When tragedy strikes, people start listening. Within the past month, we have read on the front page of the News that both a Yale student and a New Haven police officer were struck by cars at busy intersections. One is suffering from serious injuries, and the other passed away on Saturday. As we mourn this loss, however, we may be missing the real headline: Neither accident should have happened.
Any Yalie knows that crossing streets can be dangerous. Whether we’re running to class or consumed in conversation on our cell phones, all of us have had more than a few close calls crossing busy intersections in New Haven. Drivers, too, know the importance of safety. They don’t want to hit anyone any more than we don’t want to get hit. So why do we read about the same stories year after year?
The answer isn’t hard to guess. We know the dangerous intersections in this town, but we don’t do anything about them. At the intersection of College and North Frontage streets, where Lubna Shamsi EPH ’07 was hit, motorists speed off of I-95, and pedestrians don’t have so much as a crosswalk to guide them. In 2003, 23 accidents were reported at this intersection, the last year for which there is data. The busy construction sites all over New Haven, such as the one where Officer Daniel Picagli was hit, also offer little warning to pedestrians and drivers, and the intersection of Prospect and Sachem streets by the School of Management, where two students were hit last year, is just plain confusing.
Why don’t we do anything about these dangers in our community? Perhaps our Ivy League superiority complex has blinded us once again. We think we’re so smart that it can’t happen to us. Well, wake up, Yale. Accidents are the fourth-leading cause of death in the United States and one of the top in our age group. Your 1600 SAT score won’t protect you against a 4,000-pound SUV.
As we delude ourselves from within our ivory tower, common-sense solutions are staring us in the face. The intersection directly across from where Lubna was hit has an electronic pedestrian crosswalk, but the one where she was hit does not. Rumble strips to slow down cars coming off the highway can also help, as well as policies to reduce the speed limit or to enforce existing traffic laws. In the end, it comes down to a commitment by the city and Yale to consider this issue seriously.
Can our efforts really make a difference? Flashing images of a giant red hand may help comfort our conscience, but do they really help the inattentive driver or the careless pedestrian from making that fatal mistake? While humans will always make mistakes, several studies have shown that a comprehensive approach to pedestrian safety can make a difference.
For example, the American Journal of Public Health recently reported that in the Netherlands, pedestrian fatalities have dropped by 73 percent in the past 25 years as a result of comprehensive policies to encourage walking and to make roads safer. American pedestrian fatalities have also been reduced in recent years principally because fewer people are walking (a contributor to obesity, but that’s a topic for another column). Still, U.S. pedestrians are about four times more likely to get injured as Dutch pedestrians per kilometer walked. The principal reason behind the large disparity, according to this article, is simply a lack of political will.
An often-quoted phrase in public health organizing is that of Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” In this spirit, almost 600 Yale students and New Haven residents have signed an online petition started last week by Anant Shah EPH ’07 in order to start making New Haven’s intersections safer. Together we hope to change the culture of our campus and our town from one that reads about traffic accidents year after year to one that actively seeks to stop them from happening.
In the spirit of culture change, I think it’s fitting to end with a basic fact check a la MasterCard.
One mile of rumble strips: $500
Electronic crosswalk system at one intersection: $10,000
Preventing tragedy before it strikes: priceless
Some things money can’t buy. For everything else, there’s easy, common-sense prevention.
Robert Nelb is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.