News & Events

Print/PDF this page:

Print Friendly and PDF

Share this page:

Making Cities Safer for Cyclists and Pedestrians: Taking Traffic Violations Seriously—A Commentary by Tracey L. Meares

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on February 28, 2012.

Making Cities Safer for Cyclists and Pedestrians: Taking Traffic Violations Seriously
By Tracey L. Meares

ROOM FOR DEBATE Introduction: An article in The Atlantic Cities this month lamented the lax enforcement of traffic laws in New York City, even in cases in which a pedestrian or cyclist is killed. The author calls for a crackdown on traffic violations large and small, emulating the “broken windows” approach to suppressing crime in the 1990s. Would this be effective? Are there other ways to make cities safer for pedestrians and cyclists?

Sarah Goodyear proposes that the New York Police Department begin taking traffic violations seriously. Calling her proposal “broken windows” for traffic crimes, perhaps Goodyear surmises that heavy enforcement of minor traffic violations would lead police to the hardened culprits who endanger lives with their reckless driving. While I am not confident that the broken windows theory is relevant to this problem, I do think Goodyear is onto something by focusing our attention on traffic fatalities.

Traffic fatalities make up a substantial number of the nation's homicides. This point was not lost on Daniel P. Moynihan, who in 1960 gave a speech to the National District Attorneys Association in Miami Beach on exactly this topic. Moynihan argued, radically, that passive regulation through public health codes as opposed to law enforcement aimed at changing lazy or reckless behavior was the best way to reduce traffic fatalities. This work later led to the creation of the National Highway Safety Commission.

Forty years later another public policy entrepreneur, John Timoney, arrived in Miami. As the newly installed chief of police, Timoney noticed that vehicular homicides outnumbered “regular” homicides. This was unusual, Timoney thought. He had served in both New York and in Philadelphia, where homicides by knives and guns (the regular kind) always outnumbered homicides by car — and typically by a substantial margin. Timoney implemented the “Red Light/Green Light” program in Miami, which contained a substantial traffic enforcement component, in the most deadly areas of the city. Vehicular deaths plummeted.

Perhaps the N.Y.P.D. should follow the course laid out by Timoney, who spent time analyzing and categorizing Miami’s most dangerous intersections and addressing the problem head on with a program of education and enforcement. Moynihan’s work is still relevant, too. We cannot count on people in today's smartphone world to always pay the kind of attention when driving or walking that they ought. Passive restraints — more pedestrian lanes and speed bumps — could help. I don’t think broken windows policing is the answer, but red-light cameras at intersections? That's the way of the future.

Tracey L. Meares is the Walton Hale Hamilton Professor of Law at Yale Law School. Her research centers on criminal procedure and criminal law policy.