Commuting Cautiously - Danger Week


By Timothy Dillon

Photo courtesy of Arvind Grover.

Accidents happen. This is a phrase everyone hears at some point in their life. It is a simple enough concept that reflects an all too evident truth that no one is perfect and sometimes bad things happen for a variety of reasons. It can be innocent enough like forgetting your coffee mug on the roof of your car or knocking over a piece of stemware. Or it can cost you your life.

New York City commuters have dealt with the stresses of living amidst danger for sometime. For instance during the 80’s, New Yorkers saw an average of a little over 13,000 felonies a year in subways. Granted New York has changed a lot since then, with only 1,029 felonies in 2011. That said, it is still not the safest place, and what comes to mind is the recent deaths at the hands of pushers.

Imagine waiting for your morning train. You lean forward a bit to see your train rushing into the station, a gust of air proceeding it. With a sense of relief that you will get to work on time, you go to step back only to feel from nowhere an unexpected push. You lose your balance, reach out your hands instinctively to catch yourself, but it only pushes your weight forward more, ensuring your fall onto the tracks.

If you are unlucky, there is enough time to hit the ground and see the train whose arrival you were just anticipating, barrelling toward you, the train’s breaks are no match for its own momentum. Suddenly you wish it had never come at all. If you’re lucky it’s over before you know what happened.

In December 2012, the city saw two pushers and two victims, both with fatal ends. The reaction has been one of fear, but in a city with an average just over 120 million rides for a month, these two incidents are just freak outliers.

So why the fear? Why the talk of putting up subway screens and barriers? It has a little something to do with the “Second Neighborhood” theory. What makes subway crimes and accidents so different from crimes in neighborhoods is the familiar nature in which we see subways.

Each station has similar features and characteristics, so when you hear of an accident taking a fellow commuter’s life, and you go into a subway, your mind equates your environment for a dangerous one, even if you are in a different station or even a different borough of New York than the accident in question.

When we hear of a man having both his legs severed in the subway, we see our subway stop, we see our legs. This makes the dangers in subways more of a perceived danger than an actually one. In this way, subways are actually much safer than other modes of commuting in the city.

Biking has been slowly but steadily growing as a cheap and healthy mode of transportation in urban environments. It is also quite deadly. Don’t believe me? Walk around any borough of New York City long enough, and you’ll be likely to pass by a strange looking bike. It will be spray painted white, likely have flat tires or no tire at all, and be chained to a post, sign, or other permanent part of the cityscape. These are called ghost bikes and each represents a bicyclist that has been killed either at that point or on that intersection.

What is haunting about these ghost bikes, is that once you seem them, you hardly ever miss them again, and if you’re a cyclist, it is difficult not to shiver at the sight of a new one.

Bike accidents can be blamed on cyclists, motorists, and pedestrians alike, with the fault being pretty evenly distributed. It is true that many bicycle-related deaths could be avoided by the introduction of a helmet. That said, there are many that would make little difference.

For instance, it only took four days into 2013 for a horrific accident to take the life of a female cyclist. A garbage truck sideswiped her, knocking her to the ground, and proceeded to run her over killing her. It was broad daylight and whether or not she was wearing a helmet, it would have made no difference in her death. Ironically, in 2010, NYC’s Department of Sanitation moved to create rules that would allow them to remove ghost bikes after 30 days, though, the bikes could be allowed to remain for longer.

Perhaps if they were less concerned with removing memorials that raise awareness about safe biking and driving habits, and were more concerned with their meaning, we might not have had our first bicycle fatality so soon into the new year.

But accidents happen and not just to bicyclists.

In 2012 only 19 cyclists died out of the 155 total fatalities from motor vehicle accidents. Compared to the 50 people who died in the subway, a majority of which were suicides, the subway offers a significantly safer alternative to walking. Statistic for automobile drivers and passengers were more difficult to come by for the city in the past few years, however in 2009 there were 291.

The dangers of commuting in New York City are the same dangers you would expect walking, training, biking or driving anywhere. In terms of the odds, the safest mode of transportation seems to be taking the train, despite the perceived fear they exude.

As a good rule of thumb, don’t lean too far over the tracks, always look both ways, obey posted signs if you’re driving and biking, and practice a little patience. Do this and you should be fine. But of course, accidents do happen.