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Horrific Cyclist's Death in Brooklyn Prompts Calls for New Thinking on Cars

José Alzorriz was killed while waiting on a bike at a red light. An SUV, T-boned by a red light-runner, literally flew into him.
August 27, 2019, 11am PDT | Irvin Dawid
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Nick Gray

The circumstances describing 52-year-old José Alzorriz's death on Sunday, August 11, are every vulnerable road user's worst nightmare, a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, unable to avoid what would happen next.

"Alzorriz was waiting at a red light in Midwood on Coney Island Avenue around 12:30 p.m. when an 18-year-old driving a Dodge sedan in the opposite direction ran through a 'steady red light,' according to cops," reads the Brooklyn Daily Eagle's account of the tragic death of the 14th cyclist in Brooklyn; 19th in the city, this year. "The Dodge smashed into a blue Honda [Pilot] traveling east on Avenue L, causing the Honda to collide with the bicyclist, as well as a pedestrian."

"Dashcam video captured the moment of impact, with both vehicles flying across the intersection, crushing the unsuspecting cyclist as he waited for the light. (Warning: footage is disturbing)," notes Gothamist's report on Aug. 12 of the crash. 

Media attention immediately turned to two aspects of the crash: the corridor and the driver who caused it.

The corridor

"Coney Island Avenue is a hostile environment, especially for those not in a vehicle," said Thomas DeVito, senior director of advocacy at Transportation Alternativesin a statement.

Designed to move cars as quickly as possible, this street is incompatible with Vision Zero.

That's why we’re calling on the City Council — including  Council Member Kalman Yeger, in whose district this tragic crash occurred — to unite behind Speaker Corey Johnson’s Streets Master Plan bill, which would accelerate the schedule of redesigning deadly corridors like Coney Island Avenue.

Vehicular violence

The young motorist responsible for the crash was taken into custody and questioned by police, but released Sunday night without charges. On Wednesday, Aug. 21, he was arrested and "charged with eleven crimes, including manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. Both of those charges are felonies," reports Gothamist.

“This tragic case illustrates the dangers faced by cyclists and pedestrians when drivers choose to recklessly ignore the rules of the road," Brooklyn DA, Eric Gonzalez, said in a statement. "I urge all motorists to obey the speed limit, follow all traffic laws and yield the right of way to those who share our streets. If they don’t, they might take a life in an instant - and face serious criminal charges."

The DA's statement indicates that "[t]he Dodge was allegedly going at approximately 61 mph in a 25 mph zone at the time of the impact, the evidence shows."

Gonzalez added, "I am committed to doing my part to promote safety and will continue to investigate cases of vehicular violence and bring criminal charges whenever they are supported by the facts and the law.”

The Times' Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura expounds on the legal complexities of vehicular violence on Aug. 21 in the source article, writing that "there are growing calls to increase the legal culpability of drivers."

Andrew Gounardes, a state senator who represents parts of southern Brooklyn, called for the young driver to serve jail time.

“If this is the case of someone walking down the street just shooting a gun in the air randomly, and hitting people and killing them, we’d be all up in all arms,” Mr. Gounardes said in an interview. “We’d be prosecuting, we’d be having press conferences, and everyone would want to be sure that that person was held criminally liable.”

Gounardes authored street safety legislation this year to reinstate and expand the school zone speed camera program in New York City, signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Mothers Day.

On the other side of the debate, 'accident attorney' Thomas Lucarelli warns, “You can’t criminalize every negligent act. If a driver is driving reckless or violating the law — driving drunk or intoxicated — that’s criminal charges.”

But, he said, if there is no criminal intent and it is a negligent accident, legally, “there is no criminal accountability.”

That's just how the defendant's lawyer handled it in court on Aug. 21, reports de Freytas-Tamura.

In court on Wednesday, Jeffrey Lewisohn, Mr. Umar Mirza Baig’s attorney, said: “As tragic as it is that someone passed away, it was an accident. He would like the opportunity to finish his GED and go to college.”

“It was a tragic accident and now he’s got criminal charges. It’s not appropriate.”

Jon Orcutt of Bike New York, an advocacy group, and a former executive director of Transportation Alternatives and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, suggested that DA Gonzalez has an uphill battle. "If you’re not drunk and you stay at the scene, it’s very unlikely that anything is going to happen to you,” he said. Baig meets both requirements.

Ban cars?

Ryan Cooper, a national correspondent at The Week, begins his Aug. 19 opinion piece with Jose Alzorriz's death, noting the huge jump in cyclists' deaths from last year, and then lets loose:

For reasons of safety and basic urban functionality, it's time to start banning private automobiles from America's urban cores. The basic problem with cars in a dense urban setting like New York is that they go too fast and take up too much space.

A car-centered transportation system is simply at odds with the logic of a dense city. What's more, the terrible toll of injuries and deaths inflicted on New York's cyclists and pedestrians this year is simply what happens when one allows cars to roam free in cities.

It is highly risky to allow huge, heavy steel cages capable of high speeds to be flying around crowds of delicate human bodies. It takes only a slight error or moment of inattention to get someone brutally killed.

Cooper goes on to cite European cities like Oslo and Brussels that are turning downtown areas into virtual car-free zones or phasing-out older cars, and then points out the difficulty New York City is having in just instituting a partial driving ban on a stretch of 14th Street in Manhattan to facilitate bus traffic. 

"Cars simply do not belong downtown," he concludes.

Full Story:
Published on Wednesday, August 21, 2019 in The New York Times
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