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    The NYPD Won't Tell You Where Traffic Kills

    Written by

    Jason Koebler

    Staff Writer

    All this crime and no traffic-related deaths. Photo: NYPD

    The brand new New York City crime map is a wonderful repository of assaults, murders, rapes, and nearly everything else you could possibly want to scare yourself with if you live in the city. But you won’t find incidents that are on pace to cause just as many deaths as homicides this year in the city: traffic fatalities.

    In 2012, 274 people died in traffic accidents in the city, the majority of them pedestrians. The city had 419 murders in 2012, but through the end of October 2013, there had been 279 homicides, down 23 percent over the 2012 numbers.

    While outgoing Mayor Mike Bloomberg has managed to cut down on the number of murders in the city, traffic accidents are a different story. Through September 1, 189 people had been killed by traffic accidents in the city, slightly down from last year’s numbers, but during a one-week period in early October, six people—including three children—were killed in traffic accidents. No one was murdered that week.

    Traffic fatalities are unpredictable—safety improvements one year aren’t always a sure bet to stick the following year—but certain intersections are known hotspots for car crashes. The crime map focuses on major crime—murder, rape, felony assault, robberies, and grand larceny—while traffic fatalities aren't always treated as criminal.

    Grand larcenies, robberies and burglaries, but no traffic incidents near Motherboard headquarters in Williamsburg.

    But the purpose of open data initatives is to allow the public to make more informed decisions about their city. Wouldn’t it be a public service to let residents know where those are so they can show a little extra care while crossing the street or driving? The New York Police Department isn’t so sure.

    Susan Petito, NYPD assistant commissioner of intergovernmental affairs said at a city council hearing in October that mapping car crashes would be “inherently somewhat misleading” because the Department of Motor Vehicles maps all car accidents to the nearest intersection, not the exact spot where a crash occurred.

    Is that really misleading? According to the US Department of Transportation, 40 percent of all crashes, and 21.5 percent of all traffic fatalities occur at an intersection. That’s in the entire country, which encompasses back roads and interstate highways. In a massive city like New York, the vast majority of crashes have to occur at or near a main intersection, almost by definition. 

    What it comes down to is the NYPD’s notorious objection to releasing information it doesn’t have to. The only reason it released its (very good) interactive crime map was because the city council required it to. At that October hearing, when council member Dan Garodnick asked Petito whether she thought it’d be helpful to push the state for more accurate crash reports mapped to specific addresses, Petito said no.

    “The utility of a street address, I can’t sit here and tell you that would add anything,” she said. 

    Right now, it appears the NYPD is the only group on board with keeping crash data locked away from public eyes. AAA New York has pushed the agency to release the data, saying it’d help the city decide whether red light traffic cameras are truly effective, and if other traffic or safety measures need to be taken.

    The same week the NYPD released its new map, the department told the city's police precincts to stop giving out information to the media about neighborhood crimes, and refer them instead through a small central office.

    Most likely, it appears the NYPD is keeping with its policy of not releasing anything unless it truly has to. Transportation Alternatives general counsel Juan Martinez said at the October hearing that even when it’s required to, the NYPD has had major compliance issues.

    “The data isn’t truly open,” he said. “We are strongly recommending that in addition to making a map, which is one way to present the data, [the NYPD] also make the data available.”

    Last week, the same week the NYPD released its new map, the department appeared to take an ironic shift in the other direction: it ordered the city's 77 police precincts to stop giving out any information to the media about crimes taking place in their neighborhoods, and instead route them through an already overburdered office for public information, the DCPI. The NYPD insists the policy is longstanding, and that precincts were breaking the chain of command.

    “This is just another sign of the current NYPD’s hostility to public accountability," Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told DNAinfo. He expressed hope that a new administration, under Bill De Blasio's commissioner Bill Bratton, will "take a dramatically different approach to openness, one that will benefit not only local newspapers but the press and public in general."

    Crime maps, and traffic accident maps, certainly aren’t the norm nationwide. Very few cities actually pull one together (Minneapolis and Boston have bike crash maps), but New York City has the chance to lead on this one if it wants to. Its crime map seemingly has few glitches, is easy to use, and is fairly informative. The NYPD has the data and has the means to display it effectively, so why isn’t it?