De Blasio Traffics in Fantasy

The de Blasio administration has set itself a broad mandate for change.  According to the Mayor’s inauguration speech, he is “called to put an end to economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love.”  The first step taken by the Mayor is to find space for all 4-year olds to attend pre-Kindergarten.  The second step?  To abolish traffic accidents.

As absurd as this sounds, Mayor de Blasio presented his “Vision Zero” proposal with a straight face at his Woodside press conference yesterday.  Surrounded by parents of children who have been killed in traffic accidents, the Mayor announced his intention “literally to reduce fatalities on our roadways to zero.”

No one is going to argue against tighter enforcement of traffic laws: indeed, more speed cameras and police officers monitoring the city’s highways are definitely needed.  More DWI-checkpoints along Roosevelt Avenue and other drunk-driving hot zones would be great too.

The utopian promise to eliminate all traffic deaths, however, reminds us of a meeting of communists in the 1930s where extravagant claims were made about the wonders of a planned, engineered society.  The French writer Andre Malraux asked, “What about a child who falls off a trolley?”  The speaker replied, “Under socialism there will be no traffic accidents.”

The problem with the Progressive approach to society’s problems, as we see embodied in the Mayor’s fantastical goal, is the assumption that everything can be fixed, usually and preferably by an expert.  If accidents happen, it is because the smart people haven’t been given the authority and resources to mitigate underlying risks.  The role of government, in this mindset, is to protect the people from all the slings and arrows that fortune may throw against us.

Life, however, always has risks, and Mayor de Blasio knows full well that he will be lucky if Vision Zero reduces traffic fatalities by ten or fifteen percent over four years.  Indeed, that would be a phenomenal success.  Grandstanding about traffic accidents is a cheap form of political theater, and smacks of late-term or lame-duck desperation.  Given that he is only two weeks into his term, that he has attained the national stage and appears to be steering the Democratic midterm agenda, why is he bathing himself in the tears of distraught parents and pandering on such a demotic issue?

Oddly, despite the insistence of the de Blasio team of a serious break from the Bloomberg years, Vision Zero sounds a lot like the kinds of nanny-state policies that Bloomberg advocated, and a lot like the kinds of law enforcement tactics that Mayor Giuliani introduced.  What Vision Zero doesn’t really offer is any solution to the economic inequality that de Blasio promised he would address in his “Tale of Two Cities” campaign.

Which brings us to the real reason the Mayor is talking about traffic fatalities in one of his first major policy pronouncements: because it is a lot easier to talk about reducing traffic accidents than it is to reduce income inequality.  Fixing broad social ills is well beyond the scope of the Mayor’s powers, even if he has the Council there to rubber-stamp his agenda.  Even if he could convince Albany to sign off on his entire wish list, it isn’t clear that Mayor de Blasio could actually end poverty in New York City.  So like any good demagogue, he goes for the easy target—reckless drivers—and kicks his promises down the road.