Why Motorists Should Pay for Crash Investigations

As any good policy wonk knows, certain activities effectively force people who only bear the costs of that activity to subsidize the beneficiaries. To use the classic contemporary example, fossil fuel polluters receive billions in tax breaks, but pay nothing for the climate change-inducing carbon that they emit.

The same problem applies to private motoring, the costs of which are, in many cases, spread across non-drivers or society at large. The curb lane in front of my home provides free storage for my car-owning neighbors’ vehicles. A portion of my taxes go to maintaining highways I rarely use, caring for uninsured crash victims and asthma patients in city hospitals, bailing out the auto industry because it’s too big to fail, and fighting wars to keep oil cheap.

One aspect of private motoring that benefits motorists while imposing costs on others is crash investigations. Anyone involved in a motor vehicle crash (and remaining conscious afterwards) knows that two NYPD officers are sent to the scene and spend usually about half an hour or more recording information including weather conditions and the contours of the road. (The officers may also spend some time trying to convince you not to make a report.) Many of these crashes involve property damage only.

While the barely relevant details of fender-benders are meticulously documented, members of the NYPD Collision Investigation Squad are supposedly doing in-depth investigations of all crashes involving “critical” injuries.

Why is the public at large paying teams of police officers to gather loss adjustment information for insurance companies in property damage disputes, while acts of serious traffic violence go uninvestigated?

The answer lies with the insurance industry. From an industry-wide perspective, insurers’ interest is not focused on determining fault for a crash. Since any given insurer can just as easily find itself on the defending end as the prosecuting end of a crash-related claim, the captains of the insurance industry don’t really care how fault is allocated in any given crash (however much the individual insurance adjusters assigned to particular crashes may care).

Rather, the insurance industry’s prime objective in crash investigations is to identify insurance fraud, which without question is a concern. One recent bust uncovered a massive $279 million fraud involving staged crashes where the “victims” are rushed to clinics where doctors systematically perform unnecessary medical procedures, and everyone from the “victims” to the clinic owners to the doctors get a piece of the pie. Similar scams are run with property damage claims arising from staged crashes.

But while insurance fraud is a problem, deterring it should not be the driving goal of crash investigation policy.  The public at large should not be subsidizing this police-staffed fraud-detection program, while serious crashes in need of independent investigation are neglected.

The Bloomberg administration made a proposal last year to charge participants in crashes for the cost of the FDNY response to the crash scene. As an FDNY spokesperson explained, “The intention here is to take the burden off of taxpayers and make the parties responsible for accidents pay for the services.”

Mainstream media outlets from the Daily News to the Wall Street Journal predictably lined up to publish windshield-perspective screeds about the “crash tax,” burying the proposal almost immediately. Lost in the “outrage” was the fact that FDNY already charges exorbitant fees to transport crash victims to the hospital. In other words, the city charges pedestrians struck on the sidewalk by motorists for a trip to the ER, and then makes the same pedestrian pay to provide free FDNY responses to property damage sustained in crashes only involving motorists. Why shouldn’t FDNY charge for a response to the scene of crashes involving property damage only?

Indeed, NYPD already charges $10 for a copy of a crash report. Shouldn’t the fee charged for the report more fairly reflect the value of the resources invested when two cops spend half an hour or more at the site of a fender bender? And wouldn’t civilian employees, who don’t have to travel around in pairs and don’t necessarily feel demeaned by investigating crashes (as many NYPD officers seem to) be a better and more efficient choice for investigators?

Fiscal constraints have been offered to justify neglect of crash investigations that state laws mandate police to perform. The fairest and most efficient way to fund these investigations is plainly to have the drivers involved, who enjoy the lion’s share of the benefits of private motoring, pay themselves.

Steve Vaccaro is an attorney with the Law Office of Vaccaro & White.

  • James Reefer

    This is deeply infuriating.

  • Anonymous

    Insurance companies could offer to pay for crash investigations. Not out of sheer generosity, of course, but as part of an add-on to their policies, which would be priced according to the risk it entails.

    Even this doesn’t go far enough. Paying crash investigators is not the only cost that a crasher passes on to society: there’s also the cost in additional time wasted by everyone slowed down by the crash, increased pollution, etc. There should be an actual _fine_ for crashing, not just a bill.

  • Larry Littlefield

    There are big changes coming in insurance. Generally, from an insurance perspective, the more death, injury, property damage and litigation the better. They’ll factor it all in to the price of the policies, and add a percent to a bigger number, meaning a bigger industry with larger profits. No-fault? All the better. You don’t have to worry about getting stuck with more than your share of the claims.

    The minute one company starts to grab away the better drivers leaving others with more of the claims, however, the whole thing starts to unravel. And that is what these electronic driving monitors are going to achieve. Pretty soon, anyone who doesn’t have one is going to be stuck in the risk pool with those who know darn well they’d better not.

    New York State has passed a law allowing this to happen, unless something changes quick, a lot of cross subsidy for bad driving is going to be going away.

  • Joe R.

    It sounds like the end result of this might be that insurance will be cost prohibitive for bad drivers. I think we’ve been arguing for something along those lines on this site for years. Anything which gets bad drivers off the roads permanently is fine by me.

  • Anonymous

    While I agree with this sentiment in general, it is actually quite a scary thought for poorer people who don’t live in a city like NYC. The vast majority of cities in the US are completely inaccessible to non-drivers. For example, in Atlanta, to go from 1 part of downtown to another (a 15-20 min drive) took me about 1hr45 mins by public transport

    Fortunately the Obama admin has pushed for better public transport which hopefully will help ease these concerns.

  • Joe R.

    I understand your concerns but as more of the population can’t or won’t drive for whatever reason, don’t you think public transit will expand? It seems it takes a while for those in charge to get the message, but we’re already starting to see unprecedented expansion of public transit, especially in urban areas.

  • KillMoto

    Just the other day I was wondering if “open source crash investigations” could be possible. We see local advocacy groups training people how to ride bikes. Why can’t we train common folk in basic chain of custody and evidence handling procedures? I ride my bike 90% of the time with a helmet camera. Suppose I catch a vehicular homicide on film?

    I agree 100% that people involved in crashes should pay for the investigation. I’ll go one further, and say that a condition for road use (along with mandatory license, registration, and insurance) should be a waiver of “innocent till proven guilty” and instead acknowledgment that a driver is “presumed at fault until proven otherwise”. Drivers could pay a detective to retrieve the data from their black box to “show they weren’t speeding”. Or the state, NTSB, an insurance company, or a victims advocate could request the black box data from the state (the state owns the road; the state owns the data) to prove the driver was speeding, or wasn’t braking, etc.

  • KillMoto

    Some nations have a big problem with insurance fraud. You may have seen this on YouTube. A driver is stopped, and a person comes along and throws themselves on the hood of the car (in an attempt to commit fraud, or extortion).

    One thing we need to ask ourselves is “why is this in YouTube?” Well, it’s //because// of the culture of insurance fraud. The video was captured by a dash camera that the driver themselves bought. These cameras are sold on Amazon for $80 to $100 each.

    Now imagine if the state required all people to get a dash cam as a condition of road use. These dash cameras would not allow a person to delete footage, but rather would record in a 24 hour loop. When a car crashes, police could grab the camera and with a police code, lock in the last 24 hours of footage. Footage that includes the wreck, and the moments before and after…

    People pay about $9500 a year to drive (source: AAA). It’s not too much to ask to require a one time $100 cost to have a dash camera. This would help prove negligence of drivers.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The solution will be bicycles and carpooling with a fee. That will allow the riders to share the cost of a car with the drivers.

    Surely not everyone who is poor is a bad driver, and they can earn a few bucks driving the rest around. The good drivers are paying more now, to cover the bad ones.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Brooklyn has a big problem with insurance fraud. And with lots of people registering their car elsewhere, those who admit they live here are covering a larger share of it than they should be.

  • Fee-for-collision. This is just a way to sneak in more privatization. We have an auto-system, own it. Live with it or change it. Adding more fees and privatizing just make it worse. Best way to address the collision externality is fare-free transit.

  • Ari

    Your second paragraph is correct, but it contradicts your first.

    Insurance companies want premium-paying members who never make a claim. That is what the electronic driving monitors will enable them to do (not entirely, of course, but move in that direction).

  • Daphna

    Thank you, Steve, for this excellent article. I thought Bloomberg’s proposal to charge motorists a fee (about $450) for FDNY response to their crashes was an excellent idea. I was sad when it was not enacted. I like your idea to have civilian investigators of crashes rather than police personnel. I also appreciate your explanation of the auto insurance companies’ role in the current system.

  • Brad Aaron

    In Inwood there is an old red Camaro with a North Carolina vanity plate that says “BRONX” something-or-other. They don’t even try to hide it.

    Another aspect of this is that many states where these cars are registered, like NC, don’t require plates on the front, which makes it harder to ID the vehicle in case of, say, a hit-and-run attempt.

  • Anonymous

    Please, no. Last time they used “open source” investigators three weeks ago, they did a lot of mistakes.

    If a body injury occurs (something that doesn’t happen in 90% of crashes of more), properly trained, deputized and qualified agents need to be on the scene.

    Activists have no place “securing evidence” or “preserving the chain of custody”

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