A Call to Collect Data from Motorists’ Black Boxes
By Peter Meitzler, special to Cyclists International, and Jen Benepe, all photos, Peter Meitzler (c), (New York, NY, March 18, 2012)
A group of cycling advocates mourned their fellow riders in New York on Sunday by traveling to the spots where each one was killed, and honoring their memory.
Cyclists starting in each of the five boroughs traveled to the street locations where 24 cyclists died in 2011, placed flowers on bikes that had been painted white and attached to street posts, and talked solemnly about their fallen friends.
And for the first time since the Ghost Bikes project was officially named in 2007 it garnered national and international press coverage from the likes of The Wall Street Journal, and the NY Times.
The coverage was testimony to the growing importance of cyclists as a media audience, but also the glaring spotlight on safety as cycling becomes more prevalent in the city, and as the city’s department of transportation prepares to introduce a Manhattan-based bikeshare program this summer.
Most cyclists acknowledge and we have reported consistently in Cyclists International, cycling is still not safe in New York City, and the major reason is motorists who are careless, are speeding, or make illegal turns into cyclists day after day.
Thought the city’s department of transportation says that cycling is much safer and many more cyclists are taking to the streets, the reality is that cyclists do not feel safe, and that is the critical issue. Much of their concerns stem from the fact that enforcement by the police is usually against cyclists and not against motorists, even in the case of fatalities such as the ones outlined on this day.
The event was organized by a group called GhostBikes.org, which has grown out of two separate movements, the first in
1996 when advocates led by Charles Komanoff, head of cycling and pedestrian rights group Right-of-Way, traveled in the dark hours of the night to spray-stencil the outlines of fallen bodies on the pavement where cyclists and pedestrians had been killed by motorists.
The group traveled at night mostly because the stencils were illegal: Never mind that the incidents themselves were rarely investigated and the drivers only criminally prosecuted in about one percent of the crashes, according to a study of more than 1,000 crashes conducted by Right-of-Way.
In 2005 that group eventually merged with another called Visual Resistance that placed old bikes painted white and often decorated with flowers in the spots where cyclists had been killed.
The newest incarnation of the movement is the Street Memorial Project and Sunday more than 100 like-minded cyclists traveled to crash locations in all five boroughs where cyclists died in 2011, eventually joining together in Manhattan.
Peter Meitzler, who owns the Manhattan Rickshaw Co., a pedicab business, fashioned one of his portable bike ads with a large poster of the event.
“It was the first time that we had tried to label the event and promote it in such a way while it was happening,” said Meitzler. In the past, observers would see a bunch of riders and not know what we were doing, he noted.
Meitzler joined Sunday’s group as they traveled to 29th St. and Ninth Ave. to commemorate the life of Marilyn Dershowitz.
Dershowitz was killed last summer when a U.S. Postal worker hit her with his truck, and kept on driving. The driver, 62-year-old Ian Clement, returned to the depot hours later saying he only thought he had struck a “box.” Her death made front-page headlines because she was the sister-in-law of famous attorney Alan Dershowitz.
The 68-year-old former special court referree had been retired for six months and enjoying her new sense of freedom when she was killed by Clement.
Clement was charged with leaving the scene of an incident without reporting—resulting in death, a violation of Vehicle and Traffic Law §600(2)(c)(ii). The charge is a D felony, for which defendants with no prior felonies face a maximum sentence of 2 1/3 to 7 years, according to Law.com which reported on the indictment.
Then the group traveled to the spot on Canal Street where dba bar owner Ray Deter was killed by a 23-year-old, allegedly speeding
driver, who only received an infraction for the small amount of marijuana found in his silver Jaguar.
“If we had only been able to get the black box data from the car, we might have known if the driver had been speeding,” and if so, likely contributed to Deter’s death, said Meitzler who spoke at the spot where Deter’s white bike had been placed.
“Who owns the data, the motorist or the state, in the event of a crash is now being hotly contested,” said Meitzler in an interview later.
The pedicab owner has been looking for ways to enable local enforcement agencies to download crash data from a black box at the scene to determine if the driver was speeding or possibly ran a red light.
That data is a source of contention apparently with some groups claiming that the contents are private, said Meitzler. Automobile manufacturers like Audi and Mercedes Benz choose not to provide the data collection capability even though they have the technology–such as speed of the car on impact–perhaps because they have already taken stock of the legal ramifications for the car owners, said Meitzler. “Perhaps they are thinking they would rather not compromise what the [car] owner was doing at the time of the crash,” he noted.
Other issues exist, such as whether all of the officers can integrate seamlessly with the different manufacturers’ black
boxes. ‘Now we will never know how fast he was really going,” said Meitzler.
Jeffrey Axelrod , 52, was also honored at the lcoation of Chrystie and Delancey in Brooklyn where he was clipped on a corner turn, and crushed under the back wheels of a cement truck. Illegally parked cars in a “No Standing Anytime” section on Chrystie St.–a fact brought out by Steve Bauman and published in Benepe’s Bike Blog were never mentioned in the police report even after the information was brought to their attention. Those cars made a difference between life and death as Axelrod struggled for space in the right hand turn.
Twenty-four-year-old Nicolas Djandji was remembered by his friends at the corner of Rodney and Borinquen, less than a quarter-mile from his home. “We all thought of him as a boyfriend,” said a female friend who spoke in front of the group. Four women standing together at the side of the crowd nodded their heads in agreement. “We all
knew him and knew what route he took every day,” she continued. All four started to cry.
Since June 2005, 98 ghost bikes have been installed in New York City to commemorate 145 known fatalities, including 52 individuals for whom the project has no information.