When the pandemic emptied New York of its usual traffic, the city’s streets transformed into an open speedway where drivers drag raced down major roads, racked up thousands of tickets and in some cases left fatal wreckage in their wake.
At the time, city officials saw the rash of reckless driving as an aberration that would vanish when the city’s usual traffic reappeared.
But as restrictions lifted this summer and traffic crept back toward pre-pandemic levels, the spate of speeding — and fatal collisions — did not end.
Now, alarmed by the sustained rise in fatalities and bracing for the possibility of a second lockdown that could worsen the current speeding crisis, city officials are reducing speed limits by five miles per hour on nine of the most dangerous streets across the five boroughs.
On Tuesday, officials will announce the speed limit will be lowered to 25 miles per hour — the standard limit on most the city’s roadways — on eight of those streets, including parts of Riverside Drive in Manhattan, Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, Northern Boulevard in Queens and Bruckner Boulevard in the Bronx.
The limit will also drop to 25 miles per hour on Shore Parkway Service Road and Dahlgren Place in Brooklyn, Webster Avenue in the Bronx and Targee Street in Staten Island.
On the ninth, Rockaway Boulevard in Queens, the limit will drop from 40 miles per hour to 35.
“People got in the habit of driving too fast and too recklessly when roads were more open, and unfortunately, we’re still seeing that behavior,” Polly Trottenberg, the city’s transportation commissioner, said in an interview. “We’re starting to get almost back to normal, but there are still times and places in the city where traffic levels are lower and drivers are able to get up to higher speeds.”
Already this year, more passengers, drivers and motorcyclists have been killed in car crashes than all of last year: 28 drivers, 16 passengers and 26 motorcyclists have died, according to city data.
In June, when traffic in New York City returned to around 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels, the number of passengers and drivers killed in collisions jumped 22 percent compared with the same month last year, according to data from the city and INRIX, a data collection firm. In July, things got much worse: Those deaths spiked 300 percent compared with last year.
Since Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to eliminate all traffic deaths six years ago, his administration has lowered speed limits and enforced them with automated speed cameras, bringing traffic deaths to their lowest level in a century in 2018.
City officials have tried to crack down on reckless driving by installing 60 new automated speed cameras every month since the beginning of the year, bringing the total to nearly 1,000. The police department also increased speed-radar enforcement along some highways and deployed hundreds of officers to locations with many speeding drivers at the height of the lockdown.
But with the city’s sprawling subway system facing looming cuts and New Yorkers buying bicycles, scooters and cars in record numbers, many transit experts say that Mr. de Blasio needs to take more drastic action — like accelerating the creation of new busways and protected bike lanes, and restricting traffic into Manhattan during rush hours — to ensure streets are safe and functional.
“New York City is facing four existential challenges: the death spiral of public transit, ballooning car ownership, an increase in traffic deaths and serious injuries and the lack of a plan for addressing these from the mayor,” said Danny Harris, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group.
“The decisions we’re making now about street infrastructure will affect us for decades,” Mr. Harris added. “We should be taking decisive action now.”
Across the country, after the pandemic hit and traffic levels dropped more than 90 percent in some large cities, speeding — and the death rate from car crashes — surged.
In March, the rate of fatalities nationwide from crashes rose 12 percent, in May it jumped 34 percent and in June — the latest month when statistics are available — it rose 23 percent compared with the same months last year, according to the National Safety Council, an advocacy group.
“I think folks started to feel like the roads are emptier and it’s an open speedway for them,” said Lorraine M. Martin, president of the council. The empty roads may have also lured some drivers into a false sense of security, she added, leading them to ignore laws that mandate wearing a seatbelt and not driving impaired.
But in New York, the sustained rise in fatalities suggests that drivers who picked up reckless behavior during the lockdown have maintained it since — and may continue to imperil street safety.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Updated September 1, 2020
Why is it safer to spend time together outside?
- Outdoor gatherings lower risk because wind disperses viral droplets, and sunlight can kill some of the virus. Open spaces prevent the virus from building up in concentrated amounts and being inhaled, which can happen when infected people exhale in a confined space for long stretches of time, said Dr. Julian W. Tang, a virologist at the University of Leicester.
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- In the beginning, the coronavirus seemed like it was primarily a respiratory illness — many patients had fever and chills, were weak and tired, and coughed a lot, though some people don’t show many symptoms at all. Those who seemed sickest had pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome and received supplemental oxygen. By now, doctors have identified many more symptoms and syndromes. In April, the C.D.C. added to the list of early signs sore throat, fever, chills and muscle aches. Gastrointestinal upset, such as diarrhea and nausea, has also been observed. Another telltale sign of infection may be a sudden, profound diminution of one’s sense of smell and taste. Teenagers and young adults in some cases have developed painful red and purple lesions on their fingers and toes — nicknamed “Covid toe” — but few other serious symptoms.
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- The coronavirus spreads primarily through droplets from your mouth and nose, especially when you cough or sneeze. The C.D.C., one of the organizations using that measure, bases its recommendation of six feet on the idea that most large droplets that people expel when they cough or sneeze will fall to the ground within six feet. But six feet has never been a magic number that guarantees complete protection. Sneezes, for instance, can launch droplets a lot farther than six feet, according to a recent study. It’s a rule of thumb: You should be safest standing six feet apart outside, especially when it’s windy. But keep a mask on at all times, even when you think you’re far enough apart.
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
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- The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
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In March, when the city entered lockdown, the number of automated speed camera violations nearly doubled compared to the previous month, from 12,672 tickets issued one day at the end of February to 24,765 tickets issued daily at the end of March.
When the city emerged from lockdown in June, the violations continued: There were 23,951 issued on the final Friday in July.
Many of the fatal crashes have happened on highways, where drivers can speed more easily when there is little traffic, city officials said. The motorcycles involved in some crashes were often unregistered or had expired registration, and many drivers did not have a motorcycle-specific license.
At the same time, fewer pedestrians and cyclists have been killed in collisions this year compared with the same period last year. So far, there have been 19 fewer pedestrian fatalities and 10 fewer cyclists killed compared with last year, which was particularly deadly for cyclists.
Still, many transit advocates say that the city needs to take more aggressive steps to prevent future gridlock and restore recent gains to street safety as the city braces for uncertain travel patterns in the wake of the pandemic.
“Without putting in more street-level infrastructure for buses, bikes and micromobility, we are looking at a confluence of more people using scooters and bikes and a lot more people driving on streets,” said Nick Sifuentes, the executive director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an advocacy group. “That’s a recipe for even more crashes and even more fatalities than we are seeing right now.”
In June, Mr. de Blasio convened a panel of transportation experts to make recommendations for avoiding gridlock and maintaining street safety.
But those experts say that the mayor has yet to review or act on those recommendations, stoking concerns that without a comprehensive plan to accommodate shifting commuting patterns, New York’s recovery could be hamstrung by traffic deaths and gridlock.
“Recovering from Covid-19 requires us to reimagine our city, especially our streets, for the better,” half of the experts on the panel wrote in a letter to Mr. de Blasio last week. “Without your decisive and immediate action, we may lose New York City’s future to growing congestion, pollution, inequality, and traffic violence.”
City officials say that, despite budget cuts, they have made strides to address these issues: This summer, the city broke ground on 20 miles of new busways, rolled out tens of miles of open streets and opened roads to several thousands of restaurants.
“The city has had a lot on its plate,” said Ms. Trottenberg, the transportation commissioner. “I hear frustrations from people who say we could be doing more, but I think we’ve done a lot to respond to this urgency.”