Bicyclists and pedestrians are often at the mercy of motorists. If the driver of a motor vehicle is reckless, or even momentarily inattentive, the result can be a serious or even fatal accident.
In New York City, this danger is very real. Last year, 21 cyclists were killed in New York bicycle accidents and 134 people were killed in pedestrian accidents. Serious injuries are also far too common.
The role of the New York Police Department in investigating and responding to these serious or fatal crashes has recently come under scrutiny. Safety advocates assert that the police seldom bring criminal charges unless the driver was drunk or clearly distracted by an electronic device. The Public Safety and Transportation committees of the City Council are looking into the issue.
Is More Legislation Needed?
At the joint hearing of the two committees, Transportation Committee Chairman James Vacca noted that there is a big difference between running a red light and killing or seriously injuring someone as a result of running a red light.
That is why New York State has already passed two new statewide laws that aim to give police a third option - something in between a mere traffic ticket, on the one hand, and a high-stakes criminal vehicular operation charge on the other.
One of these laws is Hayley and Diego's Law. It is named after two preschool boys who were killed in 2009 when a driver left his van idling unattended and it slipped out of gear. The law provides that drivers who fail to exercise due care and injure a pedestrian or cyclist can face fines of up to $750 and jail time of up to 15 days. They could also be required to take driver's education and have their license suspended for up to 6 months.
The other new law is Elle's Law. It takes its name from three-year-old Elle Vandenberghe, who was hit by a wrong-way driver in 2008 while riding her bike with her babysitter in New York City. Her injuries required four months of intensive care and 11 surgeries. Under Elle's Law, a driver who violates a traffic law and injures a pedestrian can lose their license for six months, or for a year if it is a repeat offense.
Is More Enforcement Needed?
So New York does have laws on the books to hold drivers accountable when they injure others while committing traffic offenses. The problem, however, is that these laws are not consistently enforced.
Regarding Hayley and Diego's law, the reason why it hasn't been used more in New York City may have to do with police policy. According to Juan Martinez, general counsel for the safety advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, the NYPD has decided that unless an officer actually witnesses a traffic violation that causes injury, the officer should not bring careless driving charges.
The original legislative sponsors of Hayley and Diego's Law, State Senator Dan Squadron and Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh, are therefore considering seeking to amend it. The amendment would clarify that a police officer does not have to actually witness a violation in order to make an arrest, as long as the officer has probable cause.
There is also the question of whether the police department has the resources to aggressively enforce these laws and properly investigate serious and fatal motor vehicle crashes. The number of officers in the Highway Patrol District has declined markedly in the last decade. In 2000, there were 376 officers. Today there are only 211 - a drop of 40 percent.