Just before 2 am on February 28, 2022, after a night partying in upper Manhattan, Edgar Valette, 39, got into his BMW to drive two friends—Kimberly Martinez, 28, and Michael Santos, 30—home.
Careening southbound down the Henry Hudson Parkway, he lost control of his vehicle, vaulting over a barrier onto train tracks 500 feet below. The driver and passengers died.
Ten weeks later, just before midnight on May 18, 30-year-old Alwayne Hylton lost control of his own speeding BMW on the elevated Bruckner Expressway in the southwest Bronx, plummeting to the roadway below to his death.
Not long after that crash, on May 26, just before 7 pm, also in the Bronx, an unnamed 25-year-old man sent his Mercedes hurtling off the New England Thruway, landing on the street below; he, too, perished.
Also in May, a 36-year-old man rode his motorcycle down the West Side Highway; as the sun rose, he slammed into a median barrier, dying on impact.
Weeks later, in Queens, a 28-year-old man crashed his motorcycle “at a high rate of speed” down the Utopia Parkway into a brick wall, with the same fatal results.
Since the arrival of COVID in March 2020, traffic deaths in New York City have skyrocketed. And not just in New York. Much like with spiraling homicides and drug overdoses, traffic deaths have surged across the nation. In the first five months of 2022, 93 people died in traffic crashes in New York City — down slightly from last year, but 12 percent above pre-Covid levels.
The rise in traffic fatalities is a particular blow to former mayor Bill de Blasio, who made traffic safety a centerpiece of his time in office. As a candidate in 2013, he promised to build upon the double-digit fatality reductions of his predecessors, Michael R. Bloomberg and Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Yet the bad raw numbers hide some successes. Crucial upgrades such as dedicated lanes for pedestrians and cyclists as well as speed controls for cars and trucks drivers have reduced pedestrian fatalities over the past decade.
Who, then, is perishing now in greater numbers? The victims fit the profile of those killed in the car crashes noted above: Young men, both drivers and passengers — often speeding and often late at night. New York’s increase in traffic deaths mirrors its (and the nation’s) broader public-safety problem: the self-destructive and dangerous behavior of a young-male demographic. As with the recent explosion in violent crime, young adult and older teen males are taking advantage of a law-enforcement vacuum that lets them get away with ever more antisocial behavior—until it kills them or someone else.
It’s never been a secret that male drivers—particularly, young male drivers—are responsible for most traffic deaths. A 2010 city study found that “80 percent of pedestrian [fatal or serious] crashes involve male drivers.” The gender breakdown hasn’t changed much of late. Men were behind the wheel in 81.4 percent of fatal crashes in 2021 and 2022.
The other risk factor, though, has grown even riskier: young drivers.
In 2020, drivers under 30 were in 100 fatal crashes, up 42.9 percent from 2017 and 2019. In 2021, the trend, though reduced somewhat, continued, with young males responsible for 83 fatal crashes, or 28.2 percent of the total, according to my analysis of data maintained by the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research
Bad drivers, like other antisocial actors, have proved since 2020 that they’re not going to control themselves. But the Adams administration has taken some welcome steps to do so. Most importantly, the mayor realizes that traffic violence and violent crime go together. “I’m sending a clear message that this city is not going to be a city of disorder,” he said in May, and “vehicle crashes” are a sign of “a city of disorder.” The mayor will revive the Giuliani-era TrafficStat program, pinpointing locations where “people are speeding, driving fast, reckless[ly] driving” for stepped-up police enforcement. The city will also continue to install speed bumps, new intersection designs that slow traffic with raised markings, and additional bike lanes.
This spring, the city successfully lobbied the state legislature to allow it to keep its speed cameras on 24 hours daily. But cameras can’t make up for the human enforcement pullback, especially since, as The City news site reports, drivers are increasingly using bogus or obscured license plates to evade cameras. Police officers must stop drivers with such plates.
Repeat dangerous drivers, including the tens of thousands whose vehicles rack up five or more speed-camera violations yearly, should face consequences. Before he allegedly killed infant Apolline Mong-Guillemin in her baby carriage in September 2021, Mott’s vehicle had racked up 91 speed-camera tickets, the Streetsblog reported. Cops had repeatedly pulled him over, and the state had suspended his license. But Mott kept driving. Similarly, Michael de Guzman, who allegedly drunkenly hit and killed New York University student Raife Milligan in May 2022, had four speeding violations on his vehicle in just five months. But both still drove with impunity.
To stop such drivers, Adams should revive the other Giuliani-era program and seize the vehicles of New York’s most reckless drivers. “If you get arrested for reckless driving to the point where we charge you with a misdemeanor, we’re going to take your automobile from you,” Giuliani said in 2000. “And we’re going to take it from you . . . because it’ll remind you that this is important. This kills people. It also kills you.” Twenty-two years later, his words are more relevant than ever.
Nicole Gelinas is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor of City Journal, from which this piece is adapted.