Time after time, when a person loses his or her life while walking or biking in the city, the narrative unfolds according to script. Pedestrian or cyclist killed. Driver remained at the scene. No charges filed. Not only is it rare to hear of a driver held to even the minimum standard of care by police and prosecutors, more often than not NYPD would have the public believe that if anyone is to blame, it’s the victim.
When Brooklyn cyclist Mathieu Lefevre was killed by a hit-and-run driver in October, NYPD initially told the media that Lefevre had run a red light and that he was riding in the truck driver’s blind spot. The NYPD crash report contradicts both those claims, yet the department’s final public statement on the case may well be “There’s no criminality. That’s why they call it an accident.”
Rasha Shamoon was riding her bike home in the early morning hours of August 5, 2008 when she was struck by the driver of a Range Rover at Bowery and Delancey. Shamoon, 31, was an experienced cyclist whose bike was covered with reflective tape and equipped with front and rear lights. Limiting witness interviews to the driver, who at 21 had amassed a record of six traffic convictions, and his two passengers, NYPD faulted Shamoon for the crash.
In November 2009, 22-year-old Seth Kahn was killed by a bus driver while crossing Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen. Police at first told reporters that Kahn was running to beat the light when he was crushed by the rear wheels of the turning bus. Days later, however, bus driver Jeremy Philhower was ticketed for failing to yield. Almost a year after the crash it was determined that Philhower, who had a history of texting behind the wheel and had reportedly posted comments on Facebook about his desire to kill people, was driving too fast and not looking where he was going.
In the immediate aftermath of any single crash, it’s impossible to tell whether NYPD has sufficient cause to exonerate the driver. The department won’t release details from investigations and withholds crash reports from public scrutiny. But when the data from those reports is compiled by the New York State DOT and vetted by researchers, the cumulative picture debunks the NYPD’s blame-the-victim-first protocol.
The most comprehensive analysis of crash reports is inside the 2010 NYC DOT pedestrian safety report, which examined crashes in which pedestrians died or suffered serious injuries from 2002 to 2006. Among the crashes to which contributing factors were assigned, only 21.5 percent placed primary responsibility on “pedestrian error/confusion.” The vast majority were caused by driver behavior, including inattention (a factor in 36 percent of crashes), failure to yield (27 percent), and excessive speed (20 percent).
Since drivers are culpable for most crashes that hurt pedestrians, this should add up to hundreds if not thousands of cases each year where police and prosecutors file charges for reckless or negligent driving. In 2006, for example, 143 pedestrians died on city streets and 1,313 were severely injured. That doesn’t count less serious pedestrian injuries, which number in the thousands annually.
But as Transportation Alternatives noted in October, NYPD has failed to make use of new state laws intended to hold dangerous motorists accountable. Applications of VTL 1146, the statute that was strengthened last fall to make “careless driving” the default charge when pedestrians or cyclists are injured, have stayed pretty much the same for the last three-and-a-half years, with this year’s total citations on track to remain in the double digits.
So not only is there a huge mismatch between what actually causes crashes and what NYPD feeds the media, the department is as a rule letting drivers off the hook for inflicting death and serious injury.