A Threat to pedestrian safety laws Op-Ed

| 29 Jun 2015 | 02:29

The New York State Assembly just voted down the State Senate’s attempt to overturn New York City’s “Right of Way” law. This law is a critical component of Vision Zero; it gives the New York Police Department the ability to treat a fatal crash as an on-site arrestable offense. I’m proud to support the Right of Way law—when a car crash results in critical injury or death, the NYPD should have all tools possible to address the situation.

Last week I was dumbstruck to see State Senators speak out against the NYC Right of Way law—saying the city had overstepped and professional drivers should not be held to the same standards as non-professional drivers. The State Senate bill would exempt not only bus drivers, but also any for-hire vehicle, including taxis, black cars, and Uber drivers. I understand the nuance of bus drivers who operate vehicles with many blind spots, and I fully support any measures we can take to eliminate those blind spots, but that is a far cry from exempting them from the Right of Way law. Professional drivers must be held to the same standard as any other driver, if not higher. The city has so few tools to address traffic safety: it’s the State Department of Motor Vehicles that controls drivers’ licenses, the District Attorneys who pursue reckless drivers, and the courts who make judgments and impose penalties.

Cooper’s Law, which I sponsored and was passed into law last year, sought to capture the authority that the city does have: over taxis, black cars, and Uber drivers, all of whom are licensed by the NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission. Since July 2014, TLC-licensed drivers were involved in 34 collisions that caused the death or critical injury of a pedestrian or cyclist. Of those 34 collisions, three triggered Cooper’s Law and the TLC immediately suspended the drivers’ TLC license. Another five cases did not qualify for Cooper’s Law, but TLC used Local Laws 28 and 30 of 2014* to prosecute those drivers. In the remaining 26 cases, the TLC driver was involved in the crash, but the blame was attributed to other drivers.

Still, even when Cooper’s Law is triggered, a case usually spans several months from collision to arrest. For the victims’ loved ones, an arrest cannot come too soon, and the wait is unbearable. There are two main reasons for the delay:

* Due process. When a TLC-licensed driver kills or critically injures a pedestrian or cyclist, we cannot require his TLC license to be automatically suspended, because law enforcement needs to determine if the driver caused the collision -- at that point they’ll issue a summons and arrest the driver. For example, there is always the possibility that the crash was caused by the vehicle’s malfunction or another driver. We all have the right to due process under the 5th and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

* Length of Investigations by NYPD’s Collision Investigation Squad. CIS investigates all collisions that kill or critically injure someone. The investigation of Cooper’s death took 10 months as the CIS took measurements of the crime scene, examined the cab for mechanical defects, and conferred with the Manhattan District Attorney. The driver was arrested on October 7, 2014 for “failure to exercise due care.” The time it takes CIS to investigate varies case by case, but I am told Cooper’s case was a typical timeframe. I continue to work with the NYPD to determine if more funding or staffing is needed in this department to decrease the time of investigations.

When a judgment does come for a case using Cooper’s Law, it can be disappointing. There is no amount of money or jail time that can bring back a loved one or undo a serious injury. However, the judgments given fall short of basic decency, let alone justice. The driver that killed Cooper faced a maximum fine of 15 days in jail, a $750 fine, and a license suspension. He pleaded guilty; his license was suspended for six months, and he had to pay a $500 fine and complete a driver safety course. He received no jail time. Again, the sentence for these cases depends on the judge trying the case, and it is outside of our purview as a legislative body.

Advocacy is essential to changing the public discourse. I am continually in awe of Dana Lerner, Cooper Stock’s mom, for her perseverance in the face of a devastating tragedy. Her courage to tell her story -- to journalists, at TLC hearings, in public forums -- has made pedestrian safety a personal issue for the Upper West Side and the city at large.

NYC has so few tools to address traffic safety. I will continue to do my part in protecting and strengthening the tools we do have.

* Local Law 28 requires the TLC to review the results of the NYPD’s investigation of any crash involving a TLC licensed driver operating a TLC licensed vehicle that results in death or critical injury, review that driver’s fitness to drive, and allows the TLC to suspend the driver while the fitness review is pending. Local Law 30 allows the TLC to combine DMV license points assessed against a license under the critical driver program for traffic violations with TLC license points assigned under the persistent violator program for safety violations in determining when a TLC-issued driver’s license must be suspended or revoked.

Helen Rosenthal represents the Upper West Side on the New York City Council