Fleet Safety Is Traffic Safety

By Eric Richardson

While Vision Zero in other locations is focused on road design and enforcement, in New York City, the design and operation of the municipal vehicle fleet plays a leading role.

This is in part because of the insistence of the chief officer of New York City’s municipal fleet, Department of Citywide Administrative Services Deputy Commissioner Keith Kerman, who argued, in the early days of Vision Zero, that the size and ubiquity of New York City’s municipal fleet meant Vision Zero could not succeed without it. With the City of New York in possession of over 31,000 vehicles — including sanitation trucks, fire apparatus, ambulances, paving trucks, sewer trucks, and police vehicles — the municipal fleet is a critical part of the street and transportation system, and its vehicles are ubiquitous in the five boroughs. New York’s is the largest municipal fleet in the country, and the largest vehicle fleet of any type in the nation.

But the leading role of fleet safety in New York City’s Vision Zero is also due to the disproportionate danger that large vehicles pose on city streets. Trucks make up just 3.6 percent of vehicles on New York City streets, but are involved in 12.3 percent of pedestrian fatalities and 32 percent of bicyclist deaths. While many of the cars and trucks involved in these incidents are not part of the municipal fleet, the City of New York saw a chance to affect these statistics by leading the way with the vehicles in their direct control.

Mass Installation of Side Guards

As part of New York City’s Vision Zero Action Plan, the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, which oversees the municipal fleet, was tasked with recommending safety related devices for city-owned vehicles and other vehicles under city regulation. Under the advisement of the federal Department of Transportation Volpe Center, truck side guards appeared as the common-sense safety technology at the top of the list. Studies showed that in the United Kingdom, widespread adoption of side guards reduced fatalities and severe injuries in side impacts with trucks by 61 percent for bicyclists and 20 percent for pedestrians.

Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed, and a pilot program to install side guards on the municipal fleet began in February 2015. By June, the mayor signed into law a requirement that all eligible city-owned trucks would have side guards installed, as well as any private sanitation vehicle regulated by the City of New York — an installation to be completed by 2024. Today, the New York City municipal fleet has over 2,500 vehicles with side guards installed, making it the single biggest side guard implementation in the United States.

Evaluating Other Technologies

The side guard initiative was a first step in a broader plan to enhance safety in the design of fleet units. While New York City operates over 160 different types of fleet units, almost all can be found in the retail and commercial equipment markets. In 2017, after a widespread two-year effort involving every city agency reliant on New York City’s fleet, from the Parks Department to Sanitation to Corrections, the City of New York published its first-ever Safe Fleet Transition Plan — partly an evaluation of safety technologies through marketplace research, partly a review of crash trends in the city, as well as a survey of over 12,000 city vehicle operators. It is a comprehensive plan to ensure that specifications for new and replacement fleet vehicles incorporate the same safety standards across all agencies, so that the City is always procuring the safest possible vehicles that are operationally suitable and practically available for the needed vehicle application.

Considering the infinite permutations of vehicles and safety specifications these standards could cover, the possible technologies were simplified into three categories: required technologies, and two categories of optional technologies — best practice, or “should” technologies, and exploratory, or “may” technologies.

Required technologies include truck side-guards, automatic braking, automatic headlights, backup cameras, and telematics for all fleet units, for monitoring, alerting, and preventing unsafe or risky behaviors by operators. Among best practice or exploratory technologies, the Safe Fleet Transition Plan suggests safety devices such as blind spot monitors, driver alert systems, surround cameras, turning alarms, lock boxes for cell phones, and enhanced seat belt reminders.

Influencing the Technology Creators

With the buying power of the nation’s largest municipal fleet, the City of New York is pushing car manufacturers and vendors to further develop safety technology, both by meeting the requirements of our Safe Fleet Transition Plan in new models, and by going beyond. New York City aims to help push the marketplace to provide safer and more sustainable options for all fleet and retail customers.

As critical as technology development is how vehicles are packaged for sale. Too often, safety is bundled with entertainment packages and other discretionary or luxury items by car manufacturers and dealers. Safety is not a luxury or trim option. Customers should not be forced to buy leather seats, sunroofs, and high-tech entertainment consoles to get access to automatic braking, driver alerts, safety cameras, or heated mirrors. As part of Vision Zero, the City of New York has called for vehicle manufacturers to separate safety from luxury, and make the highest level of safety a baseline, available as part of all vehicle models.

Real Results in Fleet Safety

In addition to the Safe Fleet Transition Plan, New York has implemented other strategies to improve safety in the municipal fleet. Today, all operators are required to participate in day-long safety trainings, with over 40,000 already trained. The first-ever crash tracking system now watches the fleet citywide, using telematics in fleet units. All city drivers are held to a higher standard, creating an authorized driver program, barring hands-free phone use, and recognizing the safest drivers at annual Vision Zero fleet safety forums.

These initiatives are having an impact. In the first nine months of 2014, shortly after Mayor Bill de Blasio inaugurated Vision Zero in New York, there were eight fatalities involving the city fleet in non-emergency response traffic events. In the four years since, there have been five in total. Collisions per mile are down 17 percent since the first year of Vision Zero.

In the fall of 2018, the first update of the Safe Fleet Transition Plan will be published, based on additional discussions with fleet managers and drivers, meetings with car manufacturers and safety vendors, workshops and roundtable discussions with various public fleets on what is working for them, and conversations with road safety advocates to understand trends and concerns. It is important to recognize the enormous pace of innovation in the fleet industry, particularly around safety and telematics. Updates will look at the safety impacts of various types of cab-over designs, compared to conventional truck design; line of sight; and encouraging the development of automatic braking technologies for medium- and heavy-duty trucks to match progress for light-duty vehicles. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study found that over 800 pedestrian deaths nationwide could be avoided through a comprehensive implementation of various automatic braking systems. Each new iteration of the Safe Fleet Transition Plan will include evaluations of promising new technologies and information such as this. Over time, the required and optional safety requirements will be adjusted, alongside new product research.

Today, thanks to funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation, New York City’s fleet is evaluating the safety functionality and effectiveness of some of that brand-new technology — the installation of vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure telematics affecting as many as 3,000 units in the city fleet — in a select area of Manhattan and Brooklyn. This technology has the potential to alert drivers, through direct short-range communication, to take specific actions to avoid a collision or reduce collision severity if one occurs. Some of the applications of this technology being evaluated are traffic signal change warnings, blind spot and pedestrian alerts, road hazards, pedestrian-oriented phone apps, and the ability to alert drivers to road restrictions such as weight and height maximums. If the technology is worthwhile, you will see it on New York City streets, and can read about it in a future iteration of the Safe Fleet Transition Plan.

In operating the nation’s largest municipal fleet, New York wields the power to shift the safety equation on city streets and in the national marketplace. However, Vision Zero is a sum of parts, and the stewards of New York City’s fleet recognize the critical importance of street and traffic design, and the benefit of the City’s investment in street upgrades, led by the New York City Department of Transportation and the enforcement efforts of the New York Police Department. It is not common for fleet management to play a role in Vision Zero, but by taking a new, critical, and holistic look at vehicle design, the City of New York is saving lives. Vehicle design can play an equally critical role in transforming transportation and achieving Vision Zero.

[This article first appeared in Transportation Alternatives’ Vision Zero Cities Journal in 2018.]

Eric Richardson is the Deputy Chief Fleet Management Officer at the New York City Department of Citywide Administrative Services. He serves as a liaison to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero Task Force and works to implement Vision Zero goals for New York City’s fleet, including the roll-out of a citywide telematics system, managing the city’s defensive driving program, administering the safe fleet transition plan, and creating partnerships with other government fleets, non-profit organizations, and advocacy groups to encourage best practices for vehicle fleets. He worked with the National Guard in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, coordinating an emergency fueling operation as the city recovered from the largest liquid fuel crisis in over 30 years.