Death Race 2016
A Modest Proposal to Improve Vision Zero
By Jim Knipfel
In 1975, the dark Roger Corman-produced satire Death Race 2000 became not only a massive drive-in hit, but a cultural touchstone. Directed by Corman regular Paul Bartel and starring David Carradine and Sylvester Stallone, the film was set in a dystopian near future where hit-and-run driving has become the nation's most popular spectator sport. In late March, the legendary low-budget filmmaker, now in his mid-90s, announced he would be producing a sequel.
It makes you wonder if he's been reading the news out of New York and figured the time was right. NYPD statistics for 2012 reveal that 152 pedestrians and bicyclists across the five boroughs were killed after being struck by automobiles. According to the locally-based advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, in 2013, out of an estimated 16,000 car accidents involving pedestrians or bicyclists, the numbers had jumped to just over 290 killed by drunk, distracted, bloodthirsty or otherwise reckless drivers, topping even the number of people killed by gun violence that same year. New York seemed to be experiencing a growing epidemic of hit and run accidents in particular.
Working hand in hand with Transportation Alternatives, in December of 2014 Mayor Bill De Blasio pushed through the passage of a program he was calling, ironically enough, Vision Zero, a 20-year plan to eliminate auto-related fatalities in the city. Among the first 15 pieces of Vision Zero legislation passed by the city council were agreements to reduce the speed limit within the city to 25 mph; the addition of more pedestrian signs, bike lanes, and red light cameras; and an overall improvement in street maintenance. The plan also suggested slapping those drivers convicted of hit-and-run and vehicular manslaughter with additional charges, much the way penalties have been increased for those convicted of hate crimes. Under Vision Zero, drivers convicted of leaving the scene of an accident could be fined an additional $500, and if there were any resulting fatalities, the fines can run as high as an additional $10,000.
In a related move to cut down on the number of cars and trucks clogging city streets, the Port Authority, working in conjunction with the city, ramped up the tolls on the bridges and tunnels leading into Manhattan. They may not have yet reached the levels once briefly proposed by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg toward that same end, but at present any big rig truck hoping to enter the city via the George Washington Bridge can expect to pay a toll of $102.
Although traffic fatalities across the five boroughs dropped to just under 270 in 2015 (touted by the Mayor as a grand victory), there were still an estimated 38,000 accidents involving pedestrians and bicyclists, with roughly 4,000 of those being hit and runs. At the moment, with multiple hit and runs becoming as standard a daily occurrence as slashings, the city is well on its way toward breaking all previous records.
Even the appearance of Peatónito, or Little Pedestrian, for a week in early March was not enough to stem the rash of pedestrian injuries. The self-styled superhero from Mexico City, in his wrestling mask and Ramones t-shirt, has made a name for himself by helping pedestrians across busy streets and fearlessly confronting drivers who block crosswalks or otherwise ignore the rules of the road. Peatónito was in town to attend Transportation Alternatives' second annual Vision Zero conference and stand up for a few pedestrians in Brooklyn, but during his brief visit and despite his best efforts, another seven people were struck by hit and run drivers.
There are several clear and obvious reasons for the sharp increase in hit and run accidents, most being the direct result of lifestyle choices, psychology, and the march of commerce, none of which can be easily legislated away.
As any New York pedestrian can tell you, despite the toll increases, the new signs, and the red light cameras, traffic in the city is only getting worse, with people walking to work in Manhattan during the morning rush forced to play a game of chicken across several jammed lanes of traffic often squeezed over the crosswalks into the intersection. Couple that with the increase in tension, frustration and anger experienced by drivers trapped in another 2nd Avenue logjam, and many may come to see pedestrian well-being as the least of their concerns. Couple that yet further with the reigning dominance of SUVs, which leave drivers five feet or more off the ground with a sense of invincibility and a field of vision similar to that of bus drivers, and pedestrian fatalities are merely an inevitability.
But that's just the beginning. A much bigger problem is the traffic court system. While a century ago hit and run drivers were charged with felonies, nowadays, even under Vision Zero, fleeing the scene of even a fatal accident is generally ruled a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and little more. On top of that, as attorney Peter Ferraiuolo explained to 1010 WINS recently, those rare defendants who are actually arrested and not just fined are more often than not allowed to plead the charges down. Most usually walk out of the courtroom that day to drive themselves home again. It seems many judges feel banning someone from driving, forcing them instead to take the train or bus, would be too great a hardship for most to bear.
There's also a greater tendency today to blame the victim of a hit and run driver. Unless a prosecutor can prove a driver was drunk or somehow blatantly negligent, there is a great deal of resistance to fingering the person behind the wheel at the time of the accident. In at least three cases from earlier this year, all charges were dropped when it was argued the (dead) victim was in fact suicidal, so the driver could not be blamed for running them down. In another recent case, charges were dropped against an NYPD officer who struck and killed a woman in the crosswalk after it was argued that, by using the crosswalk, the woman was knowingly putting herself at risk.
In a vast majority of cases, drivers who stay at the scene regardless of the circumstances will simply not be charged in any way. The one exception to this being if the driver is clearly and provably drunk, which in turn explains why so many drunk drivers flee the accident scene. If they can get home and sober up before their car is tracked down, they can't be charged with drunk driving, which is a far worse fate than any feared repercussions of the amplified Vision Zero penalties, which themselves are all but irrelevant given they've only been enforced in 15 percent of the (relatively few) actual hit and run convictions since the plan was inaugurated. To date, Vision Zero penalties have yet to be enforced in a single hit and run case on Staten Island.
To put it simply, there are no repercussions and no consequences if you run someone down with your car. The worst you'll likely get is a ticket, so feel free. In a culture and economy so dominated by the automobile, it's only to be expected. Why would people be walking or biking anyway if they weren't expendable in the grand scheme of things? What are they contributing?
So here's a simple proposal. As the aptly-named Vision Zero seems to be accomplishing little in terms of the Mayor and Transportation Alternatives' stated goals, why not make it more effective by taking the name at face value and using it as a means of generating some much-needed revenue for the city? It's the only logical response and viable alternative, considering things are only going to get worse in the years to come.
The Mayor should arrange to set up bleachers and a number of concession stands along Queens Boulevard, invest in a few souped-up novelty cars and snazzy costumes for the drivers, and start selling tickets while negotiating the television rights. Before he leaves office fatal hit and runs, as Roger Corman foresaw over four decades ago, could well usurp baseball and football as America's most popular spectator sport.
Published April 11th, 2016
Jim Knipfel is the author of Slackjaw, The Blow-Off, These Children Who Come at You With Knives, and several other books.