Aaron Naparstek Doesn't Believe in “Accidents”

Naparstek shows slide of Superman comic

Aaron Naparstek (LF 2012) wants people to rethink the paradigm of traffic accidents. When cars hurt and kill pedestrians and cyclists, there needs to be a more precise word and a less passive response. In his talk "No Accident: Rethinking Motor Vehicle Violence” at the Harvard Kennedy School, he emphasized that fatalities and injuries caused by automobiles have been written off as inevitable by society rather than being prosecuted as crimes or even actively protested.

Naparstek is unapologetic about his skepticism about cars belonging in cities, and the "Watch out Metropolis” ad for the Dodge Charger last year captures precisely what he wants to reject: a city ruled by cars and a system designed to keep them moving. He believes that the number of cars killing people is a direct indicator of the quality of life in a city. Little old ladies out walking are his indicator species of a healthy urban habitat.

According to Naparstek, cars didn’t initially win the battle for street space. In the 1920s there were violent revolts and class struggles to oppose the car, as the newly invented automobiles killed thousands of pedestrians at a rate comparable to a nation at war. The Brooklyn Death-o-Meter at the Grand Army Plaza in 1927 tracked these traffic fatalities. Yet by the mid 1930s the car had won. Pedestrians could now be convicted of the new crime of "jaywalking”. Today there are 33,000 road fatalities – the equivalent of two 747s crashing each week – but few people are calling for change.

Some areas of the U.S. are actually getting safer. New York City had a 30% reduction in traffic fatalities between 2001 and 2011. The inauguration of Complete Streets design principles – factoring in pedestrians, bike and other non-car uses for public roadways – has increased safety by lowering the number of cars speeding along 9th Avenue and roads adjacent to Prospect Park. The changes have also led to fewer motor vehicle crashes on sidewalks. However suburban areas and other cities remain dangerous for pedestrians, especially along arterial roadways.

Sweden is Naparstek’s model nation for rethinking the role of the automobile. In the past decade, the nation decided not to accept 600 roadway fatalities per year and established "Vision Zero.” There is now a national focus on driving at lower speeds to keep pedestrians alive. Similarly, the Netherlands has implemented radically different urban design features to prioritize safe cycling and walking. Beginning in The Hague after the 1970s oil shocks, the Dutch have installed protected bicycle facilities in cities around the country.

The presumed innocence of drivers in fatal collisions continues to upset Naparstek who sees motor vehicles as weapons. In Manhattan, vehicular killings are outpacing gun deaths in 2012. In the vast majority of cases, when a driver kills a cyclist the official police reports state "no criminality suspected.” This in turn leads to a blame-the-victim mentality. As long as a driver is sober and has his papers in order, he can legally kill people with his car in New York City.

Naparstek wants a culture change, a society that does not accept the high number of fatal traffic collisions as inevitable accidents. This will mean changes in the existing justice system whereby drivers must have at least two other problems (an expired license and drunkenness, for example) in order to be convicted of a traffic crime. He wants reform in the police practices and procedure, instead of just cleaning the scene and getting traffic moving again as quickly as possible.

Autonomous vehicle technology also makes him nervous. While it may work on the interstates, he doesn’t think that it will keep pedestrians safe in cities. Finally, he believes that better data, analysis and transparency is essential.

Naparstek was the founder and editor in chief of Streetsblog before becoming a Loeb Fellow last year. This year, as a visiting scholar at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, he is working on a book on the history of livable streets. He has also organized a talk series at MIT called "The New Urban Interface” and will give a similar talk on December 3rd.  

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