Moving, moving, moving

Technology helps officers keep traffic moving in New York City

     On July 18, 2007, a typical New York City (NYC) summer day, the evening rush hour was abruptly halted by a thunderous explosion in the Grand Central Station area near 41st Street and Lexington Avenue. The eruption continued for several minutes spewing muddy water, steam and asphalt more than 70 stories high before finally subsiding to a bubbling fizzle. In its wake were thousands of stunned -- and very lucky -- New Yorkers, who, fearing the worst, quickly recognized the all-too-familiar scenario of the failure of a piece of aging NYC infrastructure.

     In his One Police Plaza office downtown, the New York Police Department's (NYPD's) three-star Chief of Transportation Michael Scagnelli was notified within 2 minutes and was informed that procedures to isolate the area and divert traffic were already in place.

     "Steam explosions are not uncommon in NYC," he says. "Our police officers and traffic agents are the best in the world in dealing with these kinds of incidents. Unfortunately, this time, a death was attributed to the incident -- a woman apparently succumbed to cardiac arrest."

     New Yorkers were set to deal with a drawn-out traffic nightmare; but after the initial clean-up which lasted over a weekend, the only residual traffic consequence was a side street that remained closed to vehicular traffic for a few weeks.

     But what happened right after the incident to avoid panic and chaos? "First, it was determined almost immediately that it wasn't a terrorist attack," Scagnelli says. "By that time our rapid response team had already begun the process of closing access to the affected area, both pedestrian and vehicular. A clear path was established for emergency vehicles and personnel, and the area was secured. The public was reassured early on that this was not terrorism. Understandably, some people were scared and shaken."

     As the above example illustrates, the summer of 2007 has been a challenging one for NYC traffic enforcement. Drenching rains caused street and subway flooding, and an F2 tornado touched down in Brooklyn in August. But emergency planning and a commitment to regulating the flow of traffic have helped NYC deal with the daily influx of vehicles into the city.

Traffic Stat
     Scagnelli lives and breathes the NYPD traffic-related mission statement:

     Move Traffic, Move Traffic, Move Traffic,
Reduce Accidents, Move Traffic,
Reduce injuries related to accidents, Move Traffic,
Reduce deaths related to accidents, Move Traffic!

     To help serve this mission, the NYPD developed Traffic Stat. Based on the ComStat accountability model, Traffic Stat identifies problem areas based on the frequency of arrests, accidents, injuries and fatalities. It ensures commanders in all 76 precincts are knowledgeable about their command and deal with problems right away when the unexpected occurs.

     There are two types of traffic-related violations: moving and nonmoving. Parking tickets for expired meters are issued, but they don't impede traffic. While they're breaking the law, they are not causing accidents. However, meaningful parking tickets, called traffic flow violations are violations where two criteria are met: traffic is significantly impeded and the violations cause accidents, contributing to both injuries and death. Scagnelli says the foundation of Traffic Stat is giving the right number of traffic citations to both movers and parkers at the right locations for the right offenses.

     Officers are trained to ticket for both types of violations, as both impede traffic and affect pedestrian and motorist safety. "Yes, the streets are crowded and commuters should always seek public transportation when possible," Scagnelli advises. "But if you're going to drive on our city's streets, drive safely and courteously. Our officers are trained to recognize aggressive drivers and issue tickets accordingly."

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