On Eve of NYPD Hearing, Van Bramer Calls for Thorough Crash Investigations

Elected officials and community leaders from Long Island City gathered to press for safety improvements and better crash investigations in the wake of a pedestrian death on Queens Plaza. Photo: Stephen Miller

Two weeks after a woman was killed while crossing Queens Plaza, Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, joined by other elected officials and community leaders, stood at the busy intersection to call for better NYPD crash investigations, safety measures from DOT, and a citywide zero-tolerance policy for pedestrian deaths. Van Bramer’s press conference comes just days before the City Council’s public safety and transportation committees hold an oversight hearing on reforming NYPD crash investigations.

On September 13 at approximately 9:45 p.m., a woman NYPD identified as Karen Pheras, 20, was walking across Queens Plaza when the driver of blue 2009 Honda CRV struck her at the intersection of 27th Street and Queens Plaza North. Pheras was pronounced dead on arrival at Mount Sinai Hospital, according to LIC Post.

The 69-year-old driver has not been identified by police. NYPD did not respond to a request for information about the investigation, but it’s unlikely there will be charges in the case. “The police have at this point determined that the woman crossing the street was crossing against the light,” Van Bramer said.

“They believe there was no wrongdoing on the driver’s part,” said Van Bramer deputy chief of staff Jason Banrey. “After he hit her, he swerved. We don’t know if he was speeding or not.”

In addition to the crash that killed Karen Pheras, a woman was critically injured by a driver on Queens Plaza in July. Just yesterday, Alexander Ciszewski, 18, was killed by a hit-and-run driver while skateboarding alongside a truck in Long Island City. In March, 16-year-old Tenzin Drudak was killed on the sidewalk on Thomson Avenue by a driver who said he was distracted by a spilt drink. After pressure from local leaders, including Van Bramer, DOT installed pedestrian safety improvements at the intersection where Drudak died.

This morning, Van Bramer was joined by State Senator Michael Gianaris, Democratic borough president nominee Melinda Katz, Transportation Alternatives Deputy Director Noah Budnick, and community leaders from the Long Island City Partnership and the Dutch Kills Civic Association. They had three requests for DOT:

  • Additional time for pedestrians crossing Queens Plaza, which already has countdown clocks.
  • More signage so pedestrians are more aware of the bike path and know not to walk in it.
  • Expansion of a $6 million DOT traffic safety study Van Bramer says is planned for the Court Square area to include Queens Plaza and Dutch Kills. (The Department of City Planning is already undertaking a comprehensive transportation study covering western Queens, including Queens Plaza.)

Update: DOT spokesperson Nicholas Mosquera said in an e-mail that there is no study matching Van Bramer’s description. The agency’s planned work in Long Island City includes a DDC-managed study of Hunters Point, but “it would not be feasible to significantly increase the study area at this stage,” Mosquera said. DOT is, however, looking at adjustments to the intersection of 27th Street and Queens Plaza North, including signage.

Update 10/2/2013: After an initial misunderstanding about the study in question last week, DOT again rejected Van Bramer’s request to include Queens Plaza. The DDC-managed Hunters Point study, which has an estimated budget between $3 million and $4 million, is close to completing the contract registration process, so “it would not be feasible to significantly increase the study area to include Queens Plaza at this stage,” Mosquera repeated. “I hope this clears things up.”

Referencing a July press conference asking DOT for traffic calming in Dutch Kills, Gianaris hammered DOT for not taking action sooner, but Van Bramer quickly pivoted back to NYPD investigations.

“Despite DOT’s efforts to make the city safer,” he said, “We have a growing epidemic where pedestrians aren’t safe on the sidewalks and in the streets.”

With NYPD crash investigation reform bills stalled by council leadership, I asked Van Bramer what he wanted to get out of Monday’s hearing. “We hope to highlight the problem with the system,” he said. “By exposing existing policy, and the weakness in the existing policy, we can create the momentum to move the bill in the City Council.”

“There needs to be serious, meaningful investigations into every single crash between an automobile and a pedestrian or a cyclist,” Van Bramer said, adding that investigators need to look for more than just malicious intent on the part of the driver. “What’s more chronic and potentially deadly is neglect and distraction. And there need to be penalties for that,” he said.

Van Bramer also endorsed Democratic mayoral nominee Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero platform, which lays out a plan for the elimination of traffic fatalities citywide. “We want and support Vision Zero. We want a city where there’s zero tolerance for pedestrian fatalities,” he said.

  • Anonymous

    I love the idea that the NYPD feels so confident about something as fleeting as whether a light was with or against a pedestrian. Who knows–maybe they have good reason. Maybe they have camera footage! Maybe there are lots of witnesses!

    Or maybe they have a driver who’s very eager to claim the light was in his or her favor. And maybe the actual police investigating this, knowing it won’t do their careers any good and believing the driver just made a simple mistake, really don’t care.

  • BornAgainBicyclist

    It is really heartening to hear another elected official support Vision Zero. Also a little depressing to know they’ll be many more such deaths before it’s achieved.

  • Joe R.

    I don’t understand why we don’t just put cameras at every intersection so simple matters like who had the light are settled before an investigation even begins. You can even use the footage to estimate speed. I guess the reason why not is too obvious-motorists don’t want anything which could be used against their version of events. Just look at all the opposition to using black box data, for example. That said, I’m 100% serious about this. Cameras at every intersection would be a major start towards reducing carnage. Motorists might drive more carefully if they know they’re being watched.

  • Stephen Bauman

    “The police have at this point determined that the woman crossing the street was crossing against the light,” Van Bramer said.

    “They believe there was no wrongdoing on the driver’s part,” said Van Bramer deputy chief of staff Jason Banrey. “After he hit her, he swerved. We don’t know if he was speeding or not.”

    The cops either have a video of the accident or took the driver’s word that the victim was crossing against the light.

    If there’s a video, then it’s pretty easy to get a very close estimate of the vehicle’s speed. Anybody with a PC can do it.

    You play the video in a video editor, frame by frame. You measure how far the vehicle has moved between frames. The camera is stationary. You can use the vehicle’s position in the frames to measure the distance. You know the vehicle model and therefore its dimensions. Each frame has a timestamp. So, you know the elapsed time between frames. The distance travelled divided by the elapsed time gives you the vehicle’s speed.

    There are errors in this technique. I could not have used it, when I designed avionics. However, it’s a quick and dirty way determine whether there is reasonable suspicion the vehicle might have been speeding.

  • Anonymous

    Vision Zero is the path forward. It puts safety over convenience, over parking and makes safety a precondition to mobility. It’s nice to see that more and more local leaders are embracing Vision Zero

  • Anonymous

    Yes, what an investigation should start with is the car’s blackbox data. Cameras are also helpful, but hard data from the vehicle would be much more accurate about speed.

  • mikr

    There is no such thing as a black box. Its called an event data recorder. First off not every car has one and second the air bag must usually deploy for it to be read. I love all the know it all on this blog

  • Matthias

    It’s so easy to blame the pedestrian when the pedestrian is dead.