It's Too Easy to Kill Pedestrians in New York City

Pedestrian deaths in New York City are on pace to eclipse homicides in 2014.

The problem the police commissioner will likely face as he attempts to execute de Blasio's vision is not that traffic deaths are insufficiently sensational. It is that state laws don't provide a framework for police and prosecutors to hold dangerous drivers accountable.

Mowing down a pedestrian while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or running over a cheating lover — these crimes fit neatly into the New York State Penal Law: vehicular manslaughter (which requires an element of intoxication) and plain old homicide. Those types of crimes, though, make up a small portion of traffic deaths.

In Queens, for example, where 93 people were killed by cars in 2013, the District Attorney's Office prosecuted 11 cases. Two involved using a vehicle as a weapon, while the nine others involved alcohol, racing, or leaving the scene of an accident.

Illustration by Tom Carlson
Steve Vaccaro speaks at the Upper West Side vigil.
Anna Zivarts
Steve Vaccaro speaks at the Upper West Side vigil.

According to the Department of Transportation, citywide, about 8 percent of traffic deaths are due to driving under the influence. Infractions like failure to yield to a pedestrian (27 percent) and speeding (21 percent) are far more common. Both are traffic violations not covered by the criminal code but under New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law.

The most common cause for a crash, according to the DOT, is "driver inattention," which was cited in 36 percent of collisions.

You can't get arrested in New York for not paying attention. You can't even get a ticket for it.

There is a category of traffic violation, "Failure to Exercise Due Care to Avoid Striking a Pedestrian or Cyclist," that can result in a misdemeanor criminal violation if a driver is cited for it twice during a five-year span.

When, during the Vision Zero press conference, Bratton responds to a reporter who asks what hurdle prevents an officer from making an arrest if a driver is reckless or negligent, the commissioner's answeris — perhaps understandably — incomprehensible:

"The hurdle, basically, is appropriate evidence that within the existing laws, in the terms of ensuring that to the best of our ability — that we investigate these cases so that if that there is criminality involved, that we are — have the ability to work with the district attorneys to move those charges forward."

If the District Attorney's office determines that there's not enough evidence to bring charges, the Collision Investigation Squad may still cite a driver for violating traffic laws. But John Cassidy, the executive officer of the NYPD's Transportation Bureau, told the City Council's transportation committee at a hearing last year, "Nearly all of these summonses are dismissed by the Traffic Violations Bureau administrative law judges, on the grounds that the violation was not personally observed by the issuing officer."

Counters attorney and street safety advocate Steve Vaccaro: "I have never seen evidence to substantiate the police statement that the courts throw out summonses issued for violations not personally observed by the issuing officer. I think it is a made-up story. I think the NYPD refusal to issue summonses for non-observed conduct is a work rule created by NYPD to save them work, not something judges are forcing upon them."

In 2008, with help from the transportation consulting firm Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates, a citizens' group called the Upper West Side Streets Renaissance published a 51-page document filled with a long list of goals. At the top of the list: improving pedestrian safety.

Page 32 of the "Blueprint for the Upper West Side" is a rendering of West 97th Street, the street where, five years later, Cooper Stock would die. The drawing is annotated with suggestions to make the street safer. Pages 38 and 39 contain renderings of 96th Street, where, a half-hour before Stock was run over, a tour bus dragged Alexander Shear to his death.

The suggestions are small: curb extensions, which narrow the street, forcing drivers to slow down; a slightly raised crosswalk, to capture drivers' attention; and extending an existing median to further slow drivers.

The group presented it at local block associations, synagogues, and schools. "We brought it out and shopped it around to show people the work that we'd done and get people excited about the ideas," Lisa Sladkus, an early participant, remembers.

Sladkus recalls presenting a second set of plans focused exclusively on 95th, 96th, and 97th streets to Community Board 7's transportation committee in April 2010.

"We basically said, 'We did our own survey of these streets. If you'd like to add anything to this list, if you'd like to support this list, if you'd like to help us with this, we'd like that.' And they said, 'Sure, we'll get back to you in May 2010.'"

But at the next meeting there was no mention of the list. Nor at the meeting after that. "It was not mentioned at any subsequent committee meeting," Sladkus says.

According to Sladkus and others who have attended meetings of Community Board 7's transportation committee, the co-chairs didn't merely ignore safety proposals, they deliberately stalled or blocked them.

Dan Zweig and Andrew Albert voted against installing so-called protected bike lanes on Columbus Avenue. The lanes — slivers of roadway between marked parking spaces and the curb — were installed anyway.

And even after the DOT determined that the Columbus project, which originally extended from 77th Street to 96th Street, reduced crashes by 19 percent and pedestrian injuries by 41 percent, Zweig opposed extending the lanes south to 59th Street and north to 110th Street. Albert abstained.

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