It was just a matter of time before a World Trade Center survivor became a victim of a different sort of terrorism: death by automobile.

It finally happened last month, in lower Manhattan, when a speeding sport utility vehicle struck and killed a woman who had fled the Twin Towers on 9/11.

Florence Cioffi was leaving a dinner celebrating her upcoming 60th birthday when a Mercedes-Benz SUV slammed into her on Water Street at 60 miles an hour, according to a Manhattan assistant district attorney.

Six years, four months, and thirteen days earlier, Ms. Cioffi narrowly averted death when she ducked out of her office on the 36th floor of the North Tower to get a coffee minutes before the plane struck.

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The driver who succeeded where al-Qaeda failed, George W. Anderson, has no known ties to Osama bin Laden. He does not come from Afghanistan, but Long Island. He is not a mullah or an imam, but the founder and CEO of a financial software company.

Yet on the night of Jan. 24, Mr. Anderson became a terrorist, though his weapon of choice was his luxury GL450 SUV rather than a hijacked jetliner.

Were Anderson’s actions premeditated? No. Doesn’t that make Ms. Cioffi’s death an accident? Not really. Based on press accounts, the fatal crash can be traced directly to Anderson’s own deliberate choices. These include his decision to get plastered before getting behind the wheel (he refused to take a Breathalyzer test), and then to drive through the narrow, pedestrian-filled streets of the Financial District at twice the speed limit.

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Anderson has been charged with vehicular manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and leaving the scene. Results of the BAC test are pending.

Anderson will doubtless field a high-powered legal team; he sold a beachfront house in the Hamptons for more than $6 million last May. But the odds of his seeing the inside of a jail cell are relatively promising, at least compared to bin Laden — and compared to the thousands of other killer-drivers who walk, or rather drive, away from the scene of their crimes every year and return to their homes, without any need to hole up in Waziristan.

Foreign terrorists come and go, but 40,000 Americans die in motor vehicle crashes every year. Color-coded terror alerts come and go, but drivers in New York City kill 200 pedestrians and bicycle-riders every year. The Department of Homeland Security spends $50 billion a year on an ever-more-elaborate regimen of snooping and surveillance, but no U.S. city has taken more than a few halting steps to implement the simple, straightforward pedestrian agenda laid out in Right Of Way’s 1999 manifesto, Killed By Automobile (PDF).

Here are three planks from that agenda:

  1. See that the police enforce all vehicular traffic laws that protect pedestrians and cyclists.
  2. Jawbone the district attorneys to prosecute all dangerous driving, not just DWI.
  3. Conduct inquests into all pedestrian and cyclist fatalities, and make the findings public.

But municipal measures like these, while worthwhile and essential, are only part of the picture. A change of mentality, or better, of heart, is what really matters. The idea that it’s ever okay to endanger others through one’s driving — aggressive driving, distracted driving, reckless driving, entitled driving — has to be called out for what it is.

Like terrorists, definitions of terrorism come and go. But if terrorism is the practice of getting what you want by killing people here and there to frighten all the others, then our American street regime is a reign of terror.

Photo: Peter Meitzler

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