New York City Street Stencils Remind Us Where Cars Have Killed Pedestrians

An old right-of-way campaign ushers in a new era of awareness on our streets.

When pedestrian advocacy group Right of Way started drawing chalk body outlines at intersections where cars mowed down New York City pedestrians in the early ’90s, it wanted to send a message to the NYPD and to the city. “To think there was a crime committed here, and then to think about how that’s not normally considered a crime, or a tragedy even,” says Right of Way organizer Keegan Stephan.


In early August of this year, Right of Way revived its old mission. Upon request from the families of victims killed by cars, the organization walked and cycled to the locations of 12 fatal collisions, sprayed an ornate stencil of white, outstretched wings designed by artist Robyn Renee Hasty, and gave space for loved ones to grieve.

It’s telling that more than two decades after Right of Way launched its first campaign, a disproportionate share of pedestrian deaths continues to plague the city. According to a New York City Department of Transportation report from 2010, pedestrians made up 52% of traffic deaths between 2005 and 2009, four times the national average.

It’s true that traffic fatalities have plummeted overall since the ’90s as the DOT began to redesign streets with cyclists and pedestrians in mind. But while 2014 saw the passage of a new set of legislation aimed to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2024–a keystone of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s inaugural policies–Right of Way points out that there are still endemic obstacles when it comes to actually enforcing those rules.

Stephan says that achieving Vision Zero will also mean wrestling with a culture of victim-blaming and impunity for drivers. As Village Voice reporter Tessa Stuart highlighted earlier this year, the NYPD’s newly titled Collision Investigation Squad (formerly Accident Investigation Squad), maintains an arrest rate of 20% for fatal crashes, which pales in comparison to the homicide unit’s 70% clearance rate.

It’s not just New York City that’s struggling with these issues. Cities across the United States are still figuring out how best to design or enforce their way to better safety, some with more success than others. But it’s revealing that, according to a recent Governing analysis, pedestrian deaths make up far too many traffic fatalities in America’s poorest Census tracts. It only goes to show that designing our streets–and our law enforcement–to serve one type of person over another not only oppresses communities, but kills them.

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.