Report: As Traffic Deaths Rise, NYPD Enforcement Still Stuck in the Stone Age

A ghost bike for Leah Sylvain, who was biking to work in Bushwick last month when she was killed by a truck driver who failed to yield to her. Police told the media that she "slammed into" the truck, but the NYPD eventually arrested the driver for failure to yield.
A ghost bike for Leah Sylvain, who was biking to work in Bushwick last month when she was killed by a truck driver who failed to yield to her. Police told the media that she "slammed into" the truck, but the NYPD eventually arrested the driver for failure to yield.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio launched Vision Zero barely two weeks after his inauguration, it came with the  promise that he would dedicate a phalanx of city agencies, not just the Department of Transportation, to the task of eliminating traffic fatalities by 2024. Now, the city’s top Vision Zero watchdog says NYPD has been falling down on the job as deaths creep upward this year.

"There have been worrying indications that progress is lagging in the City’s Vision Zero effort," Transportation Alternatives said in a report issued this morning. "Some statistics are even moving in the wrong direction."

According to the report, in 32 out of 76 precincts, the NYPD issued more tickets for tinted windows than for speeding and failure to yield combined.

The police department defended its record. "The NYPD is committed to ensuring the safety of all pedestrians and cyclists in the city which includes increased enforcement against the most dangerous traffic violations on our city streets," it said in a statement. "Year to date the NYPD has issued 74,578 speeding summons which is an increase of 56.5% from 2013 and 23,631 summons to drivers who fail to yield to a pedestrian which is an increase of 201% from 2013."

While those numbers are up, Transportation Alternatives dug beneath the top-line stats and came back disappointed. Enforcement is wildly uneven from precinct to precinct, the group notes. In Staten Island's 122nd Precinct, for example, officers issued 180 failure to yield summonses in the first five months of the year. Drive down Hylan Boulevard into the 123rd, however, and drivers received just 10 summonses over the same period.

Transportation Alternatives also says some precincts seem more focused on targeting cyclists than dangerous drivers. After a hit-and-run driver killed Matthew von Ohlen in a Williamsburg bike lane earlier this month, the 90th Precinct launched a crackdown on cyclists, not drivers.

"There really needs to be much more guidance and standard-setting from One Police Plaza, instead of leaving it to the discretion of these precinct commanders," said Transportation Alternatives executive director Paul Steely White. "They’re still driven much more by historic bias than the data, and there’s a chronic lack of follow-through to enforce even the most egregious offenses."

Even the de Blasio administration’s marquee Vision Zero law isn’t getting consistent enforcement from the NYPD, the report says. The Right of Way Law, which levies criminal penalties for drivers who strike pedestrians or cyclists with the right of way, was enforced in just 3 percent of cases in which it could have been applied, according to a Transportation Alternatives estimate.

Hard numbers on Right of Way Law enforcement are difficult to come by, since the department doesn’t issue reports on how often it charges drivers. When there are reporting requirements, such as a newly expanded law requiring updates on hit-and-run investigations, the NYPD often ignores them, Transportation Alternatives says. Instead, the department gives anonymous and often inaccurate information to the press, blaming crash victims before an investigation is complete.

Given the frustration with the NYPD, some advocates say the police shouldn’t be involved in Vision Zero at all. A significant part of the city’s traffic enforcement is now done by automated cameras, which have ticketed red-light-runners since 1994 and school-zone-speeders since 2014. Transportation Alternatives wants the NYPD to more vocally support camera enforcement, which can enforce the law without bias, free up police resources, and offer a treasure trove of speeding data. But TA still sees a place for cops.

"There’s still a big role for the NYPD to play to enforce against reckless driving," White said. "But yes, it does need to be more fair. It does need to be more informed by the actual data."

While auditioning for the job in late 2013, Bill Bratton gave a speech in which he promised traffic-safety advocates that NYPD would take the city’s hundreds of annual traffic deaths more seriously. Advocates were hopeful, if skeptical, at the time. Now, with Bratton announcing his departure by the end of next year, Vision Zero boosters are beginning to look beyond Bratton.

"We need the new commissioner to adhere to real Vision Zero practices," White said. "We need the new commissioner to enforce that in all precincts instead of leaving it to each individual commanding officer."

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