Motorist Who Killed Phyllis Pitt “Most Likely” Not Cited for Careless Driving

A Brooklyn motorist who jumped a curb, fatally injured a pedestrian and crashed into a restaurant while attempting to park her minivan last week will likely not receive as much as a traffic ticket, according to NYPD.

The curb-jumping driver who killed Phyllis Pitt and crashed into a Marine Park McDonald's may or may not have been ticketed by NYPD for careless driving. Photo: ##http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/pedestrian-killed-minivan-pins-mcdonalds-brooklyn-article-1.1087659##Daily News##

Phyllis Pitt, 64, was walking on Flatbush Avenue near her Marine Park home at approximately 1 p.m. on Thursday, May 31, when the 75-year-old driver backed onto the sidewalk, striking Pitt and smashing through the front window of a McDonald’s. Pitt, a popular school teacher and adjunct university instructor, was declared dead at Beth Israel Medical Center.

The driver, who reportedly confused the gas pedal with the brake, remained at the scene. According to an NYPD spokesperson, “no criminality is suspected.” When we asked if any summonses were issued, the spokesperson did not have that information, but said, “Most likely there wasn’t.”

Based on the department’s history of excusing motorists who injure and kill pedestrians, the spokesperson was probably right. State laws intended to hold drivers to a marginal standard of accountability after a crash have been on the books since 2010, but those laws go virtually unenforced by NYPD. In cases where a pedestrian or cyclist is killed, the driver has about a 50 percent chance of being cited under state vulnerable user laws. In cases of pedestrian or cyclist injury, the percentage of drivers ticketed for careless driving under VTL 1146 (the statute that includes Hayley and Diego’s Law as well as Elle’s Law) is negligible.

Phyllis Pitt was killed by a sidewalk-mounting motorist two days after it was reported that the City Council is planning to raise fines and possibly establish a squad of enforcement agents to discourage sidewalk cycling, and over three months after a council hearing on NYPD traffic enforcement and crash investigations drew scores of headlines but has so far resulted in no legislation to combat deadly driving.

This fatal crash occurred in the 63rd Precinct. To voice your concerns about neighborhood traffic safety directly to Captain John Rowell, the commanding officer, go to the next precinct community council meeting. The 63rd Precinct council meetings happen at 8 p.m. on the fourth Wednesday of the month at the Kings Plaza Mall Community Room. Call the precinct at 718-258-4444 for information.

  • Ian Turner

    It’s hard to know what to do about cases like this, besides being more restrictive regarding who gets a license or just having less cars on the road altogether. It’s not obvious (at least, not to me) that more vigilant criminal prosecution would have done anything to prevent this incident.

    The feds (NHTSA) have prepared a mind-bogglingly detailed 132-page report on “pedal application errors”, available here:
    http://www.nhtsa.gov/staticfiles/nti/pdf/811597.pdf

  • Guest

    Ian, it may be true that more vigilant prosecution couldn’t prevent this tragedy, but what about those of us trying to deal with the loss of our family member?  Where is the closure?  Where is the justice?  This woman obviously shouldn’t have been driving and because of her mistake, my family is heartbroken.  Sometimes when prevention isn’t possible, there needs to be an avenue for justice.  To walk away without so much as a citation is a slap in the face to those of us that just had a family member taken away.

  • Zach

    It is obvious to me that, just like any criminal prosecution, prosecuting this would reduce the chances of it happening in the future, at least a tiny bit. The message should be: take an extra few seconds to think about what pedal it is, because it could mean you landing behind bars. Now the message is: just hit the pedal, it could save you a second, and won’t cost you anything.

  • Zach

    Speaking of costing, what are the chances of winning a large civil suit, with a lower burden of guilt? Sure, I say the driver deserves a criminal record, but at least the family could get some closure with a bundle of money.

  • Ian Turner

    Zach: That is, frankly, not how human cognition works. Nobody expects to hit the wrong pedal, and nobody thinks that it will happen to them. It’s not laziness, it’s incompetence, and one unfortunate foible of human cognition is that the incompetent don’t know they’re incompetent. That’s why the criminal justice approach to this problem can not result in prevention: No matter how common punishment for this sort of incident is, no one expects to be punished themselves, because no one expects to make this sort of mistake. This sort of bias is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    In attributing this incident to laziness or impatience, you are most likely participating in a different cognitive bias, namely correspendence bias, the tendency to overestimate (in others) personality-based explanations for behavior over situational-based explanations. However, it’s unlikely that you will agree with me on this, due to blind spot bias (yet another cognitive bias), the human tendency not to recognize one’s own cognitive biases, even when they have been pointed out and explained at length.

    Regarding civil liability, I think that is totally appropriate in this case, but I doubt a judge is likely to agree.

  • Anonymous

    @7c177865bd107a919938355fe93de93a:disqus : you make some good points, but if taken further you could argue that the criminal justice system just can’t deter crime at all, even for more traditional crimes such as robbery or murder. Only criminals who make mistakes get caught, and no criminal expects to make mistakes and get caught. One way in which the system can reduce crime is by taking criminals off the streets for a while; we need to do the equivalent for vehicular crime by being much more liberal when it comes to revoking licenses, and adding a very steep penalty for driving with a revoked license.

    I know some people (admittedly few) who avoid driving because they think it’s risky for themselves and others. I imagine that if people were also aware of a real risk of criminal liability if they injured someone, more people would choose not to drive, and this might reduce injuries by a tiny bit. That said, I agree that criminal penalties are not likely to affect the fraction-of-a-second “decision” of which pedal to push. Some people will always make mistakes, and no one is thinking about criminal consequences every time they push a pedal (hundreds of times a day?).

  • Ian Turner

    @qrt145:disqus : I think you’re confusing two separate issues. It’s not that drivers don’t expect to get caught using the wrong pedal, it’s that they don’t expect to make the mistake in the first place.

    And I don’t think it’s accurate to say that criminals don’t expect to get caught. More likely, they expect that the (nonzero) risk of getting caught exceeds the benefit of the crime. Of course, this calculus takes place in a nonrational balance of conflicting impulses, but it happens nonetheless.

    You will notice that in my first post on this topic I suggested “being more restrictive regarding who gets a license” as one possible way to prevent this type of incident. Revoking licenses of people who make this mistake, while possibly appropriate, amounts to closing the barn door only after the horses have escaped. The NHTSA report that I linked goes in to some detail on how and when states have responded to this circumstance with a license re-evaluation, and to what outcomes.

  • Anonymous

    @7c177865bd107a919938355fe93de93a:disqus : my point was that just like drivers don’t expect to make mistakes such as confusing the pedals, criminals don’t expect to make mistakes that lead to getting caught (leaving evidence, committing the crime in the wrong place at the wrong time, telling the wrong person…) Yes, criminals know that they can get caught, just like drivers know they can kill someone by mistake, but both think that it won’t happen to them. Both make the calculus that the benefits are great enough for them to outweigh the risk.

    Regarding barn doors, I do agree with your first post, and I’m not suggesting that the only cause for revoking a license should be “killing someone because you pushed the wrong pedal”. I said we should be much more liberal about revoking license. Maybe revoke the license after your second moving violation in a ten year period, or the first for particularly egregious violations. I say this because it is often the case that people who cause fatal crashes had a terrible driving record and yet the state kept letting them drive. Obviously, this won’t get rid of every crash, and someone with a perfect record can make a fatal mistake too, but at least it would help.

  • Nathanael

    Agreed with everyone.

     It seems to be practically impossible to get repeated killers off the road these days.  What’s wrong with this picture?  Surely we can *at the very least* start removing licenses from proven incompetent drivers.

  • Anonymous

    The motorist who killed Phyllis Pitt should receive a ticket for careless driving and he also deserves many years in prison. He is guilty for this crime! I’m very sorry for the victim! such an innocent man! 🙁 May his soul rest in peace!

  • “That is, frankly, not how human cognition works. Nobody expects to hit the wrong pedal, and nobody thinks that it will happen to them. It’s not laziness, it’s incompetence, and one unfortunate foible of human cognition is that the incompetent don’t know they’re incompetent. That’s why the criminal justice approach to this problem can not result in prevention.”

    And yet when you step back and look at the whole picture, the criminal justice approach has resulted in prevention. Cities in other countries enjoy much lower fatality rates than us, and part of their success is a social consciousness of the serious danger created by driving, which is respected all the way from driver licencing to the penalties for fatally screwing up.

    You can easily perceive the difference just walking around a place where driving is not a casual affair. Everyone seems to drive like an expert, negotiating tight spaces that American drivers would consider unnavigable. Signs warn drivers to proceed slowly through urban areas to “avoid the worst”: killing a pedestrian. Compare that to NYCDOT’s sign outside my door telling us pedestrians to try harder not be killed by NYCDOT’s Adams Street Speedway. Americans regard vehicular killing more as an act of God than man—and indeed there may be a bit of a God complex among our motorists (if I too can indulge in a little armchair psychology).

    And as qrt145 emphasizes, people can rightly *choose* not to drive in the first place. The same as some Americans choose not to drive drunk, elsewhere many people chose not to drive at all, especially as their ability to drive safely declines with age. The result is that, in general, their streets are not plainly full of incompetent and/or reckless drivers. It’s like night and day, compared to New York.

    If it’s possible to have less dangerous streets without having harsher penalties for killing somebody with a car, I’d like to know just one example a place that does.

  • Ian Turner

    Nathan,

    I think we generally see eye-to-eye, but your reasoning here contains some dangerous logical fallacies that could improperly justify any number of things. That there are other places which have some characteristic in common with one another and also have safer streets does not mean that adopting one of those same characteristics ourselves will do anything to make our streets safer. Certainly, teaching everyone to speak German would not have an impact on our street safety, no matter how safe German streets are. Would you argue that New York should reduce its population to a more European size in order to improve the safety of our streets?

    With respect to traffic justice, I never said that we shouldn’t take a criminal justice approach generally, just that it would not have an application in this particular instance. That’s because the failure here was not really a failure to exercise care, but rather a failure to exercise competence, and, as discussed, the incompetent generally don’t know they’re incompetent.

    I will concede one thing, which is that if you had a sufficiently severe criminal justice system, people might just avoid driving altogether — not because they viewed themselves an incompetent; the system would have to be severe enough that people viewed the system itself as arbitrary and dangerous, or as filtering out all but expert drivers. That might reduce this type of incident, but I don’t think it would be enough even to apply the death penalty to those who kill due to a pedal application error. If you disagree, look at the state of government corruption in China.

    Finally, if all you’re looking for are counterexamples, I would point to Singapore, which unquestionably has a more strict justice system than the united states in every way, but double the fatality rate per vehicle; to Cambodia, which has a comparable road fatality rate to the United States but a completely apathetic criminal justice system; and to Japan, which takes a similar view to the United States when it comes to traffic justice but whose streets are far more civilized and whose traffic death rate is one of the lowest in the world.

    Cheers,

    –Ian

  • Ian if you want to talk about logical fallacies, your society-wide deductions from claims about “how human cognition works” in individuals did not impress me much. I didn’t like it any better when someone in another thread was saying the same about severe penalties for drunk driving. It’s easy to say that “people don’t think that way”, that a drunk motorist isn’t going to weigh higher penalties when deciding whether to take a cab.

    But when you look around, society does work that way. We do punish behavior we want to discourage. When we do this fairly and without prejudice, it works pretty well. When we do things like exempt the NYPD from all traffic laws including those against drunk driving, they kill an outsize number of people with their driving.

    “That there are other places which have some characteristic in common with one another and also have safer streets does not mean that adopting one of those same characteristics ourselves will do anything to make our streets safer.”

    Without the ability to conduct controlled experiments at scale, the best we can do is imitate success where it exists. We can suppose that speaking German is not the reason Germans enjoy lower traffic fatality rates, but that a commitment to safety, reaching from street design to accountability for killing, is related. I want to see New York imitate successful European models of less dangerous streets, including the accountability part. When you do everything else right accountability isn’t even controversial.

    “That might reduce this type of incident, but I don’t think it would be enough even to apply the death penalty to those who kill due to a pedal application error.”

    No, but a more comprehensive approach can work in unexpected ways. When you aren’t the only country in the world where most people drive automatics (I think that’s still true?), you don’t have incompetents mixing up their 2 pedals and killing people often enough to publish research about how it’s just a normal brain oopsie. If you mix up the 3 pedals with a manual transmission, you tend to kill the engine. You’re either sharp enough to manage or you can’t drive. I’m sorry for wandering here, but to me it’s all pretty plainly connected, from the dumbing down of American cars, to the dumbing down of American roads, to the constant “bending” of every single traffic law, to the general American abhorrence to holding motorists who accidentally kill accountable — to the killing itself.

    “… and to Japan, which takes a similar view to the United States when it comes to traffic justice but whose streets are far more civilized and whose traffic death rate is one of the lowest in the world”

    It sounds like Japan is a model to imitate as well, though I will continue to advocate for the models I’m more familiar with.

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