliani said in 2000. “And we’re going to take it from you . . . because it’ll remind you that this is important. This kills people. It also kills you.” Twenty-two years later, his words are more relevant than ever.
Top Photo: A fatal and deliberate crash in Times Square, 2017, involving a mentally ill driver: New York cut traffic deaths significantly over the three decades before Covid-19, but since the pandemic, it’s been a different story. (WANG YING/XINHUA/ALAMY LIVE NEWS)