OPINION: ‘Thoughts and prayers’ won’t stop car nuts — but new rules can

OPINION: ‘Thoughts and prayers’ won’t stop car nuts — but new rules can
Seeing red: Authorities surveyed Ninth Street after witnesses saw a woman behind the wheel of a white Volvo, pictured with its door open, run a red light and kill two kids on Monday.
Community News Group / Colin Mixson

It’s time we stopped letting car owners talk about murderous drivers the same way that gun owners talk about murderers with weapons.

Follow the logic: Seconds after some gun nut kills innocent people with an AR-15, gun-rights advocates unleash their coordinated strategy: Guns, they say, are a birthright, but activists want to take them away — and besides, there’s no way to prevent crazy people with guns from killing innocents if they’re hell bent on doing it.

In the wake of Monday’s tragic death of two kids on Ninth Street in Park Slope, I’m hearing the same type of argument: Cars are a birthright, but activists want to take them away — and, besides, there’s no way to prevent crazy people with cars from killing innocents if they’re hell bent on doing it.

But none of this is true: Cars have no greater right to the roadways than any other users, and safety advocates are not calling for cars to be banned, only regulated. And it’s a flat-out fallacy that deaths by rogue drivers can’t be dramatically reduced and even stopped with aggressive redesigns of our streets.

I realized that even safety advocates had been co-opted after my own councilman, Brad Lander, told the Daily News, “No intersection design was going to stop this erratic driver from killing these kids.” Lander, who is typically a champion of street safety, later clarified his position in a Facebook post and tweets.

“I wholeheartedly support intersection redesigns & have fought for them in every corner of my district,” he posted to Twitter. “And would certainly support one at 5th/9th. But this killing appears to have been caused by a reckless driver with a driving record that suggests depraved indifference.”

To me — a cyclist who demands safer streets for all — Lander’s return to sanity was too late. The first words out of a politician’s mouth in a moment of crisis must be, “I will fix this” rather than, “Well, I’m not sure we can ever really stop a killer from killing.”

The fact is, a lot can be done. The city’s own studies show that redesigning streets to include protected bike lanes and pedestrian islands improves safety for everyone. After such a redesign a few years ago on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, there was a 35-percent drop in injuries for all users. On Ninth Avenue, the drop in injuries was 58 percent. Traffic calming on E. 180th Street in the Bronx led to a 67-percent drop in pedestrian crashes. And better street design on Hoyt Avenue near the Triboro Bridge in Queens led to more safety for pedestrians and less congestion for drivers.

There’s always a pushback — the protected bike lane on Prospect Park West was so controversial that some former city officials sued to block it! And anti-safety activists in Eastern Queens wanted to sue DeBlasio for demanding cars slow down. Both groups of opponents were wrong. Years afterwards, statistics always bear out what the safety advocates predicted: roads get less dangerous for all users when the city adds protected bike lanes and lowers car speeds.

The gun-car parallel also came up recently when Gov. Cuomo supported congestion pricing as a way of taming Manhattan’s notorious, and productivity-destroying, traffic. Car owners in the so-called outer boroughs reacted with completely overinflated outrage: “What about the one time every four years that I have to drive into the city for a doctor’s appointment?”

That sounds like gun owners who assert that they need their weapons to overthrow a tyrannical federal government (231 years since the Constitution was ratified and … still no tyranny to overthrow).

I’m certainly not alone in calling for sanity. On Monday, Wall Street Journal writer Jason Gay joined me in frustration. “Fatalities (are) not anomalies/ don’t let politicians treat them as such,” he tweeted. “Cities must be feverishly serious about traffic calming strategies with speed limit reductions & media/pol jackassery about cyclist/ped rights can’t go unchecked. Literally life/death issue.”

And there’s no reason for delay, he added. “If the city is serious it can fix Ninth Street tonight with a combination of calming strategies that are decades old — if I hear about a study or public survey I’m going to scream.”

For me, the scream-inducing moment is when politicians — who can make the changes they say they want — offer only thoughts and prayers when the all-too-predictable fatality on our streets comes yet again after the activists had been calling for a fix for years. After Monday’s vehicular homicide, activist Doug Gordon — aka Brooklyn Spoke — posted the reaction the Department of Transportation gave him last year when he called for traffic calming on Ninth Street, where drivers frequently speed. The agency told him there was no room to make additional safety improvements. No room? The intersection of Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street feels like the plains of Montana; the open design itself invites speeding and double-parking in the bike lane.

The anti-safety backlash isn’t only happening in Brooklyn. In Queens, Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer was a strong safety advocate, getting city action to finally fix the so-called Boulevard of Death with pedestrian and safety improvements. More recently, he supported the city’s redesign of Skillman and 43rd Avenues with a protected bike lane — until Queens drivers pushed back to save their parking spaces and business owners claimed they would lose revenue. Instead of standing on his principles — what’s safe for Queens Boulevard is safe for Skillman — and telling the retail community the truth that business improves when streets are safer, Van Bramer folded like a cheap suit. Makes sense, I guess: When you want to be borough president of Queens, you can’t get too close to us “anti-car activists.” Except we’re not “anti-car activists,” we’re safety advocates. At least that’s how Van Bramer saw us … until higher ambition blinded him.

So let’s not be swayed by the same arguments that the gun lobby makes: like gun nuts who kill, car nuts who kill can be stopped. Just as our society does not have to let gun owners run amok, we need not let car drivers do the same.

Windsor Terrace resident Gersh Kuntzman has been a ubiquitous presence in local journalism for 30 years. He can be reached at gershkuntzman@gmail.com.

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