If you want to kill someone and not get punished, use a car

The intersection of 11th and Market Sts. is one of the deadliest in the city for pedestrian fatalities and serious injuries.

If there were any question about the need for a vigorous Vision Zero policy in Philadelphia to deal with traffic safety, November’s grim statistics should quiet the doubters. In the two weeks since Kelley Yemen took charge of the newly created Office of Complete Streets, four pedestrians have been killed in car crashes and a fifth was gravely injured.

Two of those deaths occurred last Friday. Hours after 8-year-old Jayanna Powell's spine was severed by a hit-and-run driver as her older brother walked her home from school in their leafy Overbrook neighborhood, an unidentified 23-year-old man was killed by a drunk driver on the notorious Roosevelt Boulevard speedway. The deaths came five days after a pickup truck slammed into Anna Gonzalez and Catherine Cardoza, employees at the Lucky Strikes bowling alley, at 11th and Market. Gonzalez died immediately; Cardoza barely survived. On Nov. 11, another young woman, Erin Wilson, was killed crossing the wide expanse of Lehigh Avenue.

Mayor Kenney’s decision to bring in Yemen, who has worked on pedestrian and bike issues in Minneapolis and Brooklyn, is a great first step for dealing with the carnage. She will coordinate the just-formed Vision Zero task force, which has been given 120 days to develop a strategy to bring down the crash rate.

That group, she told me in an interview, will explore a host of remedies, including changes in street design, traffic calming, protected bike lanes, and increased use of speed cameras. All are vitally important, but if the city expects to reduce deaths to zero -- the goal that gives Vision Zero its name -- the group will also have to rethink the way police and prosecutors treat the people behind the wheels of 3,000-pound machines.

Transportation experts often say that if you want to kill someone and not get punished, use a car.

According to statistics collected by the Bicycle Coalition, cars have killed 63 people in Philadelphia this year. Though that total is not significantly higher than in previous years, the proportion involving pedestrians and bicyclists is way up, to 59 percent. Only two years ago, pedestrians and bikers accounted for a third of the city’s traffic deaths. Nationally, it’s just 14 percent. 

How many of this year’s 63 fatalities will result in criminal charges? The four November deaths, some of the most horrific of 2016, are all still under investigation, according to police. But if history proves any guide, only in those cases in which the motorists committed other crimes, such as driving drunk or fleeing the scene, will police hold drivers accountable.

I was surprised to learn there are no statistics, locally or nationally, with a breakdown of how cases involving traffic fatalities are resolved. How many motorists are charged with crimes? How many are ticketed? How many walk away scot-free? (I submitted several requests to Philadelphia police for an analysis of the November crashes but received no response.) But although  statistics are hard to come by,  every transportation official I spoke with cited anecdotal evidence suggesting that the odds of drivers' avoiding repercussions in fatal car crashes far outweighed the likelihood of criminal charges.

“If the driver isn’t drunk, it just gets declared a terrible accident,” says Andrew Stober, who helped oversee Mayor Michael Nutter’s transportation office. Even when the driver is found to have been speeding, there are often no charges, adds Kate Fillin-Yeh, who runs the National Association of City Transportation Officials. She says she believes excessive speed, not texting or other distractions,  is the primary cause of car crashes, especially on multilane urban roads.

Perhaps one reason  criminal charges are not vigorously pursued in serious crashes is that it is assumed the victims will be compensated by the driver's insurance company -- if the driver is even found. But far too often, insurance is inadequate to cover the needs of victims who can no longer work. A recent New York Times story described how one crash survivor was reduced to penury even though all his medical bills were covered.

Rather than continuing to declare "case closed," Stober has a better idea: Investigate car crashes with the same seriousness as fatal plane and train crashes. “It wouldn’t be with the purpose of assigning criminal liability,” he says, but to prevent a tragic repeat.

He notes that every time a plane goes down or a train derails, a squad of federal investigators descends on the scene. Even though investigators were never able to fully explain last year’s deadly Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia, they produced a list of life-saving recommendations that promise to speed  implementation of crucial safety measures, such as positive train control. That crash, incidentally, left eight dead, a fraction of Philadelphia’s annual automobile toll.

City agencies, Stober concedes, don’t have the resources of the National Transportation Safety Board. But police do learn a lot in the course of their traffic investigations, and that information needs to be made more transparent.

The recent Market Street crash is especially important. The wide, brightly lighted stretch between Eighth Street and City Hall has long been among the deadliest corridors in the city. Last year, Philadelphia actor Michael Toner lost a leg in a midnight hit-and-run in virtually the same spot where Gonzalez and Cardoza were struck. That block is now wrapped in scaffolding for the massive East Market apartment project, and one eastbound lane is closed to traffic. 

How much did the barriers and scaffolding prevent the two women from seeing and being seen? Was the driver, who was heading west, going so fast he didn’t notice them in the shadows? We don’t know. But the answers would be invaluable, especially because the construction boom has made similar conditions ubiquitous around the city.  The intersection,which was dangerous even before construction started, will soon be home to hundreds of new residents. How safe will they be? 

The Bicycle Coalition’s Randy LoBasso takes an even harder line on transparency than Stober. He says police should release the names of drivers even before the investigation is concluded. “When someone kills someone, we usually get the name of the suspect. Intent is assumed," he argues. "We don’t assume intent when someone is killed with a car." That's a big reason safety advocates have insisted on dropping the word accident in favor of  crash.

Information is powerful. Two of my colleagues who specialize in data visualization, John Duchneskie and Michele Tranquilli, have been analyzing crash statistics to find patterns that could indicate Philadelphia danger spots. They discovered that the most likely intersection for a crash is not on Market Street or Roosevelt Boulevard, but at 34th and Spruce, the border between the Penn campus and the hospital district, which, ironically, boasts a newly designed through street.

Crashes in Philadelphia County involving pedestrian or bicyclist fatalities or major injuries 2011-2015

Explore the data for Philadelphia and surrounding Pa. counties

They also figured out that the most likely time for pedestrians to be killed in Philadelphia is 6 p.m. on a Friday in December. That's because it’s dark. It’s also the season of office parties. You’ll want to be extra careful out there.