The Perfect Crime: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

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(Photo: Quinn Dombrowski)

(Photo: Quinn Dombrowski)

This week’s podcast is called “The Perfect Crime”: in it, Stephen Dubner describes a way to kill someone without any punishment. (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) But let’s be clear: Dubner isn’t suggesting that anyone actually try this. In fact, the problem is that too many people are doing it already.

So what’s “the perfect crime”? It turns out that if you are driving your car and run over a pedestrian, there’s a good chance — especially if you live in New York — that you’ll barely be punished. Why?

We hear from Lisa Smith, a former prosecutor and now a law professor, who tells us that just 5 percent of the New York drivers who are involved in a fatal crash with a pedestrian are arrested. As it happens, New York has particularly narrow standards for conviction in such cases; there is a lot of variance among states.

Throughout the U.S., there are more than 4,500 pedestrian deaths a year, about 14 percent of traffic fatalities:

NHTSA2012

In New York City, meanwhile, pedestrian deaths make up an astonishing 52 percent of traffic fatalities.

Who’s to blame for all this pedestrian death? Let’s take a look at data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Reporting System. While 25 percent of pedestrian deaths are attributed to the driver’s failure to yield, pedestrian behavior looks pretty bad too — they lie down in the street, dart into the road, cross improperly, and so on:

FARSNHTSA

But these data may not reflect the entire truth. Dubner speaks with Charlie Zegeer, associate director of the Highway Research Center at the University of North Carolina, who says it’s hard to accurately determine the cause of many pedestrian deaths:

ZEGEER: The reason we don’t know is because the information we have to make that determination is essentially on police crash reports. And so oftentime the only witness is the surviving driver. And so the police officer only hears that one side of the story.

This leads to a conversation about a core issue: who do the roads belong to anyway? You’ll hear from Robert Noland, director of the Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers; the transportation historian Peter Norton, author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City; the Harvard “urban economist” Ed Glaeser; and a couple of New York trauma doctors, Spiros Frangos and Stephen Wall.

The doctors tell us that about 25 percent of the trauma patients who come through Bellevue are pedestrians who’ve been struck by cars. Frangos and Wall have written a series of papers on the topic, including “Vulnerable Roadway Users Struck by Motor Vehicles at the Center of the Safest, Largest U.S. City.” So what can be done to keep New York pedestrians from dying? Frangos and Wall propose — only half-jokingly — helmets for everyone:

WALL: From our data, I think all pedestrians should be wearing helmets. But who would really want to wear a bike helmet when they’re walking, when they’re going out for a date, and that’s also the reason why they don’t wear them when they’re riding their bicycle. But there’s some truth to it.


A.J.

I wonder if in the new book, the common thread of cost/benefit analysis comes up. And as maddening as it can seem that people are getting ran over with no consequence, it could be the sad truth that the actual "tax" on negligence isn't really worth all that much and our choices are to accept that fact or not to engage in the activity trying to reduce the risk to nearly zero.

I made the point to my friend that even if you value the lives ended annually by guns at $5 million dollars, that only works out to about $300 per gun (assuming about 20,000 deaths and 300 million guns) in externality cost, I'm sure gun owners would hugely agree the benefit is greater than that. Levitt made a similar point in the Marijuana vs Alcohol episode about alcohol having a greater societal benefits than its cost, and I'm left to wonder if that wasn't the very same cold cost/benefit analysis that angered so many in the abortion/crime rate decrease parallel drawn by Levitt as well. So, I'd bet a similar value of death per car is true for the ~30,000 traffic fatalities which makes it completely rational why it's the perfect crime, or a crime of around $500 is attributable costs.

The truth is a bummer summer, and to quote Slim Pickens in Blazing Saddles "I am depressed."

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James

One thing I did not notice in this was a breakdown of pedestrian deaths into those hit by cars while in the roadway, and those hit on sidewalks. I would bet the second number is considerably lower than the first.

As for the deaths related to e.g. texting while walking, perhaps we need a new category, 'unintentional suicide'?

JohnRJ

Ugh!!! Well intended but utterly misses so many points. A myopic picture of such a vast problem. And incredibly disappointing that the voices of pedestrian and bicycle transportation advocates were not included at all in this program.

The bike/ped advocacy world is probably the best clearing house of this data and analysis. Transportation Alternatives (http://www.transalt.org/) could have dropped a tome of meaningful data analysis on these guys. But instead they just bounce back and forth between wonks, working in silos with no connection to each other.

It's great that the ER is collecting data from pedestrian victims (although the helmet question is once again a red herring if your trying to understand the CAUSE of crashes) but it's flawed in the same way that the data collected from only the driver is if it's not cross referenced.

As a result almost no mention was made of probably the #1 mitigating factor in all crashes, but certainly in the frequency and severity of bike ped crashes: SPEED. Also absent was any meaningful mention, (if at all) of best and easiest ways to address the issue of speed:

1. Redesigning roadways to reduce vehicle speeds and prioritize pedestrian safety
2. Automated enforcement of speed and signal compliance through speed and red light cameras

Instead we end with an E/R Dr., someone not at all qualified to speak on transportation policy, suggesting what this podcast loves: a wacky left field solution, that we put helmets on pedestrians, because yeah, that's the problem.

Gunfire a problem in your neighborhood? Don't look at the causes of poverty, crime and easy access to firearms, no, just tell everyone to put on kevlar and accept things as they are. Way to blame the victims guys...

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Peter

Helmets? "Victim blaming is a subtle process, cloaked in kindness and concern."
-- William Ryan

suzinne

This podcast resonates with me, because here in the Bronx I cross the street at my own peril. Am not particularly fast on my feet or all that coordinated, so my huge fear is getting killing by a negligent driver.

Drivers in NYC, do NOT yield to pedestrians as a rule. And I can be crossing the street comfortably, having seen no approaching cars, and then all of a sudden I'm being intimidated by a car going over 30 miles an hour in what probably should be a 20 mph residential neighborhood with a lot of children.

Always cross with the light, but that doesn't protect anyone. This conversation is basically about two things: Speeding and distracted driving (texting, cell phone calls, eating, checking a facebook page, etc.)

Steve Magas

If you ask someone "Who do think is killed more often, people who ride bikes in traffic, or people who fall down" you'll generally hear that those pesky bike riders MUST die in alarming numbers. Except they don't… cyclists are 1-2% of all traffic fatalities. Cycling IS safer… sort of… If you break down the numbers by decade, each decade shows fewer cycling fatalities than the one before. However, in 1975, the "worst" year for cycling fatalities, 2/3 were KIDS. Today's kids don't ride - and adults are riding more than ever - so the total fatalities are "down" from 1975 … significantly… but ADULT cycling fatalities are way UP from that 70's era...

HOwever, those who fall down die in alarming numbers - in Ohio we average around 16 cycling fatalities - and 900+ fall down deaths each year - nationally there were 26,000 fall down deaths [unintentional] in a 2010 CDC report & 600-700 per year the past few years. - particularly at risk are those over the age of 65 - so, my response to those who want bike helmet laws is to suggest we start helmet-ing the elderly since they die falling down 40+x more often than folks who ride in traffic! When you turn 65, you are assigned a state-approved helmet…

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Luisa

You were wondering why all these pedestrian deaths are not causing more outrage. I think it's the economics of it; ie: the income of those killed vs those doing the killing. I'm surprised you Freaks didn't think of it.
Here in Florida the major cities are almost entirely made for cars. There isn't a lot of public transportation (but when there is, it is often ineffective), not many pedestrian cross lights, and there are even vast areas with no sidewalks. What you do have in abundance are hit-and-run cases.
When you look around, the only people walking are those with extremely low incomes, who are incapable of paying for private transport. Those, I believe, are the majority of pedestrians being killed. The "killers" at the wheel, on the other hand, do have the money to pay for the car, the insurance, the lawyer, etc. And as you said, most Americans see it from a drive's perspective, because most Americans haven't experienced such poverty that would prevent them from owning a car.
I unfortunately have no data to back this, but it is an informed guess as I have been on the poor side of the road. I do believe it could be the reason why these cases are overlooked in places like Florida. Though I know in NYC the income distribution of pedestrians is more diverse than less metropolitan areas like Miami or Orlando, it could also be a factor.
In any case, I am personally a big proponent of public transportation and your latest podcast only makes me more angry that we have become so dependent on those machines (ie: cars). Why do people so completely ignore the amount of headaches and hardships they bring to our lives? You could make a whole podcast about that!

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Matt

This is an issue discussed consistently in Urban Design. Cities have become increasingly auto oriented in the past 60 or so years and need to be rescaled for pedestrians. Removing curbs, creating bulb outs at street corners and changing the pavement texture at critical points all increase awareness for both the drivers and pedestrians . Simple infrastructure changes have been proven to have a huge impact in traffic calming and pedestrian safety. Streets are for the movement of people, who happen to be in cars. If you remove the need for the car through the walkable design the street becomes a safer place.