Four years after the inception of its Vision Zero program, New York City has achieved a historic low in pedestrian traffic deaths. But how many more people will die in crashes that safe-streets advocates argue are preventable?
On March 6, while sitting at a red light at Fifth Avenue and 9th Street in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Dorothy Bruns suddenly mashed the accelerator of her Volvo, plowing into two mothers crossing the street with their children. Abigail Blumenstein, 4, and Joshua Lew, 1, were killed instantly. The unborn child of Ruthie Ann Blumenstein, who was injured in the crash, died in May. Within hours of the crash, Bruns’s driving record was laid out for public inspection.
“Our eyes are at zero.”
Her car had triggered eight red light and speed cameras in school zones since 2016. Doctors had warned her three times not to drive. She had multiple sclerosis and had recently experienced heart problems. The explanation given for the crash was that she had suffered a seizure.
That this driver could legally remain behind a wheel on New York’s busy streets is emblematic of the challenges facing Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s Vision Zero plan, launched in 2014 to eliminate all traffic-related deaths by 2024. While the program has reduced fatality and injury numbers — the 101 pedestrian deaths last year was the lowest such figure in a century — a host of enforcement and legal impediments are preventing the city from moving more quickly to its goal.
For instance, injuries to cyclists and pedestrians shrank just 3 percent from 2016 to 2017, holding basically steady at 14,966. That’s 41 injuries a day.
New York City Injuries, 2013-2017
New York City Fatalities, 2013-2017
“Our eyes are to zero,” said Thomas DeVito, director of organizing for Transportation Alternatives, the nonprofit advocacy group that had pushed DeBlasio to adopt much of its wish list for street safety. “We have a very high standard and a high expectation, because we know that ultimately if the political will were there, we would be able to do it.”
Vision Zero aims to eliminate pedestrian deaths by overhauling roads and intersections, by educating the public, and by enforcing traffic laws. Report cards issued in the past two years by Transportation Alternatives gave the mayor, the Taxi & Limousine Commission and the city transportation department generally solid scores for progress in their roles.
The last leg of the stool — enforcement of traffic laws — is the weakest, according to the report card. That’s apparent to anyone who’s seen long queues of cars use a bicycle lane for parking, or has watched drivers blast through lights that had clearly turned red, or witnessed pedestrians dodge aggressive drivers.
New York police have been issuing more tickets for infractions, ranging from failure to yield and red light violations to speeding, according to city statistics. But police can’t be on every street corner. And other priorities, such as fighting crime and thwarting terrorists, get the lion’s share of resources.
So the NYPD has turned to technology to help fill the enforcement gaps. Cameras are a much more efficient way for the city to police red lights and speed limits. But on both counts, the city needs permission from Albany to ramp up the pressure on dangerous drivers — and so far, the state Legislature has denied the requests.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative has emphasized public outreach in the city’s most dangerous traffic corridors. Photo credit: Trevor Boyer
Days after the high-profile Brooklyn crash that claimed two young victims, about 1,000 people turned out in Park Slope to rally for safer streets. Speed cameras and red-light cameras, many of them argued, are great ideas, but they can’t be effective deterrents if repeat offenders face no penalties beyond fines. That’s another fix that can only be made in Albany.
Bruns was eventually charged with involuntary manslaughter, but her case is an outlier. Drivers still are rarely arrested when they kill a pedestrian or cyclist. Just last September, according to a report in the New York Daily News, Bruns struck a pedestrian in Long Island City, Queens, and fled the scene. Although she was reported by the victim and eyewitnesses to a police officer, no charge was filed.
Only about 1 percent of hit-and-run drivers in the city are ultimately prosecuted, largely because proving the driver knew serious injury had occurred before leaving the scene is considered a high legal burden. And even when drivers stop, or are stopped, after causing injury, they most often do not face anything more serious than a ticket.
Without further changes to laws and an enforcement culture that continues to favor motorists over pedestrians and cyclists, safety advocates warn, Vision Zero will remain just that: a vision — Trevor Boyer
Repeat offenders caught on camera speeding or running red lights face no penalties beyond fines.
Hit and Run: Most Offenders Go Free
The legal threshold is high. Investigators are few. So only 1 percent of hit-and-run crashes in New York City yield arrests.
Corey Rayburn, a former bike messenger, was riding through Manhattan’s Lower East Side last summer when he was struck from behind by a large black SUV.
“I had no idea what happened. I was just riding along one minute, and flat on my back in the middle of the street the next,” said Rayburn, 31.
Rayburn’s crash became a robbery when the perpetrators hopped out of their SUV and tossed his bicycle into the back before speeding away. Because his injuries were not determined to be critical, the NYPD’s Collision Investigation Squad (CIS) passed Rayburn’s case on to the 5th Precinct. Rayburn was hard-pressed to get in touch with the detectives handling his case, and ultimately, his investigation was closed due to lack of evidence or witnesses.
Even if the investigation had not been closed, the numbers indicate that a successful prosecution for hit-and-run would not have been a likely outcome.
Hit-and-run victim Corey Rayburn, 31. Photo credit: Dave Gentile
Over the past five years, hit-and-run crashes in New York have increased by 26 percent. In 2017 at least one person died in a hit-and-run crash each week.
In 2017, at least one person died each week in a hit-and-run crash in NYC.
Overall, though, police make arrests in only 1 percent of hit-and-runs in each year, a number that has remained stagnant since 2013.
Insufficient resources and driver-friendly legislation contribute to the difficulty of prosecuting this dangerous crime, traffic safety advocates and legal experts say.
New York has unusual legislation concerning hit-and-runs that makes obtaining a successful conviction very difficult. Even when a hit-and-run driver is identified and arrested, the prosecutors have to be able to prove that the driver knew that a collision occurred.
“The logic is that a person cannot be charged for a crime they did not know occurred. This means that under New York State code, ‘I didn’t see them’ is a credible defense,” said Steve Vaccaro, a New York traffic crash attorney.
If you don’t suffer life-threatening injuries in a hit-and-run, your case likely will never be prosecuted.
This legislation is specific to New York, and stands in stark contrast to laws around the country. In Alabama, a driver who causes a death while driving in a criminally negligent manner can be prosecuted for negligent homicide, which is either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances. In Washington, D.C., any vehicular death that is preceded by careless driving can be prosecuted as a negligent homicide, a felony.
Proving that a driver was aware that he or she hit somebody can be surprisingly difficult, but that is only one hurdle to punishing New York hit-and-run perpetrators. The Collision Unit handles only cases that result in critical injuries; it passes all others to NYPD detectives. The NYPD detectives, however, lack the extensive crash reconstruction training that CIS investigators undergo. Without CIS involvement, district attorneys are reluctant to bring charges, because it is more difficult to obtain a successful conviction. Without the crash reconstruction expertise of the CIS, it is hard to prove that a driver was aware of the collision in the first place.
“The DAs don’t want to bring charges unless the highway division gets involved, because they want to win,” said Ashley Melissa Alvarez, a Queens paralegal who has worked on hit-and-run cases in the past. “Critical” was defined in 2013 by then-NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly as “Either receiving CPR, in respiratory arrest, or requiring and receiving life sustaining ventilator/circulatory support.”
Vaccaro explained that there is a problem with the definition. “It discounts anyone not left needing life support. You can lose a limb and still not need life support,” he said. The CIS itself is chronically under-resourced and overburdened: With only 21 detectives, three police officers, and five supervisors, the CIS investigates around 300 crashes a year, while there are more than 3,000 serious injury crashes each year.
Only 12 percent of Critical-Injury Accidents Are Investigated by NYPD’s CISRead More
For a successful hit-and-run prosecution, CIS involvement is integral. District attorneys are reluctant to even bring charges without a CIS investigation.
The NYPD in 2013 tried to strengthen the CIS by giving the investigative unit a flood of new technology and changing the requirements for the unit’s involvement, which previously came only when a victim was deemed likely to die. In 2014, a new law mandated the NYPD to release quarterly reports on hit-and-run collisions but these, too, tracked only crashes resulting in critical injuries. In 2017, the CIS investigated 30 percent more crashes than it did in 2013, but the arrest rate for hit-and-runs resulting in critical injury continued to drop, falling 6 percent between 2016 and 2017.
“The city would see fewer traffic deaths if Mayor de Blasio expanded the NYPD’s Collision Investigation Squad,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, in a January 2017 op-ed for the New York Daily News. “A larger CIS would also allow the NYPD to conduct more thorough hit-and-run investigations.”
Some experts, such as Robert Antonelli, a former NYPD investigator now with D’agostino and Associates, say the hit-and-run problem is systemic. “The NYPD does not see it as a crime. They see it as a civil issue. ‘Let them work it out with insurance’ and that’s it,” said Antonelli.
Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Washington Heights), the City Council’s transportation chair, has been working with Transportation Alternatives and other advocacy groups to address the issue. He pushed the DJ Jinx Paul Hit-and-Run Alert System legislation through in December 2017. That system functions much like the Amber Alert system, sending out pertinent information via phone, radio and television about local hit-and-runs to the public. The hope is that it will engage the community to help police find and arrest those responsible for hit-and-run crashes. Whether this effort has a significant impact remains to be seen.
Rodriguez also helped pass a bill that increased fines on repeat hit-and-run offenders, and is now trying to pass a bill that will include financial rewards for people who help find hit-and-run drivers.
Photo Credit: Dave Gentile
A recent hit-and-run took place in Jackson Heights, Queens, on April 29. Giovanni Ampuero, 9, became the fifth child in less than six years to die while crossing Northern Boulevard. The driver in this instance, Juan Jimenez, 86, barreled through the intersection in his Jeep Compass, striking Ampuero before taking off down the street, according to court papers filed in the case. Jimenez was followed and stopped by nearby pedestrians who held him until police arrived. Jimenez has been charged with leaving the scene of an accident, failing to yield to a pedestrian and failing to exercise due care.
A prominent memorial now marks the spot where Ampuero was fatally struck, on the corner of 70th Street and Northern Boulevard. But with the system currently in place, will Jimenez actually face punishment? “We’re going to need some major changes in how these accidents are investigated and prosecuted,” said Alvarez. “Somebody makes a devastating mistake, and they should be punished.” — Dave Gentile
Slower traffic saves lives, but New York City is handcuffed by state speed camera rules.
Just days after her 12-year-old son, Sammy, was killed by a driver outside their Brooklyn home in October 2013, Amy Cohen borrowed a neighbor’s radar gun. She clocked the speed of vehicles passing her home on Prospect Park West where Sammy was killed.
In just 15 minutes, the grieving mother witnessed 25 vehicles speed above the 30 mph limit. The next day, Cohen stood before the City Council’s Transportation Committee, begging the city to act on proposed legislation to reduce the speed limit to 20 mph in all residential neighborhoods.
“The loss of a few seconds at the beginning or end of a trip is a small price to pay to save the lives of individuals such as Sammy,” Cohen told the committee.
Speeding is the leading cause of traffic fatalities in New York City. Pedestrians struck by vehicles traveling at 30 mph are twice as likely to die as those struck at 25 mph, according to city data.
85 percent of deaths and severe injuries occur at times and in areas speed cameras are not allowed to operate
In a Vision Zero victory, a 2014 law signed by Mayor Bill de Blasio lowered the speed limit to 25 mph unless otherwise posted. To enforce the speed limit and supplement the tickets already doled out by police, New York City has tried to use technology to curb speeding. However, automated enforcement in New York City identifies only vehicles, not their drivers, so tickets are sent to the owner of the car and carry modest fines but no further penalties.
Summonses issued by NYPD officers for traffic violations increased by 20 percent over the first four years of Vision Zero. However, most speeding tickets now are issued not by law enforcement, but by speed cameras. In 2017, the NYPD issued around 150,000 summonses for speeding, compared to 1.3 million issued by traffic cameras.
In 2014, New York City lowered the speed limit to 25 mph unless otherwise posted.
Speeding & red light violations issued in 2017
Source: New York City Comptroller’s report from March 2018
New York City launched the nation’s first red light camera program in 1994 following authorization from the state. In 2014, Albany approved a separate pilot program to install 140 speed cameras near New York City schools that operate only during school hours, with the goal to reduce driver speed. The tickets issued by these speed cameras charge offenders $50 for driving at least 10 miles above the speed limit in school zones.
In a 2017 report, the city found that speed cameras reduce speeding by 63 percent. Pointing to evidence that speed cameras save lives, Cohen and other advocates have been pushing for more school zone surveillance. But the state legislature in Albany must approve any such expansion and thus far has been unwilling to do so.
Families for Safe Streets founder, Amy Cohen, sits in her Brooklyn living room, surrounded by art that her son Sammy created. Photo Credit: Sarah Matusek
Grieving mom Amy Cohen: “Albany’s inaction has allowed NYC’s worst scofflaws to speed with relative impunity.”
After advocates’ countless trips to Albany, in March state lawmakers passed a budget that did not include expansion of the speed camera program; now lobbyists will need to push the program as a single-policy issue. Streetsblog NYC reported that the Assembly’s budget bill would have roughly doubled the number of speed cameras, but the Senate declined to add any.
“The politicians who are holding us back have blood on their hands,” said Cohen.
Albany’s inaction has allowed New York City’s worst scofflaws to speed with relative impunity.
A recent report from the city comptroller found that between January 2015 and February 2018, 82,307 vehicles earned at least five camera-issued tickets for speeding within school zones. Nearly a quarter of all camera-issued speeding violations went to repeat offenders, meaning cars with five-plus violations.
The report also noted that current law only allows camera-issued tickets to be attributed to vehicles, not drivers, which leaves open the challenge of accurately identifying a driver within a vehicle. By contrast, summonses issued by police officers for running red lights or speeding past schools impose serious sanctions on drivers, including points on their license and significant fines.
“As a result of this two-tiered system of traffic enforcement, dangerous drivers can rack up tickets with relative impunity and avoid facing real consequences for their actions behind the wheel,” wrote Comptroller Scott Stringer in the report.
In municipalities such as Phoenix, Arizona, red light camera-issued tickets for various offenses translate to fines and points for a vehicle’s registered owner. When a vehicle is involved in a traffic violation, the municipal court issues the ticket. Vehicle owners who were not involved in their vehicle’s traffic violation may file a Declaration of Non-Driver form to contest the claim.
If the threat of stronger enforcement doesn’t slow a determined speedster, points from violations might take him or her off the road. But in New York, that won’t be possible without legislative action. — Sarah Matusek
The city’s red light enforcement scheme does not stop repeat offenders.
On May 14, a garbage truck slammed into a 78-year-old woman who was walking across 18th Avenue near E. 4th Street in Kensington, Brooklyn, seriously injuring her. No charges were immediately filed.
The truck in the crash had been cited five times since 2016 for failing to stop at a red light, according to city records. The track record of that truck bears out what savvy New York pedestrians know: Just because the light has changed and the “walk” sign appears, the crosswalk still might not be safe.
Red light cameras cannot take reckless drivers off the road — even if a driver accumulates dozens of violations.
Nearly one in 10 approaching a red light in New York plow through it, according to a 2015 study based on thousands of observations of red lights in four boroughs conducted by Hunter College professors William Milczarski and Peter Tuckel.
“The police are stretched very thin,” Milczarski said. “They have a complicated job to do, so it’s hard to blame them for not enforcing all the traffic laws.” But, he added, “The police have to be more vigilant, writing tickets, writing summons for people breaking the law.”
Three vehicles, including a police van, run a red light on 10th Avenue and 39th Street. Photo credit: Masa Oga
Red light cameras are installed in only 1 percent of intersections with traffic signals.
Besides police enforcement, New York City also has a red light camera program. While deaths stemming from red light running are down in the past year, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero plan, adopted in 2014, calls for a complete elimination of pedestrian fatalities. With that goal in mind, the plan included a proposal to expand the city’s red light camera enforcement to put a halt to red light speedsters. But the state legislature would need to approve such an expansion, and so far Albany has not accommodated.
So New York City’s enforcement of red light running has two parts: One whose scope is constrained by legislators in Albany, and another that’s subject to the limits of human activity. In 2017, traffic cameras issued around 500,000 of these violations, while the NYPD issued 70,021 summonses for running red lights.
Tickets issued by cameras, however, do not bring the threat of license points, because they identify only the vehicle, not the driver. As a result, red light cameras cannot take reckless drivers off the road — even if a driver accumulates dozens of violations.
“If you drive through a red light, police officers see you and ask for your license, so you will get a fine and also get points assessed against your license,” Milczarski said. “But if the camera just records the license plate, no points are assessed because they do not know who the driver is.”
Active Red Light Cameras in NYC
In short, drivers caught by red light cameras face fewer consequences than ones ticketed by police, so it’s little surprise that cameras catch a thousands of repeat offenders.
According to a recent report by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, cameras have issued 962,099 violations for running a red light since 2016, and 4,796 vehicles have failed to stop at a red light on five or more occasions. Among them, 87 vehicles have blown a red light more than 10 times.
This does not mean that red light cameras are ineffective — on the contrary, their advertised presence changes driver behavior. Since 1994 when the city implemented the nation’s first red light camera program, 196 cameras have been installed — only about 1 percent of all intersections with traffic signals. Those intersections, though, showed a 20 percent decline in all injuries, a 31 percent decrease in pedestrian injuries, and a 25 percent decrease in serious injuries in the three years after installation, according to a city report.
Red Light Camera Daily Ticket AverageRead More
If the city wants to dissuade repeat offenders, applying these camera-issued tickets to individual drivers — and not their cars — might be one way.
“The state should explore ways of targeting tickets and possibly license points to drivers listed on the vehicle’s registration if a single vehicle accumulates a high number of points,” Stringer wrote in the report.
Besides enforcement, Milczarski also suggests an additional approach.
“Especially, education is important. Remember, more than 90 percent of drivers are wearing a seatbelt today because of education,” he said. “We can educate drivers to obey the law.” — Masa Oga