Unlicensed Drivers Keep Killing and Injuring New Yorkers — Time for Albany to Act
The default charge for killing someone while driving without a license is the same one NYPD and DAs apply when an unlicensed driver fails to signal a turn. This must change.
Unlicensed drivers critically injured two people walking in Queens and Brooklyn Tuesday. In both cases, according to the Daily News, NYPD and prosecutors charged the drivers with aggravated unlicensed operation, a low-level misdemeanor that’s often applied when an unlicensed driver kills someone — or turns without signaling.
Albany lawmakers have failed to pass legislation that would make it a felony to harm someone while driving without a valid license, but bills introduced this year have sponsors in the State Senate and Assembly.
Unlicensed drivers have killed eight people walking and biking in NYC in the last eight months, according to crash data tracked by Streetsblog. Since the 2014 launch of the Vision Zero program, motorists without valid licenses have killed at least 24 NYC pedestrians and cyclists. In many of those cases — unless a driver fled the scene, for example, or was found to be impaired by alcohol or drugs — third degree aggravated unlicensed operation was the top charge applied.
A charge of aggravated unlicensed operation stipulates that a motorist drove without a valid license when he knew or should have known he didn’t have one. Third degree aggravated unlicensed operation carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine, though drivers usually plead guilty and get a fine with no jail time. (In some cases, unlicensed drivers who kill people aren’t charged with a crime at all.)
Prompted by a series of fatal crashes in Queens, State Senator Michael Gianaris has for several years running introduced legislation to make it a class E felony to cause serious injury or death while driving without a valid license, as long as the license was suspended or revoked for traffic offenses. The bill passed the Senate in 2016, but died in the Assembly.
Gianaris reintroduced the bill this session. It currently has seven co-sponsors, including Tony Avella, a member of the so-called Independent Democratic Conference, which, along with Republicans, controls the Senate. An Assembly version introduced by Queens rep Aravella Simotas has five co-sponsors.
A second Gianaris bill, which also has support in the Senate and Assembly, would require drivers with suspended or revoked licenses to surrender their license plates.
By backing these bills in the Assembly, Speaker Carl Heastie can help elevate penalties and deter people from driving without a license. Will he do it?
Editor’s note: After we published this post, the driver in Tuesday’s Brooklyn crash was also charged with “being under the influence of drugs,” according to the Daily News.