State’s Highest Court Holds NYC Liable for Injuries on Streets Without Traffic Calming

Gerritsen Avenue, where a speeding driver severely injured 12-year-old Anthony Turturro after locals asked DOT to calm traffic on the street. A state Court of Appeals ruling exposes the city to liability for failing to redesign streets when it's aware of dangerous conditions. Image: Google Maps
Gerritsen Avenue, where a speeding driver severely injured 12-year-old Anthony Turturro after locals asked DOT to calm traffic on the street. A state Court of Appeals ruling exposes the city to liability for failing to redesign streets when it's aware of dangerous conditions. Image: Google Maps

The Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, ruled that New York City and other municipalities can be held liable for failing to redesign streets with a history of traffic injuries and reckless driving.

The ruling stems from a crash in 2004, when Louis Pascarella, driving “at least” 54 miles per hour in a 30 mph zone, struck 12-year-old Anthony Turturro as he rode a bike on Gerritsen Avenue. Pascarella later pled guilty to assault.

A civil trial jury awarded Turturro $20 million, finding the city 40 percent responsible for the crash. The city appealed, and the case made its way to the Court of Appeals, which last month rendered a 6-1 finding in favor of Turturro.

“This decision is a game-changer,” says Steve Vaccaro, an attorney who represents traffic crash victims. “The court held that departments of transportation can be held liable for harm caused by speeding drivers, where the DOT fails to install traffic-calming measures even though it is aware of dangerous speeding, unless the DOT has specifically undertaken a study and determined that traffic calming is not required.”

At trial, Turturro’s attorneys presented evidence that in the years before the crash, residents asked the city to take measures to calm traffic on Gerritsen, which locals described as a “racetrack.”

DOT subsequently conducted studies at three intersections, according to court documents, and “notified police of the speeding problem after each study.” But DOT didn’t look at the incidence of speeding along Gerritsen Avenue as a whole, and failed to follow up with NYPD to determine if speeding was still a problem.

Prior to the crash, DOT did not study potential traffic-calming measures like narrower lanes or raised crosswalks for Gerritsen, the court noted.

From the decision by Justice Eugene Fahey:

Plaintiffs’ expert testified that it was known among traffic engineers that straight, wide roads with little interference from pedestrians and other vehicles, such as Gerritsen Avenue, encourage speeding because drivers feel more comfortable on roadways with those characteristics. He testified that traffic calming measures deter speeding because they cause drivers to be more cautious, and that such measures are known to reduce the overall speed on roadways.

“There was a rational process by which the jury could have concluded that the City’s negligence was a proximate cause of the accident,” Fahey concluded.

Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White said the court’s decision should prompt Mayor de Blasio to “make a greater investment in street safety redesigns” in the next city budget. For the last two years the mayor has resisted calls from the City Council to increase funding for Vision Zero street improvements.

“This ruling from New York’s highest court puts an end to the notion that traffic safety improvements should be subject to debate and contingent on unanimous local opinion,” White said.

Vaccaro said the decision “will create an affirmative obligation on the DOT’s part to — at the very least — conduct studies to determine whether infrastructure can reduce traffic violence, and unless such studies indicate otherwise, to install the infrastructure.”

It took several deaths for DOT to get serious about calming traffic on Gerritsen Avenue. Image: DOT
Several people were killed before DOT went ahead with a plan for concrete pedestrian islands and a protected bike lane on Gerritsen Avenue. Image: DOT

In 2005, DOT converted Gerritsen from four lanes to three and installed a painted median in the vicinity of Gotham Avenue, where Turturro was struck. DOT proposed concrete pedestrian islands and painted bike lanes in 2008 and 2009, but dropped the plans after locals objected.

Four people have died in collisions on Gerritsen since 2007, including a motorist who in 2015 crashed through a gate and a retaining wall, landing in a creek. “I’m afraid of them coming right through the window,” said a resident who spoke with the Times about street racing on Gerritsen.

Last July, a drunk driver killed 17-year-old cyclist Sean Ryan near the site of the crash that injured Turturro. DOT responded with a plan for a two-way protected bike lane and concrete pedestrian islands. Installation got started in the fall, though some people still oppose safety measures for the street.

“The City is firmly committed to Vision Zero investments in street redesigns and enforcement that save lives,” de Blasio spokesperson Austin Finan told Streetsblog in an email. “No legal decision will change that.”

  • jcwconsult

    A safe rolling right on red is a turn when there are no conflicts with pedestrians, cyclists or other vehicles. It is just as easy to see if the way is clear, both from the left and to the right, at turning speeds of 5 to 10 mph. It is why NHTSA found such a tiny percentage of injuries or fatalities from the federal mandate allowing right on red turns at most intersections to reduce congestion and save fuel. If a camera is used to ticket right on red turns – with or without a stop – where the video shows the driver failed to yield the right of way to a pedestrian, cyclist or another vehicle – THAT is a proper ticket we would fully support.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    Yours is a good theoretical approach for city owned cameras at properly timed lights. You won’t ever see it here, because the costs to set up the systems are far too high, and the ticket rates at properly timed lights are far too low.

    And please note that many of the dangerous t-bone crashes in camera company videos are NOT stopped by the presence of the cameras. The videos prove the cameras are not effective for many of these crashes. The issue is that most drivers who cause the crashes by entering intersections several seconds after the light has been red (5 to 9 seconds is typical) never saw the light or recognized it was red. They are DUI, drug impaired, heavily distracted by something, etc. and getting a ticket in the mail weeks after the crashes does nothing to prevent the crashes.

    The vast proportion of camera tickets are for violations of less than one second and those drivers clear the intersections during the all-red phase and the slight delay before cross traffic starts up when it gets the green. Drivers who violate the red by less than one second have zero risks for crashes.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • LinuxGuy

    Here you go. This is a media story, not from any advocacy website.

    http://www.eastfallslocal.com/soooo-over-speedbumps/

  • Alicia

    “It is obvious”? In other words, you don’t have any examples.

  • Alicia

    congestion is still terrible there.

    “Terrible” is a subjective comment. Any hard numbers on effect on the amount of automobiles or travel times?

  • Alicia

    That’s an op-ed, not a news article. It loses a lot of credibility for citing the National Motorists’ Association as a source, among the many other problems with that essay.

  • Alicia

    A safe rolling right on red is a turn when there are no conflicts with
    pedestrians, cyclists or other vehicles. It is just as easy to see if
    the way is clear,

    That’s a dangerous overgeneralization, considering how views can be blocked by infrastructure installations (e.g. light posts, telephone poles, and traffic signs), by trees or other vegetation, or simply by buildings built close to the street corner.

  • Alicia

    You sound good, except for the fact that your idea of safety has only ever referred to safety for car users.

  • jcwconsult

    No, just British press reports showing little progress. I correspond with and have met a couple of top members in the Alliance of British Drivers, the UK equivalent of the NMA.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    The NHTSA safety results show that almost all drivers take those issues into account.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    We have had this discussion before and your belief we care only about car users is flatly untrue for me, for my police friends, for engineers, and other students of these issues. Good engineering and enforcement just for safety is good for all users.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Brian Howald

    Agreed.

    I was happy to see this in the opinion:

    “Experts for both parties agreed that this is precisely the purpose of traffic calming — to deter speeding through roadway design changes.”

  • LinuxGuy

    You will accept nothing anyone says, even a guy who lives in NYC. Time for you to start proving you are correct.

  • LinuxGuy

    You are talking to someone who thinks the Earth is flat, and will never be convinced.

  • LinuxGuy

    Congestion pricing is a non-starter.

  • jcwconsult

    Eric Peters sometimes writes things we publish, but he does not work for the NMA.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    Among the principles we advocate:
    – Traffic safety through sound engineering and real driver training
    – Traffic laws fairly written and reasonably enforced
    – Freedom from arbitrary traffic stops and unwarranted searches/seizures
    – Freedom from invasive surveillance
    – Full due process for motorists
    – Reasonable highway user fees for maintaining and improving highways, not for financing non-highway projects
    – Motorists’ rights keep pace with technological advances

    Is this terribly radical stuff? It is not, I believe.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • chandru

    Hard to believe a British person and spouse cannot see the obvious solution…DON”T rent a car to go to London? Why on earth would you do so? And if you have a car elsewhere, DON’T drive it into London. I don’t go every year, only 4 visits over the years, but I have more sense than to drive in London.

  • jcwconsult

    We drove in London before the congestion charge system, as we have in Moscow, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Madrid, Prague, Santiago, Toronto, Istanbul, Geneva, Sydney, NY, Chicago, LA, San Francisco, and many other major cities. Choosing reasonable times of day to avoid rush hours and planning routes in advance makes the driving OK in most cases.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Andrew

    I’ve been to most of those cities, and I can’t imagine how I’d spend my time if I had to tend to a car for my entire visit. Sure, there may be some worthwhile excursions most easily reachable by car, but a car just gets in the way of seeing most of the stuff worth seeing.

  • Andrew

    “Sound engineering” and “real driver training” cannot, in and of themselves, produce driving techniques that preserve safety for those not in cars. A driver who wishes to speed will speed; a driver who wishes to roll past stop signs while pedestrians are trying to cross will roll past stop signs while pedestrians are trying to cross; a driver who does not wish to yield to pedestrians while turning will not yield to pedestrians while turning; a driver who wishes to ignore red lights that protect pedestrian crosswalks will ignore red lights that protect pedestrian crosswalks.

    You know what can persuade drivers to comply with laws intended to maintain safety for pedestrians? Meaningful enforcement.

    If you are opposed to meaningful enforcement, then please stop pretending that you care about safety.

  • Andrew

    You’re the one who made the claim that traffic calming causes injuries. You’re the one who needs to prove it or to retract your claim.

    If you’re concerned with emergency response times, I take it you’re a big fan of bus lanes and bike lanes? Both (if enforced) allow emergency vehicles to bypass traffic jams caused by too many single occupancy vehicles.

    Congestion pricing is another way to reduce the likelihood and severity of traffic jams, also allowing emergency vehicles to make better time – but you’ve already told us that you don’t like congestion pricing. Hmmm, I wonder why!

    Stop pretending to care about safety. You don’t.

  • jcwconsult

    I never found it so. The freedom, privacy and flexibility of a private car is important to me. I lived and worked in Moscow for two years, lived in a normal Russian apartment, shopped in local stores, and enjoyed the freedom to visit any part of the city at any time I wanted on my schedule. The same was true in Prague for four months. I don’t find that a car “gets in the way”, I find just the opposite. That said, I know many other people are more comfortable using public transit in areas where it is good and they are welcome to that preference. It just isn’t my preference.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    I have covered this more than once. Meaningful enforcement is not possible at any cost cities will pay. With officers, you need far more of them than any city will fund in order to provide enough enforcement to make any real difference. If you use speed cameras for speed control, you need one every one or two blocks to actually control speeds effectively to near the posted limit. At that point, cameras costing ~$3,000 per month per camera will not collect enough fines to even come close to paying their own costs. And no city will employ dozens or hundreds of $3,000 cameras that return perhaps $1,000 in revenue. If you want 85% of the drivers to stay at or below 25 or 30 mph, then you must re-engineer the streets so that 85% of the drivers feel safe and comfortable only at speeds up to 25 or 30. That works, but is quite expensive and other negative aspects.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Frank Kotter

    That’s an op-ed as others have pointed out. The links go to other op-eds and articles providing not data verifiable by actual studies. The only thing which exists in the way of actual data is a survey from 2002(!) of ambulance crews in London who say that they don’t like them. One link is from a blog from 2001 (!) which may contain malware whose email address no longer is active.

    But really, it is just a red herring anyway. because in one of the liked articles to the page you provided (an article sandwiched between how to make your dog happy for New Year’s and the results of a dog park referendum form this author) is this statement:

    ***But there are tons of effective alternatives to speed bumps. Narrowing streets, choke points, roundabouts, chicanes and other measures all slow cars and don’t slow emergency vehicles. They also don’t screw with bicycles.***

    For you to focus on the single aspect of calming infrastructure – speed bumps – shows your lack of underlying knowledge about this issue or a deliberate desire to be evasive.

  • fdtutf

    As nice and sane as that sounds, we run into two hard facts: (1) our public resources aren’t always sufficient to provide well for both motorists and transit users, and (2) it simply is not possible, spatially, to provide well for both motorists and pedestrians — and transit users generally are also pedestrians. If you devote a lot of space to automobiles, you end up with a place that is undesirable for pedestrians; conversely, if you make places that are good for pedestrians, it’s impossible to also make space for automobiles.

    About the only exception I can think of is that, with sufficient resources (which usually are not there), provision for automobiles can be placed underground, leaving good pedestrian environments on the surface. But putting anything underground is frighteningly expensive.

  • jcwconsult

    Agreed, these issues are always a compromise, and thanks for a very reasoned response. Moscow and some other cities solve much of the risk for pedestrians at many major intersections by creating underground passageways for the pedestrians – a much less expensive solution than putting the cars underground. Many of them have kiosks for snacks, flowers, and other purchases. Buskers playing instruments for a nice atmosphere are common.

    Pedestrian use on streets with cars does not require much space beyond existing sidewalks in many major cities. It does help to have properly timed lights and very well marked crosswalks.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • fdtutf

    The point is precisely that there is no compromise, no middle ground, simply because of the nature of the thing. You can serve motorists, or you can serve pedestrians (and, by extension, transit users). You cannot serve both.

    Forcing pedestrians underground disserves them. The action (real destinations) is at street level, and that’s where pedestrians belong. Adding fake action underground doesn’t change that.

  • jcwconsult

    “Forcing pedestrians underground … to end of paragraph.”

    I have never seen real destinations IN the intersections themselves, located in the traffic lanes and crosswalks. The real destinations are along the sidewalks on all sides of the intersections. The underground passageways serve to totally protect the pedestrians from vehicle traffic, can provide more destinations with kiosks, and allow the pedestrians to cross east-west or north-south with no delays waiting for the traffic lights to change and the vehicle traffic to stop.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • anon

    DiBlasio = phony! I cringe everytime I hear him quoted or see his picture.

  • LinuxGuy

    You asked about speed bumps, so that is what you got. Anything that slows traffic also has other side effects. No free lunch. There were many links, but it sounds like they were not read.

  • LinuxGuy

    If you will only spout propaganda, then I am wasting my time.

  • LinuxGuy

    It is not worth the hassle of casual visitors to use mass transit. You need to learn all the details, buy passes, etc. Many will not cash you out, so you have a card with a balance stuck on it. No more coins or tokens now.

  • LinuxGuy

    Ask her to prove the stuff she is saying is true.

  • neroden

    That is absolutely awesome. Go NYS Court of Appeals. I’ve always thought it was one of the best courts in the country.

  • neroden

    Although that is a federal ruling. It’s not clear to me whether police have a NEW YORK STATE duty to keep people safe…

    The federal ruling was 5-4 with the treasonous criminals who committed a 2000 coup against the US government comprising the majority, so it’s not good law, either; rulings by discredited traitors tend to be overturned or worked around by honest courts.

  • neroden

    London’s Congestion Charge is an amazing total success. Before it, the buses were caught in traffic. Now, the buses run on schedule through the Congestion Charge Zone.

    So there.

  • neroden

    London’s Tube & bus system is 200 times easier for the casual visitor to use (buy a Travelcard) than a private car (OH MY GOD WHAT A MESS). I’ve dealt with both. The public transport is faster and more reliable in London.

    Nobody in their right mind would drive a car in London if they didn’t have to — a bit like NYC in that regard. James C. Walker is obviously an eccentric who likes to suffer through traffic, trying to drive cars through streets which were never designed for cars, etc. — not really sane.

  • neroden

    “Problem”? No. It’s an advantage. Pedestrians should have the right of way. Give it back to them.

  • neroden

    Exactly. Ban him or we have to respond to him. Your choice, mods.

  • neroden

    Emergency services are allowed to turn on sirens and do all kinds of things like drive on sidewalks and drive the wrong way on one-way streets and so on.

    Traffic calming is great for emergency services. Gets rid of the damn drivers who won’t pull over. I’ve never seen a documented case of *pedestrians* failing to get out of the way for an ambulance, though cars do it all the time.

  • neroden

    Ah, so you’re proud of how many reckless red-light-running drivers you’ve kept on the road and that you’ve allowed these reckless drivers to injure more people. You’re disgusting.

  • neroden

    Every red light traffic light system RUN BY THE CITY has been run just fine.

    I do not approve of for-profit private companies doing this stuff either. That is bad. But they can simply be run by the cities, they are sometimes, and it works fine.

  • neroden

    Perhaps it should come out of the budget for the worthless NYPD, especially with the record-low crime rates. Yeah, I know, I know…

  • jcwconsult

    Find me a US city that owns and runs their own cameras without a for-profit vendor. I don’t know of one.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    The NMA wants the reckless ones that actually cause or risk crashes to be cited by officers at the time of the offense.

    We want the cameras removed that issue almost all tickets to safe drivers with deliberately faulty engineering and predatory enforcement practices.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Frank Kotter

    Nope, your claim was ‘injuries CAUSED by traffic calming? What happens when people need emergency services, but they are delayed or can’t get through at all? When you screw with traffic flow, you tend to cause crashes too. Tickets to safe drivers? Wrong drivers’ Your support is exclusively dealing with speed bumps.

    I did indeed read the article and clicked on the links used as support within as you can see from my above comment. Did you or just google ‘speed bumps’ and send me the first link you hit?

    You seem to be very poorly informed about these issues. Instead of hanging out on a forum designed to promote actual road safety and quality of life issues surrounding transportation issues and post dubious comments, could you please first get the information and then make your case?

  • fdtutf

    But the large traffic lanes and crosswalks, too large for anything else to be found there, are a concession to motorists.

    The underground passageways are also a concession to motorists, removing a potential hazard from the roadways at intersections. Since they cost pedestrians time, they are a hindrance, not a help, to them. They are also a safety hazard for pedestrians at low-usage times.

    What also allows pedestrians to reach their destinations unhindered by automobiles is putting the automobiles underground where they belong, and leaving pedestrians on the surface where they belong.

  • jcwconsult

    I have found the underground pedestrian passages save time by not waiting for traffic lights or traffic to clear. They also provide total safety from vehicles. At times they help get you out of rain or snow for a short time. I am sure you realize that putting vehicles underground is a totally impractical idea. I am only interested in solution that work, not those that don’t.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • fdtutf

    You’re assuming the existence of traffic lights. If the automobiles were underground where they belong, no traffic lights would be needed and there would be no “traffic” to wait for.

    You say you’re only interested in solutions that work. The question is, solutions that work for whom?

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