Taking a Stance on On-Road Safety: New York City Vision Zero

New York’s city streets saw a historically deadly year for cyclists in 2019, with pedestrian fatality numbers not far behind. And only recently was a bicyclist killed in Brooklyn. To solve this issue, NY Council Members call for life-saving sensors to be put on trucks and other commercial vehicles so drivers can see and avoid hitting Vulnerable Road Users (VRU).

Most Pedestrian Fatalities Occur on Our Streets

In 2019, 29 people died while riding bikes in New York City. Of which, 25 were killed by drivers behind the wheels of large trucks, buses, SUVs, or vans. “That’s the highest number of cyclist deaths the city has seen in a calendar year since at least 1999, the city Department of Transportation data shows. It’s also nearly three times the ten cyclists who were killed in the city in all of 2018” (The Daily News article).

Unfortunately, these numbers are no stranger to large cities, “In New York City, 32 percent of bicyclist fatalities resulted from crashes with large trucks from 1996 to 2003, according to city statistics. Eight of the nine bicyclists killed in Boston from 2012 to 2014 died in crashes involving large trucks” (Trucks.com).

In response, New York’s Transportation Committee called a closed-door meeting with multiple City Agencies and trucking association stakeholders to discuss truck road safety in NYC. The round-table was organized to confer the reform of the trucking industry, addressing the largest portion of city road deaths in 2019.

New York City Moves toward Accident Prevention

As a result of the meeting, a proposal for the installation of blind spot sensors to alert truck drivers when a person is in an area of potential danger, was made — “so that drivers get the images of pedestrians and cyclists around them, especially when they turn,” Manhattan Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez said. This proposal mirrors that of those in the United Kingdom (UK) and European Union (EU), where currently subsidies have been put in place by Germany, promoting the installation of ‘side turn assistance’ sensors as they move towards a more robust requirement.

In the meantime, the private sanitation industry has until 2024 to install all 10,000-pound-plus trucks with side guards, ‘which keep pedestrians and cyclists from being swept beneath the massive vehicles’ rear wheels.’ NY Council Members want to expedite the requirement timeline because, as of October 2019, as Streetsblog reported, only 15.3 percent of trucks had installed side guards.

Some experts say side guards could dramatically reduce the number of fatalities, and they are already mandatory on trucks operating in the EU, Brazil, Japan, and China. According to a report published by Volpe, The National Transportation Systems Center, for NYC Citywide Administrative Services, “Fatal side-impact collisions between bicyclists and trucks dropped 61 percent after the UK required side guards on all large trucks. Fatal pedestrian incidents dropped 20 percent” (Trucks.com).

While research has shown side guards can prevent bicyclists and pedestrians from falling under the rear wheels once struck, they do not prevent the crash from happening. The UK and EU understood minimizing the severity of an incident with side guards was only a first step, and have led the way in road safety regulations and adoption to reduce the events between VRUs and trucks that cause fatalities.

Today, Germany has already taken traffic and VRU safety a step further, working toward requiring all trucks over 3.5 tons operating within the country to be equipped with life-saving blind spot sensors so that drivers inside them can see and avoid incidents altogether.

In Germany, 2019 was a turning point. After a number of high profile bicyclist fatalities the government approved €10M to be used as subsidies for approved Abbiegeassistenzsysteme for the protection of VRUs. These subsidies have been made available to those who equip their trucks with blind spot, side turn assistance sensor systems. To ensure these systems are up-to-par, they must have German National Type Approval (ABE) from the KBA (Kraftfahrt-Bundesamt) to qualify – proven and TUV tested to meet all requirements to keep trucks, their drivers, and cyclists around them safe.

NY Council Member Rodriguez agrees with the future regulations in Germany, wanting the same for NY and the rest of the US. “Massive trucks must be equipped with life-saving sensors so that the drivers inside them can’t claim they didn’t see someone before fatally running over them. All those lives we lost have been involving trucks,” Rodriguez said.

The same OEMs and truck manufacturers who sell to businesses that operate within the five boroughs make similar trucks for Europe; however, the vehicles shipped in the US do not include the side or forward blind spot sensors. “Those truck manufacturers that sell those vehicles in Europe, they install the forward and side blind spot sensors. But when they come to the United States, those sensors are not installed on our trucks,” Chairman Rodriguez said, adding such equipment should be mandatory in the US, especially if a company wants to do business with the city of New York.

NYC is now working with the private and public sectors on different initiatives to improve road safety, one of which being the installation of forward and side blind spot sensors on all trucks, public and private. The city’s fleet will be the first to adopt, and the hope is soon all national companies will be required to equip all trucks with systems that alert drivers to people walking or biking near them.

Unfortunately, the 2018 global status report on road safety from the World Health Organization says VRUS are still disproportionately impacted. “Globally, pedestrians and cyclists represent 26 percent of all deaths, with those using motorized two and three-wheelers comprising another 28 percent. Car occupants make up 29 percent of all deaths, and the remaining 17 percent are unidentified road users.” The leading cause of death for people between the ages of 5-29 years is road traffic injuries.

Since Vision Zero was founded in Sweden in 1997, countries around the world have adopted its belief that loss of life is not an acceptable price to pay for mobility, and placed a focus on road safety. Germany and others within the EU and UK lead the way, heading research, studies, and practices in the implementation of innovative safety solutions. Similarly, cities in the US like New York, San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, and others have committed to Vision Zero, but are still catching up.

“For its part, [New York] city seems on board with increasing safety — although Sanitation Department spokeswoman Dina Montes admitted that the agency’s trucks ‘currently do not have pedestrian or cyclist alert sensors.’ That said, she added, ‘The Sanitation Department is committed to Vision Zero and has taken multiple steps to increase the safety of our fleet. This includes equipping nearly 1,500 DSNY trucks and vehicles with side guards and equipping more than 900 DSNY trucks and vehicles with rear-view cameras.’ She claimed DSNY will ‘work with vendors to find blind spot sensors that are effective on refuse trucks,’” Streetsblog reported.