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Daily traffic violence harms more people than vehicle attacks

The assaults in Europe and New York City were terrifying, but routine crashes are a bigger problem.

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Following a vehicle attack in May, New York City police installed metal fences and concrete barriers along blocks of Times Square. - RICHARD DREW/AP
  • Richard Drew/AP
  • Following a vehicle attack in May, New York City police installed metal fences and concrete barriers along blocks of Times Square.

Over the last year we've looked on with horror at a half-dozen cases in Europe and New York City in which assailants have used trucks and cars as deadly weapons to intentionally injure and kill large numbers of innocent people on foot. In the wake of these awful events, it makes sense to reduce the chance of this kind of attack happening in Chicago. In the past, city, county, state, and federal authorities installed vehicle-resistant barriers around buildings and plazas that could be targets, and after a truck assault on a Berlin Christmas market last December, the Chicago police staked out the Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza.

But as decision makers implement such safeguards, it's also important not to lose sight of the lower-profile but more pressing issue of common traffic violence. Each day dozens of people are injured in crashes in Chicago, and every year more than 100 lives are lost in such incidents. A disproportionate number of the victims are pedestrians. The city should start treating this more routine form of carnage as the public health crisis it is, and take aggressive action to lower these tragic numbers.

Obviously the authorities should still view the recent rash of people using vehicles to kill for ideology, or out of senseless rage, as a crisis that has to be addressed. The series of attacks in Europe—all of which the Islamic State inspired or claimed responsibility for—began last July, when a man drove a 19-ton cargo truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day on a promenade in Nice, France, killing 86 people and injuring 434. That nightmare was followed in December by the Berlin attack, which killed 12 people and injured 56. On April 7 of this year another assailant drove a truck into crowds on a Stockholm pedestrian street, killing five and injuring 15.

London was the site this year of two different vehicle attacks at Thames River bridges. On March 22 an assailant drove a car into pedestrians on the south side of Westminster Bridge, murdering four people and injuring more than 50 before fatally stabbing a police officer. And on June 3 a van driver struck people walking on London Bridge before he and his two passengers ran to a nearby nightlife strip to attack bystanders with knives, resulting in eight deaths and 48 injuries.

A photo of victim Alyssa Elsman posted on a barricade in New York's Times Square on May 19, the morning after an assailant crashed his vehicle into a crowd of pedestrians. - TIMOTHY A. CLARY/GETTY
  • TIMOTHY A. CLARY/Getty
  • A photo of victim Alyssa Elsman posted on a barricade in New York's Times Square on May 19, the morning after an assailant crashed his vehicle into a crowd of pedestrians.

Closer to home, on May 18, 26-year-old navy veteran Richard Rojas drove his car down a Times Square sidewalk for three blocks, mowing down pedestrians in what appeared to be an act of sociopathic fury before the vehicle made a fiery crash into metal bollards and came to a stop. Alyssa Elsman, an 18-year-old tourist from Michigan, was killed and 22 others were injured. Police said Rojas, who has a history of mental illness and drunk driving, was under the influence of drugs at the time, but terrorism is not suspected.

Taking steps to prevent intentional vehicle assaults such as these is nothing new in Chicago. In the wake of 9/11, authorities installed steel, concrete, and stone bollards, planters, and benches around government and financial centers including the Daley Center, the Kluczynski Federal Building, and the Chicago Board of Trade.

In the case of the Christkindlmarket intervention, CPD parked trucks at the corner of the square and patrolled the area on bikes. Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, in a statement on Twitter, said "while there is no threat to the city or the greater area," CPD was beefing up security at the plaza with extra patrols. "We continue to work closely with the Cook County Sheriff's Office and the Office of Emergency Management and Communications as well as with federal partners to ensure an optimal level of public safety throughout the holiday season."

Bollards shield the Kluczynski Federal Building - KEN LUND / FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS
  • ken lund / flickr creative commons
  • Bollards shield the Kluczynski Federal Building

Asked about more recent city initiatives to prevent rampages by drivers in the wake of this year's attacks, spokespersons from the police department and the Chicago Department of Transportation declined to comment, referring me to OEMC, which did not provide a response by press time. One law enforcement official said it was unlikely that the city would provide much information to the media, for fear of "giving away the playbook" to would-be assailants.

Adding police patrols to Chicago's public spaces after terrorist incidents in other cities makes some sense. Installing permanent, attractive bollards and planters to all of the city's plazas and other outdoor gathering places to protect pedestrians from being struck by drivers, whether intentionally or not, is definitely a good idea. But as horrible as the Times Square carnage was, "the same human toll occurs on a daily basis on NYC streets—it's just dispersed across the city," Streetsblog New York pointed out. The post noted that through the end of April, motorists had injured 3,411 pedestrians in New York City, an average of 28 people a day.

New York has about three times the population of Chicago and a higher percentage of trips made on foot, so Chicago's injury and fatality numbers aren't nearly as high, but they're still extremely troubling. In 2015, the latest year for which the Illinois Department of Transportation has released data, 21,667 people were injured in Chicago crashes, or about 59 people a day. Among those injured, 2,814 were walking. That's about eight pedestrian injuries a day. There have been at least three cases of drivers killing people on sidewalks or in buildings in Chicago this year.

Moreover, out of the 119 total Chicago traffic collision fatalities in 2015, 43 of the victims (or 36 percent) were on foot. That percentage has risen fairly steadily since 2010, when people on foot made up only about 22 percent of the deaths. So while the total number of local crash deaths has fallen in the past decade (due to factors such as vehicle design improvements and less driving during the recession), pedestrians haven't been seeing the same safety benefits as car occupants, and more needs to be done to protect them.

A half hour after Rojas's attack, New York governor Andrew Cuomo arrived at Times Square, and an hour after that Mayor Bill de Blasio held a press conference there. The NYPD soon installed low concrete barriers and metal fences along Seventh Avenue that, as Streetsblog New York noted, blocked the bike lane on that street, ironically making cyclists less safe.

Given the prominent location and the recent European attacks, it's understandable that the Rojas case drew so much attention. But Streetsblog New York acknowledged, "The right response to this high-profile rampage isn't a highly visible spree of security theater. It's the politically brave and often thankless work of reshaping streets across the city with narrower roadways, wider sidewalks, and other measures that make high-speed car travel unthinkable."

Likewise, in Chicago, it's crucial to combat everyday traffic violence even if through often unpopular strategies like "road diets," lower speed limits, speed and red light cameras that discourage potentially deadly driving, and streets restricted to pedestrian, bus, and bike use. City officials deserve credit for pursuing most of these initiatives, but they have to pick up the pace.

For example, while New York and other peer cities released "Vision Zero" plans years ago and have since been pursuing the goal of eliminating all traffic fatalities within a decade or two, Chicago has dragged its feet on publishing such a blueprint for change, finally releasing the Chicago Vision Zero Action Plan only this week, on June 12.

While vehicular attacks are terrifying, the city and other local authorities shouldn't let such incidents divert their focus from the bigger problem of daily carnage on Chicago's streets. MSNBC host Christopher Hayes got it right in a tweet after the New York tragedy: "This horrible event in Times Square looks like DWI, which kills *thousands of more people a year than terrorism* so [the media] can ignore it."   v


John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.

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