On Dec. 12, just before winter break, the City of New Haven began implementing a new pilot program sponsored by Watch for Me CT, a nonprofit that seeks to improve traffic safety. In light of the multiple collisions between vehicles and pedestrians, it would appear that New Haven had finally begun taking the first steps to address this serious public safety concern.
Unfortunately, these steps were not in the right direction.
Despite the Watch for Me CT slogan of “awareness, education and enforcement,” only one of these values was prioritized when the New Haven program was implemented — enforcement. Four traffic patrol officers, led by Sergeant Pedro Colon, wrote up traffic violation tickets for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. According to an article in the New Haven Independent, a total of 123 formal warnings were written during the program’s inaugural week.
Fortunately, due to public backlash, the program has been halted. But the problematic outcomes of how the program was implemented must be addressed.
One may defend this program by stating how college students — notorious for not heeding traffic laws — deserve a wake-up call. Except this new program didn’t go after college students. In fact, it did the opposite: the program disproportionately targeted low-income, minority and non-Yale-affiliated residents of New Haven.
Let’s break this claim down. First, this program targeted non-Yale-affiliated New Haven residents. Yale winter break began the week of Dec. 15, when many students left New Haven to go home. Incidentally, this was also the first week of this traffic violation program.
Moreover, the “enforcement” areas were largely New Haven public transportation stops rather than the privately-run Yale shuttle stops. For instance, many New Haven buses make a stop at the Church and Chapel Street intersection as a result of the desperately outdated bus system New Haven currently operates. And how many Yale shuttles stop at this intersection? Just one.
Unsurprisingly, minorities and low-income households, who rely heavily on public transportation, are most likely to be negatively impacted by this enforcement program. One in four people in New Haven do not own a car, and studies have shown that car ownership is correlated with higher income status. This leaves residents who rely on public transportation more likely to be the ones who use bus stop intersections, such as the ones this program targeted.
The poor implementation of this program begs the question of whether it was in the best interest of New Haven residents, or if it was simply a quick and easy cash grab. And while the city may not bat an eye at charging 92 dollars for a pedestrian violation, with Connecticut’s 2019 minimum wage being 11 dollars per hour, the fine is approximately an entire day’s worth of salary on minimum wage. With around 26 percent of New Haven residents living in poverty, such a fine is both unfair and detrimental.
And finally, this program truly did not protect New Haven residents and pedestrians from deadly collisions with vehicles. Out of the 123 total traffic warnings in the program’s first week, 102 were for pedestrians who crossed the street in “non-crosswalk situations” or who crossed diagonally when both roads presented the “walk” symbol. And how many of these warnings were given to those in cars or motorbikes? Only 16 tickets.
As the occasional jaywalking student myself, I understand that collisions are not always the fault of the motorist. Regardless, the fact that only 13 percent of the warnings were issued to motorists represents a disproportionate emphasis on pedestrians as opposed to drivers.
One pedestrian-vehicular death is too many, yet New Haven has had one tragedy after another with no end in sight. In 2017, a motorist struck and killed Melissa Tancredi, 42, after the motorist failed to safely follow traffic laws at the York Street and South Frontage Road intersection. In 2008, 11-year-old Gabriel Lee was killed in a hit-and-run after attempting to cross Whalley Avenue. The same year, Mila Rainof MED ’08, a Yale medical student, was killed by a motorist at the same intersection as Tancredi. Both of these intersections are notorious for motorists running the red light at dangerous speeds.
New Haven does not have a jaywalking problem as much as it has a problem enforcing traffic laws for motorists, requiring them to travel at safe speeds and stop where they are supposed to. As a Yale medical student, I can attest to the disregard for pedestrian safety at the York Street and South Frontage Road intersection. I have seen motorists blow through the intersection through a stale red light with pedestrians on the crosswalk. Even worse, I see how many patients, children, hospital workers, community members and students use this intersection every day. How did the city think that a 92-dollar ticket for a pedestrian was going to protect these individuals?
New Haven has a serious problem when it comes to pedestrian-motorist safety. And utilizing a punitive program that fails to address the inequity and social factors surrounding pedestrian-vehicular collisions will not improve it.
While the program has been stopped for now, this incident raises the question of how we address inequities in New Haven — specifically, how the law is enforced and who bears the brunt of that enforcement. Ultimately, the City of New Haven, New Haven residents and the Yale community need to come together to find a solution that addresses these issues and makes our streets both safer and more equitable.
CARMEN PAJARILLO is a first year medical student at Yale School of Medicine. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .