Here is what we know about the three-car crash in Dyker Heights that killed Helen Malinowski, an 89-year-old resident of Sunset Park:
- On Sunday afternoon (December 17, around 2:45pm), a car driven by an unnamed individual was pulling out of the one-way stop at 81st Street eastbound into Eleventh Avenue when it collided with a Toyota Camry traveling north. The collision forced the Camry into a third, parked car.
- It was widely reported that the Camry was in use as a cab. Many reports specifically referenced Uber, however, WPIX (and to its credit, only WPIX) published an update on Monday with a statement from Uber, according to which the Camry driver was not affiliated with the ride-sharing service, and the car was not making an Uber trip.
- All three occupants of the Camry were taken to the hospital. The driver and one of the passengers suffered minor injuries. The other—Malinowski—was killed in the collision.
- The Camry driver—Marlene Romero—was subsequently arrested for driving without a license. Police made a point to say that this was not a factor in the crash.
- Traffic in Dyker Heights is bonkers during the holiday home-decoration season. Community Board 10 has spent basically all of 2017 trying to obtain a street-activity permit for “Dyker Lights” that would bring in more resources for traffic enforcement, but this was denied by the NYPD on the grounds that events that take place on private property aren’t actually street activity, leading District Manager Josephine Beckmann to tell the Village Voice, “Is it going to take someone to get hit by a car to take action here?”
- But the crash that killed Malinowski occurred in the middle of the afternoon, before prime Christmas-lights viewing hours. Preventing this type of crash was not an object of the community board’s attention.
You know what is an object of the community board’s attention? Parking preservation. Seriously, it comes up in practically every transportation-related discussion, to the point that any physical obstacles to illegal parking is a point of contention. It’s an extreme obsession, but one that the department of transportation has taken to heart—and there’s a chance it was an important factor in last Sunday’s fatal crash.
What is daylighting?
In street engineering, daylighting is the removal of parking at street corners to increase visibility. A car stopped at the end of a side street can see farther down the avenue the farther away the first parked car is. Any cars coming down the avenue can see the cars at the ends of the side streets from farther away.
In Los Angeles, a city with a reputation for loving its cars more than anything else in the world, it’s common to see all corners of an intersection daylighted, such as this intersection between Bellevue Avenue and Tularosa Drive:
So why isn’t New York doing this?
We are! Including at 81st Street and Eleventh Avenue, the location of Sunday’s crash. But because the message of extreme parking preservation that the DOT constantly receives from community boards, the New York version of daylighting usually applies removes one corner parking spot, instead of all eight.
Traffic pulling out of 81st Street will find the corner to its left has been partially daylighted:
But the corner to their right has not. Anyone trying to turn left or go straight across may have a critical piece of their field of vision blocked by a car parked on the corner.
Unlike Los Angeles, New York doesn’t daylight the corners on the side street itself, allowing vehicles to come right up to the crosswalk. Or, given the state of parking enforcement in NYC, into the crosswalk itself.
These photos were taken in the middle of a weekday afternoon. Anytime when parking is more scarce, parked cars blocking lines of sight can lead to collisions.
Other possible contributing factors
- Rolling stop — The unnamed Kia driver pulling out of 81st Street told police that she came to a complete stop before moving into the intersection. It’s possible this was inaccurate; there’s not a lot of incentive for a person to admit to rolling through a stop to the police, and I’m not sure I trust everyone’s definition of what a complete stop looks like, anyway.
- Speeding — Reports did not indicate how fast the driver of the Camry was going. A major reason why the speed limit was reduced by 5 m.p.h. in 2014 to 25 m.p.h. was to improve the ability of drivers to react to potential collisions before they occurred. But if you don’t care enough about licensing laws to adhere to them, maybe you don’t care about speed limits, either.
- Seat belt — Seat belts aren’t required for back seat passengers, and reports did not indicate if Malinowski was wearing a seat belt. Seat belts don’t stop collisions, but they make the ones that do occur more survivable.
Will we ever find out exactly what happened?
Probably not! The NYPD’s Collision Investigation Squad is not to be confused with the NTSB. Its investigations aren’t that thorough and sometimes make preliminary assumptions that are flat-out wrong. The news organizations that cover traffic crashes don’t seem to realize that; they’re not in the habit of critically questioning police reports and almost never follow up after the initial story. (All of the reports I could find are below. Notice how they’re almost all the same, largely derived from a police report with very little follow-up.)
Ideally, policymakers would focus on all the factors above and take steps to address them. Speeding enforcement, in particular, is an issue that can be addressed with both greater police resources and automated speed cameras.
As far as the DOT and the community board, though, the best thing they can do to prevent accidents like this in the future is to revisit their approach to daylighting and let go of the parking obsession.
Is it going to take someone to get hit by a car to take action here?