Moving, moving, moving

Oct. 1, 2007
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."

     To efficiently and accurately write these tickets, the NYPD's 2,327 traffic agents and 371 traffic supervisors use Holtsville, New York-based Symbol Technologies' handheld devices to issue parking citations. Deputy Inspector Michael Pilecki says the percentage of tickets invalidated in the courts because of errors in writing has been lowered to less than 2 percent with these devices. "This means our agents are issuing accurate tickets, and the city is receiving maximum revenue," he says.

Enforcing traffic law
     A host of violations are given particular emphasis on the city's congested roadways, which draws 267,186 commuters from across the region to Manhattan's Central Business Districts each weekday. Among the violations officers focus on are double parking, tailgating, red light running, frequent lane changes and aggressive driving because these infractions cause the majority of accidents involving injury or fatalities.

     In the last three years, three pedestrians were killed crossing near a double parked car. "If those cars were not double parked, those people wouldn't have died," Scagnelli states.

     "Nobody likes getting a ticket. But impeding traffic in NYC is surely going to get you one," he adds. "We don't just move along double-parkers, we ticket or tow them. If the only consequence is to have a traffic agent tell them to move along, what's the incentive not to do it again the next day? If they get a $115 ticket or have to pick up their car in impound, it gets their attention."

     Officers also pay attention to dark tinted windows, which are illegal in New York. These windows are dangerous because they reduce the visibility of drivers -- motorists can't see pedestrians or oncoming cars under certain situations. And it's dangerous for police approaching these vehicles because they can't see inside. On July 9, 2007, Officer Russel Timoshenko and his partner Officer Herman Yan were shot while making a traffic stop on a stolen SUV with dark tinted windows. Timoshenko died 5 days later. Yan's bullet-resistant vest saved him.

     Drunk driving also receives significant attention. "Drunk drivers kill themselves and they kill innocent people," Scagnelli explains. "We have great new laws in New York State that deal with drunk drivers, and our five district attorneys provide effective prosecution. Officers are trained to identify and arrest drunk drivers. Drunk drivers are not always speeding, sometimes they're the ones driving the slowest. We're on track to arrest 11,000 drunk drivers this year; if that happens, it will be another record."

     And because speed kills, officers patrol the arterial highways in NYC looking for drivers dangerously exceeding the speed limit as well as tailgating. (A tailgater is a speeder who can't speed because there's too much traffic.) Highway units use radar and lidar (light detection and ranging) technology to catch these speeders. Lidar is more accurate than radar and can be used to detect individual cars speeding within a group of cars.

     And because ticketing speeders on NYC highways is risky business, all highway patrol cars are equipped with video cameras. Outfitting the entire NYPD fleet of more than 6,000 marked vehicles with video cameras is also under consideration. Inspector Richard Graf, commanding officer of the NYPD highway patrol unit, says the cameras are invaluable in documenting a traffic stop. "More officers are hurt in traffic-related incidents than anything else," he explains. "Traffic stops are extremely dangerous even if there is no criminal intent on the part of the stopped driver. Every time an officer is near fast-moving traffic, and out of his or her vehicle, there is potential for injury."

     Special attention is paid to motorcycle operators in NYC, and with good reason -- 21 of 30 people killed on motorcycles were driving without a motorcycle license. Officers also hone in on drunken driving and seat belt violations.

     "Federal initiatives for DWI and seat belt enforcement are great tools for public awareness. The NYPD fully participates and consistently issues significant numbers of seat belt citations and makes substantial DWI arrests -- always among the top-producing agencies in the country," Scagnelli says.

     Drivers are constantly reminded how dangerous it is for passengers in the backseat to ride without their seat belts fastened. "I've seen passengers not wearing seat belts in the backseat ejected from the vehicle and killed while restrained passengers in the front survived unharmed," Scagnelli comments.

     NYC mandates the use of hands-free devices when using cell phones while driving. Under this law, an officer can stop a vehicle when a driver is using a cell phone without the required hands-free device, even if no other violation is occurring.

     A box junction is a traffic control measure designed to prevent gridlock at busy road junctions. The surface of the junction is marked with a crisscross grid of diagonal painted lines (or only two lines crossing each other in the box junction), and vehicles may not enter the area so marked unless their exit from the junction is clear (or, if turning, to await a gap in the oncoming traffic flow). "Don't block the box" is a strategy to avoid spillback and gridlock. In NYC, blocking the box is a moving violation that only can be issued by police officers, not traffic agents.

     Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed legislation to allow traffic enforcement agents, who direct traffic, tow vehicles and maintain traffic flow, as well as police officers to issue "blocking the box" violations. If that legislation passes, it should significantly reduce in gridlock in NYC.

Traffic management center
     Traffic is also monitored in a traffic management center. Three agencies -- the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT), New York City Department of Transportation (NYCDOT) and the NYPD occupy the Traffic Management Center in the borough of Queens. Here, traffic is monitored by an array of electronic surveillance and controlled through real-time traffic signal operation. More than 6,000 of NYC's 12,000 traffic signals can be adjusted, timed and reset from this central location, and further capabilities are expected. "We're anticipating a move to new facilities within the present location," says Inspector Patrick McCarthy, commanding officer at the center. "New coordinated technology allowing us instantaneous communication with the other agencies will enhance our surveillance and response capabilities."

     John Tipaldo, director of systems engineering for NYCDOT, keeps watch over the multiple screens covering strategic locations around the city. Congestion at bridge and tunnel approaches, as well as major highway intersections, are constantly monitored for developing problems. Video, along with the NYPD's systems, can determine the kind of response necessary to address an incident.

     The NYPD utilizes several different technologies to monitor and advise response. The IIMS (Integrated Incident Management System) installed by General Dynamics of Falls Church, Virginia, sends incident images to the command center. This allows officers monitoring the system to determine what the emergency is and how to respond. For instance, they can tell if a hazmat response is necessary or a heavy-duty tow truck is needed, and how many lanes of traffic are affected.

     The IRVN (Integrated Regional Video Network) is an intranet-based system in place at the center. It is older technology, but very reliable and does not require an Internet connection. The center's SPRINT (Special Police Radio Inquiry Network Terminal) is a text-only technology that coordinates searches with 911 dispatchers. It is very reliable in describing incidents according to standard 10 code.

     With all this in place, Scagnelli says it's no accident that the NYPD is on target to break records and achieve traffic safety numbers never before seen in NYC history. In fact, the NYPD is about to report the lowest number of traffic fatalities since 1908, when the city first began keeping traffic violation records. "Our police officers and traffic enforcement agents have reason to be proud," he says. "They have seen the results of their dedication and know that each time they enforce the law they are preventing an accident or fatality. We're making a difference because they are consistently enforcing the law."

Less congestion + Less accidents = Saved lives
     As many cities are facing enormous traffic congestion problems, the concepts of monitoring and controlling traffic electronically are becoming reality. Changing driving habits is a daunting task with people reluctant to carpool or take public transportation. People are used to going where they want, when they want and desire the freedom to change their minds. Busy, complex lives don't necessarily coincide with an easy transition to matching workday schedules with others.

     It seems the only incentive is to make it more expensive to travel on roadways during certain times of day -- specifically rush hours.

     New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed charging $8 to drive a car into Manhattan south of 86th Street on weekdays between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Trucks would pay $21.

     "Our survey of New Yorkers who drive in Manhattan found that congestion pricing (charging a premium for driving during weekday business hours) is the only mechanism that will entice a large portion of drivers to switch to public transit," says Partnership for New York City President and CEO Kathryn Wylde. "A significant percentage of surveyed drivers are heavily resistant to getting out of their cars. But in response to pricing, there are more than enough who would to reduce congestion by a significant factor."

     Ironically, Wylde reports that while the survey found that "New York City drivers are one of the primary, if not the top, cause of congestion, most drivers claim to have seen the enemy and it is someone else." The survey found New York City drivers blame others for the congestion. Surveyed drivers cite truck and delivery vehicles (18 percent), taxis and livery cars (17 percent), people driving from the suburbs (12 percent) and double parking (12 percent) as the top four causes of congestion.

Linda Spagnoli is a well-known law enforcement advocate in the areas of communication, child safety, officer safety and sex offender tracking. Spagnoli maintains her position as Director of Communications for Code Amber, the largest Internet distribution for Amber Alerts.

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