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Court finds bad street design liable in NYC crash

The decision could change the way cities deploy safety improvements

Gerritsen Avenue in Brooklyn, where four people have been killed since 2007

Transportation experts agree that poor street design—and the driver behavior it enables—is responsible for many of the U.S.’s astronomically high number of traffic deaths. Now, in a landmark case, the New York State Court of Appeals has ruled in agreement with safety advocates, finding New York City’s street design liable for a crash that put a boy in a coma.

In 2004, 12-year-old Anthony Turturro was riding his bike down Gerritsen Avenue in Brooklyn when he was struck by driver Louis Pascarella, who was going at least 54 mph. Turturro suffered multiple skull fractures and currently experiences reduced mental and physical capacities.

According to the New York City advocacy organization Transportation Alternatives, the city’s leaders had been advised multiple times before the crash that the stretch of street was particularly dangerous. In the ruling, the court summarized the city’s lack of action this way: "an unjustifiable delay in implementing a remedial plan constitutes a breach of the municipality's duty to the public." The city was found 40 percent liable, and ordered to pay $19 million of the $20 million settlement to Turturro.

Proposed design changes to Gerritsen Avenue

In the wake of Turturro’s crash the city implemented a road diet, narrowing the street from four lanes to three by repainting the medians. But it didn't seem to help matters much: From 2007 to 2016, the same street saw a shocking four fatalities, including the death of a 17-year-old cyclist. Late last year—almost 12 years after Turturro’s crash—New York City’s Department of Transportation finally announced major design changes to the street. According to Streetsblog NYC, the changes include protected bike paths and pedestrian islands that shorten the distance required to cross the street.

While it shouldn’t take a high-profile crash—or five—to spur sweeping street design changes, that’s often the reactive way that these kinds of safety improvements are made. But this case might transform the way that cities propose and implement these changes, especially when outcry from local residents can delay these types of life-saving redesigns.

“This ruling from New York’s highest court puts an end to the notion that traffic safety improvements should be subject to debate and contingent on unanimous local opinion,” said Paul Steely White, Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives. “The scientific verdict has been in for several years: traffic calming works to save lives and prevent injuries.”