On today’s episode, we sit down with local author and journalist Jessie Singer about her new book “There Are No Accidents: The Deadly Rise of Injury and Disaster – Who Profits and Who Pays The Price”. Jessie’s groundbreaking book has received national attention. It explores how, and why, we seem to dismiss preventable deaths and injuries as “accidental”, rather than confront the dangerous conditions that make these supposedly random events inevitable.
We’ll explore how corporations and profiteers fail to keep us safe, and we’ll find some examples right here in Bay Ridge. From Car Dealerships and unsafe streets, to the opioid epidemic, to trips and falls, we’ll see who profits from our unsafe environment. We’ll also explore how we can demand change, nationally and at home in our own neighborhood… and change our own thinking about “accidents” along the way.
Check out the book, which is available now, and listen in as we discover that in Bay Ridge, there are no accidents.
Quickly jump to key parts of the episode by clicking the links below…
- Corporate oversight of “accidents”
- Protecting the Consumer vs protecting the victim
- How we report on “accidents”
- Blaming human error
- Bay Ridge car dealerships
- Blame and “uncontrollable” circumstances
- “Accidents” are predictable
- Blame and “uncontrollable” circumstances (part 2)
- Marty Golden
- Making the world safe for drunk drivers
- Sue the bastards
- Wrapping up
Jessie goes over a number of interesting news stories, locally and nationally, that play into how we blame individuals and fail to hold accountable those who contribute to dangerous conditions around us.
- The Bronx Apartment Fire
- Arizona Self-Driving Uber Crash
- Boeing 747 MAX
- Book Launch Livetweet Thread
- Bay Ridge Volkswagen Kills Pedestrian
- Marty Golden Speed Camera protest
- Arizona Automatic Emergency Breaks Lawsuit
Dealership COVID Emergency Assistance
Dan mentions that car dealerships in the neighborhood received outsized sums of money for COVID relief under the PPP Paycheck Protection Program. Most loans were forgiven as long as the business followed certain guidelines, essentially acting as a bailout, and were intended to help pay the paychecks for employees during the lockdowns. In very simple terms, the amount paid depended in part on the number of employees, which were self-reported by the businesses in question.
You can search the loans for yourself on ProPublica’s website and FederalPay.org. We’ll have a full report and blog post on this soon. In the meantime, here are a few examples locally.
- Bay Ridge Volvo – $2,299,905 – 176 claimed employees – April 2020 (link)
- Bay Ridge Volvo – $2,000,000 – 201 claimed employees – March 2021(link)
- BMW of Brooklyn aka Life Quality Motor Sales – $1,000,000 – 500 claimed employees – May 2020 (link)
- Chrystler Dodge Jeep Ram Fiat of Bay Ridge aka Comfort Auto Group – $845,355 – 20 claimed employees – April 2020 (link)
- Bay Ridge Hyundai – $270,385 – 31 claimed employees – April 2020 (link)
We’re still pouring through the over 1,000 local loans. But to give you an example of how other industries were treated, our local Bookmark Shoppe received $9,000 for its two employees. St. Nicholas Home took in $158,000 for its 24 employees. Darn Donuts took in $2,500 for one employee. Dandy Lion took in a mere $78,345 for 14 employees. Mancini’s took in $10,076 for three employees.
In short, car dealerships were among the only for-profit loan recipients with payouts this high. The only other entities that took in similar amounts were at-home nursing companies employing over 400 people, or non-profits like schools and churches.
It’s highly suspicious that some dealerships claimed hundreds of employees, while others claimed only twenty or thirty employees for similarly sized dealerships. It’s possible they have other locations that they are counting in these loans. But in other states, there have been numerous reports of dealerships abusing the PPP loans and committing fraud. While we aren’t certain of that in these cases, it does raise red flags, and deserves further investigation.
Marty Golden and Possible Conflicts of Interest In His $750k Settlement
In the episode, we revealed that the lawyer for the estate of the Hariklia Zafiropoulos, who Mr. Golden fatally injured with his car, ended up receiving campaign donations from Mr. Golden. He is reported as the lawyer for the woman’s estate in this Daily News article. The lawyer, Anthony Xanthakis, ran for office in 2006 against Democrat Janele Hyer-Spencer for what was then the 60th Assembly District.
Mr. Xanthakis was heavily involved in Republican politics at the time on Staten Island, in 2008 serving as Vice-Chair for the Republican Party on Staten Island. Marty Golden struck the woman in 2005, who died a few months later. Mr. Xanthakis’s race was in 2006, and a donation was made by Friends of Marty Golden for $3,400 on June 12th. This doesn’t count donations from other officials and staff in Mr. Golden’s orbit or employ.
In 2008, according to the Daily News, the estate administrator Vicki Rekoutis filed a lawsuit against golden alleging recklessness and negligence. Simultaneously, Mr. Xanthakis was already considering another run for office. In 2010, the matter was settled out of court for $750,000 through a mediator. Mr. Xanthakis seems to have been part of those negotiations, having commented on the filing of the settlement.
We aren’t accusing or stating that anything improper occurred. We do find it worthy of note and of investigation, however. It is deeply concerning that a lawyer who was tasked with extracting the maximum possible payout from Mr. Golden as a result of his own recklessness had previously received political support and money from the person he was tasked with holding responsible, up to and possibly including bringing him to trial, which did not occur.
Expand to view the entire show transcript (lightly edited for readability)…
Dan: Hey there, everyone. I’m Dan and welcome to Radio Free Bay Ridge, your hyperlocal progressive podcast focusing exclusively on Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Today we are not in our studio, which has been deconstructed due to COVID. We are instead in the home of Jessie Singer. Jessie, thank you so much for inviting us.
Jessie: Thank you for coming over.
Ember: They have good soda here.
Dan: Oh, we also have Brian in the room.
Brian: Hi. How are you? It’s been a while.
Dan: Brian is our transportation correspondent.
Brian: I’m on the masthead and I haven’t been on an episode in a couple of years now. It’s nice to be back.
Ember: Don’t screw it up.
Corporate oversight of “accidents”
Dan: Well, let’s get right into it. Jessie, what is your book?
Jessie: So the book is called “There Are No Accidents: the deadly rise of injury and disaster, who profits and who pays the price“. And if you were in the room, you saw I had to read that because it’s a pretty long title. (laughter) I joke, but the book’s about something serious, which is the current major rise in accidental death in the U.S. And “accidental death” is not a word I like to use. But it’s a word I use quite a few times in the book because it describes this broad category of unintentional injuries.
And we’re seeing serious rises and all these causes of death. Traffic crashes. Falls. Drug poisonings. All these so-called “accidents”. And in the book, I trace the history of the word and how it’s been used for a long time to kind of allow these rises in preventable harm and the different ways that government negligence and corporate power work together to let people die preventable deaths.
Because we’re talking about injury. We’re not really talking about COVID or cancer. There’s nothing complicated here. Preventing accidental deaths, whether it’s an opioid overdose or a traffic crash, is as simple as putting a metaphorical pillow between us and our mistakes.
Naloxone, if it were in every home, would prevent every accidental overdose. Automatic emergency braking, if it were in every car, would prevent the vast majority of car crashes. So we’re talking about something that’s wholly preventable, yet is rising right now to crisis level proportions because we fail to prevent it.
Dan: I guess we’ve offloaded that responsibility to large government agencies that oftentimes aren’t using the expertise that they have, or we’re giving it to corporations, who are thinking about profit.
Jessie: And by and large those government agencies, those regulators, are captured by those corporations.
And so we see a total failure to regulate. I was just reading about this horrible crash caused by an Uber autonomous vehicle in Arizona a few years back. They’re charging the woman that Uber hired to sit behind the wheel with murder even though Uber had turned off the automatic emergency brakes that were built into the car. So it was a Volvo that they built autonomy in. And Uber turned off the emergency brakes, which could have prevented this woman’s death.
And we got to this situation because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said there are no regulations for autonomous vehicles. Do whatever you want.
Ember: That’s terrifying. It also doesn’t make any sense.
Jessie: These autonomous vehicles are being tested on roads in almost every state. Public roads. And we are the Guinea pigs. It’s not even like the corporations are in bed with the regulators. There are no regulations.
Ember: What do you think is the thought process there? No matter how I think about it, I can’t think of any good reason why we would start out with no regulations to test something like that.
Jessie: I think the corporations don’t want any limits on their capabilities to test or sell anything. The corporations are in control.
These regulatory agencies were created in a beautiful moment of public power and public protest, and in a five or six-year period, we got OSHA, the EPA, and NHTSA. All these really powerful consumer regulatory agencies that protect us from corporations. And then the Reagan administration spent eight years defanging and defunding those administrations.
So they have very little power to be able to do their jobs. Little staff, little money. And the corporations took advantage of it. And so it became this revolving door, you know, where you lobby for Boeing, and then you work for Boeing, and then you work for the FAA, and then you lobby for Boeing again…
Ember: The classic life cycle. Love that.
Jessie: And then you see horrible quote-unquote accidents, like the Boeing 747 MAX cases. Monumental and preventable disasters that are a matter of total regulatory failure that the corporations have arranged.
Protecting the consumer vs protecting the victim
Brian: So a few days ago you had the book launch party at our local bookshop here at the Bookmark Shoppe. And there was something that you had brought up. Specifically, Ralph Nader and the book that he had published in the 1970s, “Unsafe At Any Speed“. You mentioned how that was a surprise bestseller and how it was one of the catalysts for the movement to increase the safety of automobiles… at least for those people that were on the inside of the automobile. It did help drive down traffic fatalities from something like 60,000 deaths a year to 40,000 a year today. But for some reason, we don’t blink anymore at that statistic the way that we should.
I wanted to get your sense about that regulatory environment that really had some teeth to it before the Reagan years.
Jessie: Yeah. There were large-scale social justice and environmental protest movements that were around throughout the sixties and the seventies that led to the creation of these agencies. Ralph Nader was a bellow stoking the flame and compiling the evidence so that it wasn’t just protesters who were angry, but your average citizen. You see that too with Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” which led similarly to the creation of the EPA.
Those protest movements were very potent and they had a lot of potential. But I wonder what it would take to get something similar today. Instead, we’re seeing these are all consumer-based regulatory agencies, especially NHTSA, protect people inside cars because those are the people who bought the car. They’re the consumer.
So we’re seeing a massive spike in pedestrian fatalities. And the pedestrians aren’t the consumer, by and large. Sure, some crashes you’re seeing are horrible stories about people running over their children in their driveways. At least there’s a direct relationship. But on city streets, there isn’t even that.
And so I wonder what it would take to get a similar social justice movement that would push an organization like NHTSA to actually do something again. It would need to be a movement of pedestrians. But does anyone consider themselves a pedestrian, especially outside New York City? It’s not an identity.
How we report on “accidents”
Brian: There was also something you talked about at the book launch. It was about how accidental deaths or injuries get talked about in media reports.
I’m not singling out the web or print journalists of New York City, which are doing a pretty good job in my opinion. I’m really talking about broadcast local news. A lot of times they are based on police reports.
And there are a couple of different types of accidental deaths that I thought would be worth bringing up. One is automobile fatalities. The local news typically covers them every time they happen. There’s a stock cookie-cutter way that they’re reported. This is what happened. This is the make and model of the vehicle. They’ll report on whether the person walking was in a crosswalk, or if a cyclist had a helmet on. Things like that. And then they move on. And they don’t talk about how this fits into the greater trend of accidents.
But then there are accidental opioid deaths, particularly from a few years ago. Usually, news media doesn’t report on individual opioid deaths the way that they report on individual traffic deaths. But then they started rising by a lot. Opioids started getting attention from Americans of all walks of life, and the reporting changed. It started to get reported as, “Hey, here’s an alarming trend. We need to do something about that.”
I don’t know if you have any thoughts on the difference between those two types of accidental deaths. Who the victims were in those particular scenarios. Anything like that?
Jessie: So in this book, I cover every possible way there is to die by accident in this country. And there are clear distinctions between what matters to people, what matters less, and what doesn’t matter at all.
When it comes to the deaths of drug users, their deaths are not even news. And I think people who pay attention to how journalists report traffic crashes are often upset it’s not bigger news. Rather, reporters usually say, “There’s a pile-up on Highway 101, leave a little early.” It’s a matter of traffic rather than a fatality.
One thing that’s interesting is that we pay attention to scale. Like when accidents are big, we pay attention. There was a horrible fire in the Bronx a few weeks ago, and it killed 17 people I think. People paid a lot of attention to that.
This tracks throughout history. There’s a woman in this book, Crystal Eastman. She was a journalist at the turn of the century traveling to Pittsburgh to report on accidental worker deaths. She spoke about how people paid a ton of attention when a mine exploded and 300 people died in a day. But that most people didn’t die that way.
There are fires in this city that kill people every day. And they’re all the product of negligent landlords. That was what was going on in the Bronx. But we don’t pay attention to those deaths by ones and twos.
“Accidents” killed more than 200,000 people in 2018. When we add up this massive toll of accidental death, almost all of those were ones and twos. They weren’t the Boeing 737 max. They weren’t a massive apartment fire. It’s a trick of our brains.
We should obviously pay attention to those large-scale accidents. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t. But I do think that we’re a little tricked by magnitude.
And we’re overwhelmed with how upsetting it is. We need to say, “Oh, give me something else to pay attention to”. And in that, we miss how preventable these big accidents, and the small everyday ones, are. Because it’s the same prevention. Sprinklers in every home. Self-closing doors that prevent a fire from spreading.
Blaming human error
Ember: I think that a lot of that is intentional. The people that are at fault, the people like the landlords that are negligent, they don’t want us to catch on.
If you look at the responses in Facebook comments, for example, there is a difference in the way that people talk about something like the Bronx fire and the way that people talk about when one person’s home burns down. You go to the comments and someone’s like, “Oh, did they leave the oven on? Did they light a candle and forget and go to sleep?” They’re looking for all these reasons to victim blame. People aren’t doing that for the Bronx fire. When there is a massive situation, there seems to be a bigger willingness to look at who is at fault.
Jessie: And that is a really interesting point because that is the common ground between every accident in this book. It is the urge to blame human error.
And there’s two things going on here. First, there’s an urge from people like you and me, people in Facebook comments, to blame human error. People who would like to feel better. And if they can find a bad guy, someone who did something wrong, then they can say, “Oh, I know they did that wrong. I’d never do that. Now I know this won’t happen to me. I’m safe, I’m safe, I’m safe.”
But there are also a huge number of corporate profiteers who are banking on us thinking that way. They have built an entire system to capitalize on it. And Crystal Eastman was talking about it in like 1909 in the coal mines of Pittsburgh.
For example, Uber was banking on it, blaming this driver who was supposed to monitor the autonomous vehicle. They’re the ones pushing for the courts to prosecute her for the crash. Our urge to blame a bad guy and find a bad guy feeds into the exact same cycle that lets the only people who could protect us off the hook.
Bay Ridge car dealerships
Dan: There is a local example. The car dealership. I think it’s the Bay Ridge Toyota or Hyundai [Editors Note: It was Bay Ridge Volkswagen] where a car dealership ran someone over and murdered them. The owners came to a community board meeting to offset the blame and say, “It wasn’t us. It was the valets that we hired. It was an outside agency. And we have disciplined the valets and we are going to put up a sign to tell the valets not to back up.”
The woman was just tying her shoe. The dealership backed into her and killed her. But they literally still couldn’t say it was them. And it got forgotten.
Ember: Let’s not forget either that that was not the first problem that this community has had with that car dealership (or our car dealerships in general). From littering the sidewalk with parked cars so people have to walk in the street, to dangerous traffic incidents. this is not the first time.
The fact that they were so quick to try to absolve themselves of any fault here is pretty disgusting.
Dan: And it’s how they do business. They cannot change because they need that rolling stock of sellable cars in an urban environment that shouldn’t have it. So they’re going to park on the street no matter what any politician has done. No matter what activism has done. They’re going to keep doing it because that is the business model. That’s what makes money.
Jessie: Well, it’s the premise of the business, right? Even if you try and take all the blame off the table, the base premise of the business is a dangerous condition.
And this is a distinction I try and draw in the book. There’s a difference between human error, which we want to blame for accidents, and dangerous conditions, which is something we live with all the time. Dangerous conditions are layered around us, depending on who we are and where we live.
So having a large vehicle dealership in a pedestrian-dense urban environment is a dangerous condition. Having that business also be negligent is another dangerous condition. These conditions stack up until the worst occurs. Until the obvious and expected happens.
Dan: One of the things that I noticed during COVID is who got loans from the COVID emergency assistance programs. It was mainly supposed to be for restaurants.
But while some restaurants were struggling to get $10,000, the number one recipient was Bay Ridge car dealerships. They got over a million dollars. I don’t know if it was fraud, but they were claiming over a hundred workers, almost 200 workers [Editors Note: In one case, 500], on their COVID loan forms. It is all public data. And then we’ll post some of that in the show notes.
And on one level, there can’t be more than 20 employees in that dealership. But I’m also thinking, all right, maybe the valet companies too? But if that’s the case, why did they say they’re third-party? But they do spread out to different sites.
For example, in the Century 21 parking lot, almost 70% of that lot space is for dealerships to store extra cars. And a lot of the other random lots in the neighborhood are also spots where the car dealerships sit cars.
Ember: (Sarcastically) And I think we can all agree there’s no better use for that space and that’s perfectly fine and good. And I’m so glad that happens.
Dan: Another part of it is for valet parking for restaurants, they will use the Century 21 parking garage as well. But it’s all spread out. It’s decentralized through the neighborhood. So of course dealerships are going to be driving cars over the sidewalks everywhere. They can’t keep them in a centralized location. It’s part of the business model.
Jessie: You said something about valet parking and I have a question for the group that I’ve been wanting to get sorted out since I moved to Bay Ridge. What’s with valet parking in Bay Ridge?
Ember: I have a theory.
Jessie: First of all, there’s so much of it. Second of all, there’s this thing that happens where it isn’t actually valet parking. They just leave your car in the street. They just double park your car!
Dan: It’s car babysitting… for tickets.
Ember: My theory is that there are a lot of people in Bay Ridge who live their life trying to look fancy. Because you’re right. You’re not getting a good parking space. Your car is frequently not in a convenient location. It’s not safe for anyone. You’re paying for valet parking for someone to go double park your car in the middle of the street.
I think people just want to go to a place that is deemed “fancy”, which means there must be valet parking. I think it’s just rich people doing rich people things.
Jessie: Man, I also want to know how much it costs. Can we rent a car to find out?
Dan: We should do valet parking at all the restaurants and put a tracking thing in the car and see where the cars end up.
Ember: The first place I thought of… (hesitates) hmmm… I don’t know, actually. (laughter) I was about to say maybe I don’t want to get into this. I don’t want to, once again, be accused of hating Bay Ridge businesses.
The first place I thought of was a fancy Italian restaurant.
Dan: Which could be anywhere.
Ember: So don’t come for me, trolls! A fancy Italian restaurant with outdoor dining that is in the upper 90’s or 100’s. They double-park on the other side of the outdoor dining shed. And when you eat there you watch people in the street have to drive around what is essentially three rows of parked cars. And when you’re a pedestrian you have to either walk on the sidewalk between people eating, or you have to walk into the street around what is essentially three rows taken up by cars and outdoor dining sheds.
Dan: Do you think it’s just paid blame offset? They see their car double-parked across the street. They could have done that themselves.
Ember: It’s laziness. It’s just laziness.
Dan: You’re paying someone to make that decision for you. So if something bad happens, like a ticket, or an inconvenienced pedestrian, it’s not their fault.
Brian: But you did say we’re investigating this as a field trip. Right?
Ember: We’re getting Italian food is what I heard.
Brian: Yes. That is exactly what I heard.
Jessie: I love the concept of paid blame offset. That was what was happening with the dealership valets too. The dealership said, “We hire these contractors. And therefore we can put the blame on them. They can’t do anything about it because they need our contract.”
Blame and “uncontrollable” circumstances
Ember: I was in an accident. Not a car accident. It was horseback riding actually. I almost died.
It was a very big deal. I wasn’t going to sue or get lawyers involved, but a lot of them reached out to me. I had hospital bills. So I thought, all right, let me see what my options are.
There was clear negligence. This sounds ridiculous, but it was classified as a mass horse accident. There were five of us riding. Three of us were thrown.
I met with the attorney. I won’t forget what he said to me. It was so mean. This was only a few days after my accident. He said, “Well didn’t you know when you got on the horse that you could get hurt? No one cares about rich people problems.”
Number one, I used a $20 Groupon.
Number two, what he said stuck with me because that mindset implies no human being should leave their home. If you do anything, people are going to think, “Well, didn’t you know you could get hurt doing that? We don’t care.” And that’s a dangerous mindset to have. We have the right to have hobbies and to leave our homes. We expect people to be responsible and to keep us safe. And this lawyer thought it was my fault because I got on a horse. I had gone to a stable that should’ve kept me safe.
Brian: Jesse, your book is trending or one of the top sellers on Amazon in risk management. Is that right?
Brian: I know you have opinions on who should be managing the risk in this situation. Because it’s not people like Ember who are supposed to be making a personal choice as to whether they get on that horse or not. The blame and responsibility often gets pushed down to the people that have the least control over the situation.
Jessie: Yeah. I would like to stay out of horse territory though. 99.9% of the ways we die by accident are within the built environment. On our roads, in our workplaces, and in our homes. A horse is a potentially uncontrollable factor.
“Accidents” are preventable
But the vast majority of the risks we face are in these built environments that are out of our control. Sometimes that’s because we’re a renter, and we can’t control safety in our home as an owner could.
Or it’s something like gun manufacture, which is illegal to regulate. It’s the only one. Guns cannot be regulated. There is a gun that I talk about in the book, the SIG Sauer P320, which when you drop it, shoots a bullet at random.
Jessie: And that’s legal.
Ember: Love that.
Jessie: Because you can’t recall guns.
Brian: There would be far fewer plot points in sitcoms if guns didn’t do that. So…
Ember: It’s all worth it really,
Jessie: I have found that accidents are narratively important. There are a lot of dark and sad stories in the book. I was having a hard time with it. I went through a period where I wanted to take a break but stay on task. So you’ll see over there on my bookshelf, there’s a whole section of fiction that centers around accidents.
Accidents are a plot point in a lot of fiction. And it’s because they’re random. They’re unpreventable. Writers don’t need to explain that much.
Dan: Yeah. But accidents are not random. In the book, you found that they’re predictable.
Bay Ridge traffic fatalities and injuries
Jessie: Look at the Vision Zero maps of Bay Ridge. You won’t look at Third Avenue and say, “Oh, there’s a dot on every corner where someone has been hit by a car.” No, no, no, no. There are five corners with 10 dots on them. Those streets are the widest. Those streets are the worst designed.
There are patterns almost everywhere if we’re willing to look. If we are willing to move beyond what that lawyer was telling you, Ember. “What? You left the house? You walked across the street? Didn’t you know you were at risk?”
Dan: I can imagine someone saying, “Oh, you crossed 86th and Fifth. Didn’t you know that there were 10 deaths there on the Vision Zero map? You should have known that’s a dangerous intersection.”
Jessie: It’s just a way of having a conversation about human error instead of having a conversation about prevention.
There was a crash last week that killed a senior citizen crossing Atlantic avenue using a walker. It stuck with me. I spend a lot of time thinking about how older people are surviving. One of the fastest rising causes of accidental death is falls.
We have an aging population. More and more people are falling. But they’re not surviving their falls. They’re struggling with their health care. If you look at our built environment in general, it’s bad. A lot of ADA accessibility applies to older folks. Ramps, not stairs. Grab bars and banisters. But it’s non-existent by and large. It’s such a simple way to intervene for these people.
Dan: One thing that I want to do is document where the curb cuts are in this neighborhood. Some of them are non-existent or damaged. If you’re in a wheelchair, you’ll need assistance.
Local healthcare outcomes
A year ago, we had an episode where we were talking about a Bay Ridge Emergency Department opening at the old Victory Memorial hospital. It was a front-only Emergency Department. It would operate as a triage center. But if you had anything serious, they would have to ship you to Maimonides. There was no actual hospital behind the emergency room.
This is a brand-new concept that they’re trying out, the medical industry. A lot of hospital ERs are getting overwhelmed because they’re consolidating so much. They have closed so many local hospitals that they now want to offload ER visits to these triage centers. That way they can reduce some of the visits that could overwhelm the main ERs.
And Bay Ridge mostly has falls and cardiac events, but there’s no cardiac unit behind this new ER. They’re not thinking about how to save as many Bay Ridge lives as possible. They’re thinking about how to offset a problem that they have at their business. The hospital is a business. So you may have a delayed response if the ambulance is taking you to the Victory Memorial site and they realize they cannot help you there. The ambulance will divert to go to the other hospital. And falls and cardiac events are happening all the time in Bay Ridge, especially with our senior population. We are a NORC, a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community.
Jessie: It’s a reproduction of a problem that’s going on throughout this country.
Often, we don’t think about triage as a problem in urban centers because there are lots of hospitals. You can get to them quickly. But the same thing that’s happening here is happening in rural places. Hospitals are shutting down and then your transit time to the hospital is an hour, an hour and a half, two hours. So long that you need a helicopter. It isn’t driveable.
We’re not talking about diseases, but about accidental death and injury. We’re talking about things where seconds count. With overdoses, seconds literally count. If you’ve been in a crash. If you’re bleeding. Injury-related death is the sort of thing you need to respond to with incredible quickness.
These hospitals are shutting down because they’re not able to turn enough of a profit. More and more people have to go to the other area hospitals which become overwhelmed. This is the by-product of not having a centralized Medicare system that we all have access to.
Blame and uncontrollable “accidents” (part two)
Ember: That also happened to me. Same accident.
I was on the ground for an hour before I could get an ambulance. The woman that fell next to me was unconscious and so they had to put her in an ambulance first. So I just laid there bleeding on the ground for an hour.
Jessie: Oh my God. Is this in Ohio?
Ember: No, this was in Washington DC. And the problem was that when we were riding, they have a clear trail that you’re supposed to ride and have a normal experience on a horse… which is not what I had.
Instead, the Parks Department had decided to street sweep through the trails. The street sweepers were asked to move because they were told they were going to scare the horses. They said no. And so they scared all the horses.
That is why I bring this up now. Because it wasn’t like my horse got spooked by a bird. Someone was told, “Don’t do this, or people will be harmed.” And they ignored that. And guess what? Three of us went to the hospital.
Jessie: Oh my God. Yeah, that’s not a problem caused by wild horses.
Ember: Knowing all that, the lawyer said, “Didn’t you know when you’re on a horse you’ll get hurt?”, and I said, “Yeah, but maybe not like this.”
Jessie: Oh my God. He was blaming the horse. I kind of fell for it. I blamed the horse!
Ember: And I let that happen because I wanted this to happen in real-time… (laughter)
I learned a lot from that. When people hear the word accident, I think that we’re prone in this country to assume it’s a car accident. Number one, that is very telling about how many car accidents we have in this country.
Number two, there are certain acceptable canned responses when you find out someone was in a car accident. It’s so normal that people know what to say to you if that happens. When you say something weird like, “Yes, I was in a horse accident and I went to the hospital for 10 hours.” people are like, “Why? Why were you on a horse?”
I’ve never been blamed for something more in my life than I was this experience that had nothing to do with my choices. I’m not saying that so you feel bad for me. It’s just that everything that you’ve said here and at the book launch resonates with me. it’s astonishing how far people will go to make an accident anyone’s fault but who is actually at fault.
Dan: I’d like to wrap back to the narrative importance of quote-unquote accidents. We are dodging around a local “accident” that ended up ousting a State Senator who was opposed to all of these safety measures that we’re talking about.
Marty Golden struck and killed a woman. Everyone reported at the time it was an accident. He went to the newspapers acting so contrite. Newspapers said that he was at the woman’s bedside in the hospital saying, “I’m so sorry that this happened to you.” Except this Senator sped all over the damn place. It was systemic.
Ember: Everybody knew about it, too. This was a known thing about him.
Dan: I have spoken to his former staffers. Marty Golden would drive through parks. Before Max Rose put guardrails on the Belt Parkway, Marty Golden would go up onto the grass on the Shore Road Promenade and speed past the traffic. Probably to rush to the other side of his gerrymandered district at the time.
He would cut through Marine Park. Literally through the park and then get back on the road on the other side. So when he almost hit that cyclist, it was unsurprising.
Jessie: And pretended to be a police officer.
Ember: One of my local claims to fame is that I too was almost hit by Marty Golden. It was the day after the election in which Marty Golden lost. I was walking down Third Avenue with my boyfriend at the time. I was walking on Third. He came from whatever street I was crossing. He ran the stop sign while I’m in the intersection. I backed up and we made eye contact. To this day I have no idea if he knew who I was, or if this eye contact just felt personal because I was irritated. But I shit you not, he flashed me the peace sign and continued on his way. (laughter) My mouth was agape.
I remember looking at the guy I was dating, saying, “Do you know who that is?” It just blew my mind. This man has not learned from anything is the moral of that story.
Jessie: No, I don’t think he’s learned from anything. Marty Golden is part of one of my first Bay Ridge memories. For background, it involves the Independent Democratic Caucus…
Dan: A breakaway group of Democrats that formed when the Democrats won Albany. They caucused with the Republicans.
Jessie: And this was done at Andrew Cuomo’s bidding so that he could decide what moved forward and what didn’t in a Democratic Albany.
We live in an unfortunate state in New York City where we don’t have control over some elements of our street. Albany controls them. One of those things is our automated enforcement programs. Another thing is the speed limit. We’re hoping to actually change that this session.
That Albany control is called home rule. If the city had control over it, we could decide when our speed cameras turn on and off. Right now, every four years activists need to go and beg Albany to renew the camera programs.
And so we were in this situation, I guess, four years ago, where we had needed the camera program renewed. But the IDC was still in power and the IDC, assumingly at Cuomo’s bidding, had decided that they were not going to let this renewal bill pass.
A renewal bill is simple. You had an existing pilot program. It was very successful. So just renew the bill. It’s run-of-the-mill politics. But the State Senate held it up until the session ended. So all the speed cameras in New York City were about to be turned off.
In general, punitive measures are never the best way to go. We should be redesigning our streets so that people drive slowly. It isn’t that complicated. We shouldn’t just be ticketing them. But we know police enforcement doesn’t work and automated enforcement does. Automated enforcement is very effective in New York City as a stop-gap.
So the cameras were going to be turned off. Everyone was terrified because we knew they had caused massive drops in speeding. We were going to see huge increases in speeding.
I work with a group called Families For Safe Streets, which are people who’ve lost loved ones to traffic crashes. They were responsible for getting the first speed cameras introduced in New York City. They were incensed that the cameras were being turned off.
We were organizing with them to shine a light on the legislators who were standing in the way. The king of standing in the way of speed cameras was Marty Golden. He is, as we know, a consummate speeder.
The situation had gotten so extreme that we were doing direct action. So these members of Families For Safe Streets had decided they wanted to get arrested. So they were going to block the street outside Marty Golden’s office to draw attention to the fact that he was about to be responsible for the deaths of who knows how many people.
And of course, we didn’t want these mothers who had lost children to get arrested alone. So I went with them. I came down to Bay Ridge. I had family nearby. I’d been here. But my first real introduction was standing in the middle of the street holding the hands of these incredibly brave women until the police arrested us.
Then-City Councilmember Brad Lander came to get arrested with us. He knew his presence there would draw more attention and further protect us. The cops couldn’t mess around if there was a city council member right there.
Ember: Brad’s a real one.
Jessie: Yeah, he really is.
So we were all arrested. And I remember sitting in the back of the paddy wagon, you know, and the cops had had a lot of snide remarks and jokes. But everyone was wearing signs about their loved one that had been killed.
They’d taken the signs off us before they got us in the back of the paddy wagon. I watched this officer going through the signs. She was sitting there and looking up, clearly trying to match the sign with the people. And I remember thinking, “Oh, are you paying attention now? Do you get it now? This is real.”
The jail cell in this Bay Ridge precinct was maybe five by eight feet. It was the size of a bathroom. We were all women. So they put us all together, but they couldn’t put Brad Lander in the cell. And so they handcuffed him to the wall. Can you imagine? Just a City Council Member just handcuffed to a wall for a few hours.
They put us all in this cell, and there was a woman already in there. She had been sleeping on the bench. She got up, and one of the women I was arrested with, Debbie Khan, jokingly asks her, “What are you in for?”
And she says “DUI.”
And it was dead quiet.
This woman didn’t think twice about it. But then one of the women I was with sat down next to her and said, “Well, we’re here because someone like you killed our children.”
Jessie: And then we were all locked in a very small room for multiple hours.
Making the world safe for drunk drivers
Ember: I don’t even know what to say. That gave me goosebumps. I hope that was a learning moment for that woman. But that’s not something we can replicate on a large scale. You can’t make that happen for every single person that drives under the influence.
Jessie: I love that you bring that up. There’s a concept in the book that is important to me. You have to read it and see how I got there.
The story starts for me with my best friend being killed by a drunk driver. That driver ended up going to prison… which is rare in New York City unless you’re drunk.
In court, he referred to it as “This accident that happened.” Like he wasn’t even there. I remember that struck me at the time. It felt important. To me, he was this bad guy who was unaccountable.
As I researched this book, I learned about a concept epidemiologists were putting forth in the 1950s and 1960s for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The epidemiologist referred to it as her most controversial stance. She said we should make the world safe for drunks. Because if we make the world safe for drunks, we make it safe for the sleepyheads. For the people who are paying attention to their kids in the back seat. We make it safe for people who screw up.
And we can do that. We can build roads that can be navigated by a drunk person. Technology exists that won’t let your car start if it can smell alcohol. We can systematize this so that we don’t need to trap every drunk driver in a small room with a number of angry mourning mothers.
Ember: That’s so smart because people are going to drive drunk. Period. We are not going to end drunk driving. Quickly, anyway.
Jessie: Drunk drivers are a good example. We think of drunk drivers as bad. But what about people who make mistakes? What about people who are sleeping? Lately, we’ve started to villainize distracted drivers in this era where everything is so distracting!
We are going to make mistakes. We simply need to build the built environment in a way that can protect us. And we can do it. The technology exists. It’s not even complicated.
Brian: So what’s stopping it? There are all sorts of things in cars that add to the expense of the vehicle. You can get an extra hundred-dollar infotainment package. All of these little bells and whistles that bloat the cost of the car up to twenty or thirty-thousand dollars or more. So what’s stopping the installation of things that would save lives?
Jessie: There are two things going on here.
On the federal level, there’s a regulatory failure. We do not have regulatory agencies that function at all. They are not holding automobile manufacturers, for example, to their responsibility to protect us.
We also have a failure of the social safety net, which was dismantled. As income inequality increases, only rich people can buy the safest car. You can buy a car with automatic emergency braking. But it costs $10,000 because the regulators aren’t requiring the automakers to pay that cost. They’re externalizing it to us. And most people can’t afford that.
These systems exist for every area of accidental death. For example, requiring Naloxone to be distributed with every opioid prescription. Sending it to every home. Making it free. Making it accessible. That would arrest the overdose crisis. Give people what they need to protect themselves.
But I do think there is a local problem too. We get mad about drunk driving, but don’t have conversations about preventing drunk driving. It’s just about punishing drunk drivers.
When it comes down to it, it’s really hard to change human behavior. It’s really hard to punish your way out of a problem. Think about all the people who’ve already given up on their New Year’s resolutions. And those are behaviors that they want to change. We’re talking about changing behaviors that people have ingrained. That they’ve relied on. That might be an addiction. When we could just protect them.
Dan: In one of our past episodes, “Designing Safer Streets in Bay Ridge“, we go over all of the physical changes we can make to our streets. We’re just now getting our first singular raised crosswalk in Bay Ridge after six years of quote-unquote testing from the city DOT. These are very basic things that we could be doing.
Sue the bastards
I’d like to wrap up this episode where your talk at the Bookmark Shoppe wrapped up. The comment from the person who works at the DOT.
Ember: I was listening intently to the book launch because I was also live-tweeting it… so you can refer to that thread. We’ll put in the show notes as well.
After a bunch of questions from people in the room and from Senator Andrew Grounardes, someone spoke up, saying, “I’m a Department of Transportation employee.” There was this moment, Jessie, I don’t know if you felt it. There was what felt like a collective inhale in the room where everyone got a little nervous. I might’ve felt that more in the audience, but I think people didn’t know what was about to happen.
She said, “I’m an employee for the Department of Transportation. And I know that a lot of you in this room are activists. And I would love to say that what makes changes is activism. But working there, I can tell you that the biggest thing that makes changes is lawsuits.”
She suggested that when the Department of Transportation is aware of something that could make streets safer but fails to do it and someone dies or is injured, we should sue. For example, if people ask for a raised crosswalk, and the DOT rejects it, and someone is injured there, the DOT should be liable.
It was a moment where I think people started thinking about this subject differently.
Jessie: Yeah. Sue the bastards.
Sue the government. Sue the corporations. But it is not the ideal way to do things because it’s predicated on something horrible happening first.
Jessie: That’s what tort sets up for us. That something horrible has to happen and then we can seek change from it. But it’s one of the very few actions that we have left.
Brian: I’m not a lawyer, but there should be some sort of mechanism for putting city agencies “on notice”. It should have a legal effect of warning them that if something horrible in the future happens, the city government will be liable. That way we don’t have to wait for the actual horrible thing to happen.
Jessie: There’s an exciting case right now in Arizona. We were talking about how rich people can protect themselves. How they can spend the $10,000 to get the automatic emergency braking.
The Arizona Supreme Court announced they would allow a court case to go forward wherein Chrysler sold a car where the automatic emergency braking was an optional add-on. Someone didn’t pay for it, got into a crash, and killed someone in another car. The family of the people killed in this crash, which could have been prevented by automatic emergency braking, are being allowed by the Arizona Supreme Court to sue Chrysler for not installing the technology on every car.
What we’re really talking about is who’s responsible for protecting us, right? That court case puts the onus of protection back on the corporations. That is even better than the onus being on the government, because we all pay for it if we have to redesign our roads. But it’s better if car companies simply have to build safe machines. They are perfectly capable of doing that. You can build a crash-proof car. We’ve been doing it since the 1960s, but only in tests.
If we have the legal power to hold corporations to that responsibility, we might be able to take some steps toward protecting people.
Dan: It’s going to be an uphill battle with lawsuits, even though it is the most effective form of making this change at this point.
For example, there was something that never got reported on in relation to Marty Golden killing that woman. The lawyer for the woman, for the estate, ended up settling with Marty for around a million dollars. It turns out, and I’m not naming the lawyer or anything like that, but in the midst of the lawsuit, I believe, or maybe a year after, that same lawyer he ran for public office.
He ran for office as a Republican in the Assembly Seat which would be held by Nicole Malliotakis and Michael Tannousis. An Assembly seat representing Bay Ridge. And the lawyer got donations and money from Marty Golden, possibly during or slightly after these negotiations were occurring. The man who killed this woman, Marty Golden, was paying, or paid after, the lawyer who represented her estate to get her settlement and what she deserved from that crash.
The courts are going to be a hard place to win in this regard because as we have seen on a very hyper-local level, things are stacked against us.
Jessie: Yeah. You know who doesn’t have a job anymore though? Marty Golden.
Dan: We’ve made progress.
Jessie: We have made progress.
Dan: That hopeful little bit is where I think we can end it. Jessie, thank you so much for talking with us. This was really cool!
Jessie: It was my pleasure. I really enjoyed it.
Dan: And everyone, please go out and get the book and get it at your local bookshop if you can. We’ll be putting links in the show notes. There Are No Accidents: That Deadly Rise Of Injury And Disaster, Who Profits And Who Pays The Price.
Follow the podcast. Follow us on Twitter. Check us out on Facebook. Go to our website where we’ll be having show notes. I will share as much background info as I can. I love doing background research. And until next time everyone…
Stay Free, Bay Ridge.