By Tina Susman

There is an unwritten rule in New York City: When the light is red, you cross the street if it's safe to do so.

There is also a written rule: When the light is red, you wait for it to turn green before stepping off the curb.

To the chagrin of some pedestrians, police last month began enforcing the written rule in the wake of a streak of pedestrian deaths _ at least a dozen so far this year. The deaths underscored the perils of walking in a city awash in taxis, tour buses, delivery vans, emergency vehicles, impatient commuters and yes, jaywalkers, darting among vehicles as they dash toward the subways, seek shortcuts across long blocks and hurry home to escape the cold.

"It's an epidemic we're facing," Mayor Bill de Blasio said after the third death in nine days on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where a 9-year-old boy and a 73-year-old man died in separate incidents on Jan. 10. On Jan. 19, a 26-year-old woman died in the same area when she was clipped by an ambulance and then hurled into the path of another vehicle.

De Blasio announced Vision Zero, a plan that aims to eliminate traffic fatalities within 10 years. Police, meanwhile, began enforcing a jaywalking rule that is flouted by locals, who impatiently push past out-of-towners as they obediently wait for the red hand to turn green.

That's easier said than done in a city of more than 8.3 million people, where cars, bicycles, skaters and pedestrians battle for space on crowded streets and sidewalks.

At a busy Brooklyn intersection on a frigid evening, Darlene Brown said she had no intention of changing her ways and doubted many New Yorkers would.

"Do they honestly expect millions of people to scrunch together at a corner waiting for the light to turn if there aren't any cars coming?" she said incredulously, before crossing a car-free avenue against the red light. "We'll never get anywhere. Between subway breakdowns and traffic jams _people here aren't going to wait around any more than they have to."

De Blasio said his plan does not involve a policy change in terms of jaywalking and ticketing. "We need to be sensitive to the fact that we do have a way of life, and any of us who've been here know that," he said.

Instead, Vision Zero is supposed to focus on drivers. De Blasio announced a working group made up of police, transportation, health and taxi officials. Its job is to find ways to combat aggressive driving, to alleviate dangers at the city's most perilous intersections, and to find more so-called slow zones, where the speed limit could be dropped to 20 mph from the usual 30 mph.

The police initiative is separate from De Blasio's plan but part of the same effort. Through Jan. 19, police had issued 65 jaywalking summonses, compared with 12 in the same time frame last year, a police spokesman said. He did not know what the fines are, saying they are set by individual courts.

The crackdown has not been without problems. An 84-year-old man says he was roughed up by police who confronted him after he had crossed an Upper West Side street near his home. The man, Kang Chun Wong, said he suffered a severe head gash after officers forced him to the ground after accusing him of jaywalking _ a charge he denies.

The city's police commissioner, William J. Bratton, called the encounter "an unfortunate incident" and said he was not aware of police using excessive force.

Under former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, pedestrian fatalities fell as the city promoted walking, bicycling and public transportation. This included remaking major traffic-choked intersections into pedestrian malls and adding bicycle lanes. Last year, 156 pedestrians were killed in New York, compared with 365 in 1990, according to the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. Brian Zumhagen of Transportation Alternatives says the group supports the goal of Vision Zero, assuming it focuses on drivers, not walkers.

"Protecting the most vulnerable users of our streets is where the focus of the effort should be," Zumhagen said.

(c)2014 Los Angeles Times