'Broken Windows Theory' for Dangerous Driving

By Ryan McGreal
Published March 06, 2012

this blog entry has been updated

In New York, the key phrase is: "No criminality was suspected." In Hamilton, it's: "Speed was not a factor."

That's the general conclusion the police draw when a pedestrian or cyclist is killed after getting hit by a motorist.

A recent essay by Sarah Goodyear in The Atlantic Cities explores New York's recent efforts to come to terms with the institutional acceptance that the routine maiming and killing of pedestrians and cyclists is just part of the territory:

Run a red light and kill somebody? Speed and kill somebody? Fail to yield in a crosswalk and kill somebody? You might get a summons for a moving violation. But hey, "no criminality was suspected," and so you, the driver, don't have to worry about any further consequences.

The running joke on blogs like Gothamist and Streetsblog is that if you want to kill somebody in New York and get away with it, a car should be your weapon of choice. And for years, it seemed like no one in government was ever going to challenge that status quo.

The numbers are sobering. Last year, 241 NYC pedestrians or cyclists were killed by drivers, but only 17 drivers responsible were charged with a crime.

Charges under a new law that was supposed to empower police officers to charge drivers for carelessness causing death are routinely thrown out because judges determine that the officer needed to personally witness the incident to file the charge.

To put the city's priorities in context, the NYPD issued more summonses to cyclists last year than to truckers.

NYPD Summonses, Cyclists and Truckers
Moving Violation Criminal Court Total
Source: Gothamist
Cyclists 13,743 34,813 48,556
Truckers 14,962 10,415 25,377

Story after story demonstrates astonishing ineptitude on the part of the NYPD for their investigations of collisions that kill pedestrians and cyclists. It's hard not to notice a pattern of carelessness: pedestrian and cyclist deaths just aren't important enough to the authorities to bother assembling a coherent picture of what happened and charge the driver when the driver is responsible.

A police collision study in Toronto a few years ago concluded that in the overwhelming majority of collisions, the driver was responsible for the collision.

Yet the public perception persists that irresponsible cyclists and pedestrians are to blame for their own injuries and deaths, and Hamilton Police Service routinely announce enforcement crackdowns on jaywalking pedestrians and cyclists running Idaho stops.

'Broken Windows' for Traffic Crimes

Back to the Atlantic Cities piece: the author argues that the underlying problem is a broad cultural acceptance that dead cyclists and pedestrians are a normal part of city streets. Her prescription is to de-normalize the kinds of petty traffic violations that make more serious consequences possible.

The Broken windows theory of criminology is the theory that the persistence of graffiti and vandalism in an urban setting normalizes and encourages further criminality. George L Kelling and James Q Wilson, the authors of the theory, explained it this way in their original March 1983 Atlantic article:

Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.

When communities and authorities get serious about petty crime - broken windows, gang tags and so on - and refuse to let them stand as signals that no one cares, the rates of all kinds of criminal activities tend to go down.

The author concludes:

New York has made amazing advances in traffic safety in recent years, mostly by redesigning streets to slow cars down and give more space to pedestrians and bicycles. But it hasn't been enough. We need the NYPD to get out from behind their windshields and start systematically ticketing people who run red lights and rocket down residential streets and blow off stop signs. Catching the small stuff can change the culture and avoid the worst outcomes for everyone.

Because as New York councilmember James Vacca said at yesterday's hearing, "We don't accept gun violence as a way to die. We shouldn't accept traffic deaths as a way to die either."

Further Reading

The New York Times took up the call in its "Room for Debate" series, featuring several short essays in response to Goodyear's article:

Update: edit to correct date of original Atlantic essay on the Broken Window theory.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted March 06, 2012 at 18:03:11

I'd like to see us further memorialize locations were pedestrians are killed beyond what many families already take upon themselves. Gage and King for instance is still a family-run memorial with a picture and flowers for Matthew Power. Follow her FB Page RIP Matthew Powers. She still terribly misses her son to this day.

A permanent artist designed memorial should exist at these locations with a spot for a photo, flowers, and a name plate with details of the death. There should be symbols for different locations that stand out for pedestrians and drivers like a checkered flag for street racing so we are reminded what killed him. Maybe a special web link with associated with Susan Clairmonts article.

This is history. History we need to understand to stop these things from happening. We can teach people that street racing kills and pedestrians by maybe drawing a red line or something across the road following he and his friends path, that either way its dangerous to cross mid-street.

Then we need to think of what we can implement at these spots to show that we have made it safer. Narrowing the street in that span for dedicated parking to limit the lanes pedestrians have to dart across like frogger because people aren't going to walk the distances some times required to get to a cross walk. We need to recognise this instead of simply ticketing people.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted March 06, 2012 at 18:08:46

I can't say that I support the Broken Windows theory...way too much ugly history.

Crimes committed while driving may be viewed as "petty", but they're not. Under other circumstances it would be hard not to view them as "assault with a deadly weapon", but it's pretty clear the cops, courts and press identify far more with the drivers involved than anyone they injure or kill. This speaks to a lot much broader problems with the way we view "criminality".

While I'd certainly like to see aggressive and abusive drivers held more accountable, I don't know that it can solve this problem. It's not out of the ordinary for people to drive several hours a day on average, and at some point human nature is going to take hold. Expecting people to live an hour's drive from work then persecuting them for what they do to get home a little quicker really stinks, and I expect many to be outraged. Far better to avoid the problem with safer roads and transportation systems.

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By FenceSitter (anonymous) | Posted March 06, 2012 at 20:05:12

What does everyone think of Bill C-10? I am presuming many people here may not quite agree with the "tough on crime" Tories.

Getting back to today's post I have to ask if getting tough on driving laws is really the way to go. Would I like to see every motorist driving over 50km/h along Main/King/Cannon get a ticket? Maybe.
What I would rather see is safe streets, where the design encourages safe driving. The memorial idea you had Lawrence is interesting. The ideas on various posts/comments on this site would be enough to fill several cities with safe streets.
Thanks for the article and links Ryan. This city has a long way to go.

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By JasonAAllen (registered) - website | Posted March 07, 2012 at 09:22:46

In Toronto, there was an article online recently (although for the life of me I can't find it) on Ghost Bikes. When Cyclist is killed by a motor vehicle, a group takes an old bike, paints it white, and locks it to something where the accident occured as a kind of memorial. The families are contacted first to make sure they are ok with it, and then a kind of procession occurs as cyclists gather to remember their friend, ride to the spot where the accident occured, and solemnly affix the ghost bike. Something to consider for Hamilton.

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted March 07, 2012 at 10:46:00 in reply to Comment 75079

Is it this one, Jason? I noticed these last year while walking around Toronto and was wondering what they were for. I had never found out until I looked after reading your post.

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By JasonAAllen (registered) - website | Posted March 08, 2012 at 09:53:45 in reply to Comment 75081

Lawrence - not sure if that directly addresses the situation. This is the concept I was talking about, although not the original article I read. One day I'll learn anchor tags in markup. :(

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By Jonathan Dalton (registered) | Posted March 07, 2012 at 14:15:42

The authorities are also good at turning driving infractions around and using them on non-drivers. A friend of mine recently got a dangerous driving ticket for getting hit by a car, on his bike. Because he also drives and pays insurance, he had to fight the ticket which was expensive. My brother lost his license for riding a bike with no hands (at night, with no traffic). And then there's this: We have the tools for proper enforcement, but too often they're not used as intended.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted March 08, 2012 at 04:55:41 in reply to Comment 75091

Why would you be upset for someone being caught and punished for doing something dangerous such as driving a vehicle with no hands? It doesn't matter if it's a bike or not.

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By lawrence (registered) - website | Posted March 08, 2012 at 07:55:16 in reply to Comment 75096

Driving a bike with no hands is what we are worried about? We did it all the time as kids when the situation was safe to explore our riding boundaries. Maybe punishment should fit the time and situation?

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