According to the NYPD, dangerous driver choices are the primary cause or contributing factor to 70 percent of pedestrian fatalities. Each year, the Jamaica Hospital’s trauma team responds to more than 1,500 “trauma activations,” a large portion due to car collisions and crashes.
Dr. Geoffrey Doughlin, Jamaica Hospital’s trauma medical director, said while the hospital’s mission is to care for injured patients, injury prevention is also a major focus.
“As a trauma center, one of our main responsibilities is to be sure that people understand why they’re being injured and how they can best prevent injuries from happening,” Doughlin said.
Doughlin said car crashes and collisions are preventable in most cases. Drivers have a responsibility to keep their hands on the wheel, eyes on the road and focus on what they’re doing.
“Any deviation from that, any of those three components, is going to heighten the probability that they may end up with some kind of injury,” he said.
While Jamaica Hospital sits on the busy Van Wyck Expressway, Doughlin said local streets are where a lot of cars have run-ins with pedestrians. He said drivers need to slow down because just a few seconds of looking away from the road can lead to disaster.
If a driver goes 60 miles per hour, the car travels 88 feet per second, Doughlin said. At 30 miles per hour, it moves 44 feet per second.
“You look away for three seconds, that’s 132 feet you’ve traveled without recognizing it,” he said.
Doughlin also took issue with the use of hands-free devices. He said hands-free items “interfere with cognitive functions,” meaning drivers may miss the little cues to avoid a collision.
He stressed the importance of education and outreach, particularly with young people and the elderly. Jamaica Hospital has an injury prevention coordinator who goes out to schools to speak about what they can do to travel safely.
With the elderly, Doughlin said they may want to comply with the rules, but they don’t see as well, hear as well and don’t walk as fast.
R. Jonathan Robitsek, the hospital’s research director in the Department of Surgery, has been collecting data on all pedestrian and cyclists who have been brought into Jamaica Hospital. As part of the governor’s Traffic Safety Commission, Robitsek received grants to conduct research on motor vehicle and pedestrian safety.
Robitsek said he draws information from EMS, FDNY and NYPD wherever possible. He also collects data from patients, including important details about an accident, where it happened, time of day and any distracting factors. That includes walking while texting, having headphones in or crossing mid-block.
“The idea is we then combine that data with data on their stay here in the hospital - the severity of their injuries, where they have injuries - so we can get an idea as to types of injuries that are most common,” he said.
He said he compares the types of injuries by age group, type of accidents, and other factors like right turns against left turns and crossing mid-block as opposed to at the crosswalk. After all of the data is collected over a three-year period, they will report to the state. City and state agencies will then combine that data with data from other hospitals.
Robitsek said he hopes the research will lead to tangible policy changes. One trend he saw in the data is that more than 50 percent of bicyclists don’t wear helmets.
“I would hope the city may consider helmet laws, at least for kids, maybe under the age of 18 or under the age of 12 or something like that,” he said. “It’s easy to fix a broken elbow or knee, but it’s a lot harder to fix a skull fracture.”
Another trend that’s hard to collect data on is distracted walking or cycling. The problem is many people don’t like to admit that they’re talking and texting or crossing the street mid-block. Robitsek stressed that none of the data they collect goes into medical records, so it can’t be used against a patient in any way.
In this era of increasing reliance on technology, Robitsek said everyone wants to be always connected, but it’s important they pay attention when crossing the streets.
Vision Zero, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s initiative to curb traffic fatalities and injuries, coincides with much of Robitsek’s research, particularly when comparing data before and after the speed limit lowered to 25 miles per hour.
In his comparison of mortality rates from November 2013 to September 2014 and the corresponding year after, Robitsek saw a drop from two percent to 0.8 percent.
“It’s a pretty substantial reduction,” he said.
He also noticed an increase in the number of patients with injuries that aren’t severe enough to “warrant being scored” using what they call an Injury Severity Score.
Coupled with a reduction in mild and severe injuries from October 2015 to March 2016, the data shows a correlation between Vision Zero policy changes and fewer severe injuries.
“It could be any number of factors. It was abnormally warm in the winter,” Robitsek said. “It could also be some of the stuff from Vision Zero, that drivers and pedestrians and cyclists are maybe paying a little more attention.
“It’d be great if that’s actually true,” he added.
His main takeaway from his research is that trauma from motor vehicle crashes is highly preventable. Robitsek said he’s interested in seeing what happens once more bike lanes are added in Queens.
For NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan, it’s all about educating the public. He said he’d rather have educated drivers and enforce the law rather than have people become trauma patients at the hospital.
Chan said this particular area in Southeast Queens has already seen a 45 percent drop in fatalities through education and enforcement. He said he hopes to see other parts of the city experience a similar drop.
“We’re seeing a difference,” Chan said. “Two years in a row we’ve had decreases since the inception of Vision Zero. There’s always room for improvement and we’re going to continue to work on these particular issues.”