For pedestrians and cyclists killed by motorists


Rachel Fruchter is dead because, while she rode her bicycle in Prospect Park on the morning of July 12, a Saturday, a van struck her from behind and dragged her more than 50 feet before flinging her against a curb.

Rachel Fruchter, wife of Norman, mother of Lev and Chenda, daughter of Gertrude Gillet, sister of Simon, Matthew and Peter, is dead because the City of New York permits motorists to drive in Prospect Park, not only on weekdays, but on "car-free" weekends and holidays to access a parking lot.

Rachel Fruchter, 57, biochemist and women's health researcher, is dead because, like hundreds of other motorists, the driver of the van was misusing the Prospect Park drive as a shortcut to avoid city streets.

Rachel Fruchter, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the State University of New York's Health Science Center in Brooklyn, is dead because the van, a 1982 Chevrolet, had a cracked windshield, which may have impeded the driver's ability to see in front of him.

Rachel Fruchter, whose research focused on gynecological cancer and the epidemiology of cancer, is dead because, as inferred by police from skid marks left by the vehicle, the van was traveling in the park at 41 miles per hour, 11 mph over the legal limit and far in excess of any reasonable speed in a crowded park.

Rachel Fruchter, a founder of Health Right and a contributor to the landmark "Our Bodies, Our Selves: A Book By and For Women," published by the Boston Women‚s Health Collective, is dead because government and corporations marginalize, abuse and refuse to serve people who dare to travel without using automobiles.

Rachel Fruchter, who graduated from Oxford University and earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Rockefeller University in 1966 and a master's degree in public health from Columbia in 1973, is dead because opportunistic politicians demonize bicyclists instead of tackling the difficult work of changing the entrenched system of auto-centered traffic engineering and vehicular entitlement that kills 20 bicyclists and 250 pedestrians a year in New York City.

Rachel Fruchter, who taught obstetrics and gynecology for a quarter of a century, is dead because the Mayor and his Police Dept. ticket bicyclists, including those forced to violate absurd traffic laws to protect themselves, and never once summons motorists for intimidating or denying cyclists their lawful right-of- way on public streets.

Rachel Fruchter, whose research established that immigrant women without access to adequate health care suffer higher rates of cervical cancer, is dead because no place in our city - not the streets, not the sidewalks (where 15 pedestrians a year are killed by cars), not even the parks - is safe from marauding automobiles.

Rachel Fruchter, who worked to improve health care for women from the Caribbean islands and other immigrant populations throughout central Brooklyn, is dead because the police investigate only a fraction of the several hundred pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities each year, and refer a mere handful of these to the district attorneys for prosecution.

Rachel Fruchter, who was investigating how the human papilloma virus relates to AIDS, is dead because when it comes to pedestrians, skaters and bicycle-riders, drivers know they can get away with murder.

Charles Komanoff / July 17, 1997 / at the Prospect Park memorial vigil.

By Charles Komanoff
[This article first appeared in City Limits, April 1997]

With the recent convictions in the 1991 murder of Yankel Rosenbaum in Crown Heights, it is time to address the death that preceded his and helped provoke it - that of 7-year-old Gavin Cato in what has been euphemistically termed an automobile accident.

Because Gavin was black and was run over by a car in an Hasidic motorcade - one of many that habitually sped through his predominantly African-American neighborhood - and because the ensuing riots were violently anti-Semitic, everything that transpired that day has been viewed in racial terms. But if we lift the heavy veil of race, we will see that Gavin's death, while not the result of an intentional or racially motivated act, was an expression of violence nonetheless, exerted through the crushing weight of an automobile.

It was a Sunday evening in August, and Gavin was in front of his house, tinkering with his bicycle, when a station wagon, the third and last car in the Lubavitcher Rabbi's weekly motorcade, accelerated through a red light at the nearby corner. The car collided with another vehicle and careened onto the sidewalk, pinning Gavin and his cousin Angela Cato against a window grate. Gavin was killed instantly and Angela was badly injured. The incident touched off a spate of mob behavior that culminated three hours later and three blocks away with the fatal stabbing of Yankel Rosenbaum, an Hasidic man unrelated to the driver of the station wagon.

Lost in the aftermath of the Rosenbaum slaying, and still overlooked almost six years later, is the pervasiveness of the type of car violence that killed Gavin Cato. In New York, a city where car-owners are a minority, automobiles most often kill and maim persons unprotected by car bodies and airbags, and they do so without regard to race. Of 609 traffic fatalities in New York City in 1991, the year Gavin was killed, 296 were pedestrians and 21 were bicyclists. Among the pedestrians, 49% were white, 28% black, 18% Hispanic and 5% Asian - a fair mirror of the city as a whole. Based on available statistics, the racial breakdown of the drivers in these incidents appears to have been similar.

Nearly one-tenth of the pedestrians killed that same year were children, and a third were elderly. Fifteen of the dead, including Gavin, were struck on sidewalks or in other "non-road" areas that are supposed to be off-limits to vehicular traffic. The conduct of the driver who ran over Gavin, while appalling and arguably criminally negligent, resembled that in dozens of other fatalities, where drivers seeking to gain a few seconds of saved time for themselves ended up grievously harming others.

Our community suffers greatly from car violence, not only in lives lost or injured but in the wholesale theft of our public streets. Yet we maintain few restraints against automotive endangerment. Excluding limited-access highways, police issued fewer than three dozen speeding tickets a day in one recent year. Motorists routinely encroach on pedestrians, intimidate bicyclists and otherwise operate their vehicles heedless of their power to maim or kill with a flex of the gas pedal or a flick of the steering wheel. Only a handful of those who actually injure pedestrians or cyclists are ever stripped of their driving privileges, much less charged with crimes.

To this condition, which is both a quality-of-life disaster and an unacknowledged crime wave, city government typically responds with victim-blaming and complacency. A recent transportation commissioner repeatedly decried "drunken" pedestrian fatalities, ignoring that his agency's threshold for citing pedestrian victims as alcohol-impaired was ten times below the legal criterion for intoxication of a motorist. The current commissioner calls comprehensive European-style "traffic- calming" measures premature, citing a 20% drop in pedestrian deaths of late. Yet aggressive enforcement of traffic codes and licensing laws has cut pedestrian fatalities in London by 50%, and the fatality rate in Paris and Tokyo stands at half of ours.

There is a way to stanch the flow of pedestrian deaths in New York. It starts with uprooting the sense of entitlement to the road that drivers, tutored by the auto corporations and their advertisers, claim as their birthright. This will entail not just restraining - and grounding - irresponsible drivers, but overturning a motorist-centered culture of policing, criminal justice and traffic-engineering that has relegated pedestrians, the city's lifeblood, to mere bystanders. It includes bold initiatives like comprehensive road tolls to reduce traffic flow and expand the funding pot for transit alternatives, and designated "neighborhood streets" where traffic is slowed by making any accident to a child an offense of strict liability.

Earlier this year, former Mayor David Dinkins appealed to New Yorkers to commemorate Yankel Rosenbaum and Gavin Cato "as a starting point and not as a flash point." The convictions in the Crown Heights riots have brought a degree of closure to the Rosenbaum family. But for young Cato, whose family received no legal redress, a fitting memorial might be a city where other 7-year-olds can grow up free of the scourge of automotive assault.

Charles Komanoff, an economist specializing in energy and transport policy, was president of the bicyclist and pedestrian advocacy group Transportation Alternatives from 1986 to 1992. He remains active in campaigns to protect cyclists' and pedestrians' safety and rights.

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