Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Protecting the vulnerable with force

In previous posts, I discussed the mixing of road users with different levels of vulnerability, and varying abilities to harm each other. In the absence of any higher authority, this can turn drivers, cyclists, equestrians and even stronger pedestrians into bullies who abuse the power that speed, weight and protection give them. I also discussed barriers that can be put between road users, and how their value is limited.

Another strategy that can be used to protect the vulnerable is to take a group of strong people and make it their responsibility. Usually this is done with the police and the judiciary, who are given the authority to arrest, fine and jail people who abuse their power. In theory, this is a good idea: make laws, pay people to enforce them, and give them the tools to do the job.

In practice, it somehow fails to work out. I've written several posts about traffic enforcement chiefs who believe their number one priority is to move traffic, public safety officers who believe that anyone outside a car is asking for it, and prosecutors who refuse to charge blatantly negligent homicidal drivers.

Streetsblog has more, including police officers who are bullies themselves, and not disciplined by any superior officers. Today a report from Transportation Alternatives documenting a systemic failure of the NYPD and the District Attorneys to protect, well, anyone from reckless driving.

Part of this can be ascribed to the difficulty of democratically controlling any armed force; while the Mayor nominally controls the NYPD, ever since the 1992 police riot, mayors have been cautious about doing anything that might upset too many officers. The NYPD also has a policy of favoring car patrols over foot patrols, presumably for efficiency, meaning that a much larger portion of the force travels throughout the city in cars than the general population. Combine that with the large number of officers who are recruited from the suburbs and encouraged to park their personal vehicles for free on sidewalks and in bicycle lanes at home and around the precincts, and we can begin to understand why many individual officers identify and empathize with other drivers, and feel no sympathy for or responsibility to protect pedestrians and cyclists.

There is obviously much that can be done to improve enforcement of laws against reckless driving and other abusive behaviors. The T.A. report contains recommendations, and Streetsblog has been doing an admirable job of putting traffic justice on the radar of the candidates to replace Manhattan District Attorney Morgenthau (although apparently not covering Brooklyn D.A. Hynes' reanointment campaign at all).

While we should continue to press our law enforcement agents and judiciary to exercise their responsibilities, the examples I cite above show the limits of this strategy. Barriers are not enough, and the police are not enough.


Jonathan said...

Police are just people, products of their training and environment. Every police officer I've ever talked to has hated writing tickets. It makes sense; who likes to be a disciplinarian, all the time? The results, of course, are lax enforcement, or selective enforcement.

So if you want to stop people making illegal u-turns (for instance), you need to put in medians, not rely on police officers to do the job.

nathan_h said...

Medians don't stop literally every other car from making an illegal u-turn at Tillary and Jay Street on my route home. Although I share the sentiment that physical safety infrastructure is much more reliable and preferable to police enforcement, there are many things it can not do. Ultimately we have to get back to road pricing to both contain the volume of dangerous vehicular traffic and fund the expensive, "hated" human enforcement that it absolutely requires.

Jonathan said...

Nathan, U-turns are legal at intersections in New York State. Is there a no U-turn sign at Tillary and Jay?

nathan_h said...

According to the driver's manual "U-turns are also illegal in business districts of New York City":

I'm not sure if downtown Brooklyn is officially a business district; it certainly should be. Intersections aren't mentioned one way or the other.