Barron Lerner: It’s Time to Treat Reckless Driving Like Drunk Driving

The most basic flaw in the New York State traffic justice system is that in most cases it fails to hold motorists accountable for deadly recklessness. Unless a motorist is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, killing someone with a car is usually not considered a crime.

Barron Lerner. Photo: ##
Barron Lerner. Photo: ##

In a column for the Times, Barron Lerner, whose 9-year-old nephew Cooper Stock was killed by a cab driver in Manhattan this month, says it’s time to treat reckless driving like drunk driving. “Reckless driving, circa 2014, is what drunk driving was prior to 1980: it is poorly defined in the law, sometimes poorly investigated by police and almost never results in a criminal charge,” he writes.

An NYU professor and author of “One for the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900,” Lerner writes that today’s attitudes toward everyday recklessness resemble societal and legal norms during the decades when efforts to criminalize drunk driving were met with “cultural indifference.”

Well into the 1970s, police and prosecutors looked the other way, seeing drunk drivers either as diseased alcoholics, young men sowing their wild oats or, paradoxically, victims themselves, even if they killed or maimed people. Judges and juries — perhaps because they, too, secretly drank and drove or knew those who did — were reluctant to convict.

Police told family members that their loved ones — the actual victims — had been “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Crashes were called accidents.

This is, of course, exactly how law enforcement reacts to crashes like the one that killed Cooper Stock, who was in a crosswalk with his father when both were hit by a cab driver who reportedly took a turn without slowing down. No charges were filed against the driver, and no action was taken against his hack license.

“The police reassured my brother-in-law, Dr. Richard G. Stock, who was holding Cooper’s hand at the time of the crash, that a Breathalyzer done at the scene was negative,” Lerner writes. “Yet merely looking for alcohol or drug involvement by the driver misses the point.”

In the 80s, Lerner writes, collective action by parents and other loved ones, through groups like MADD, forced a “sea change” that brought about laws that toughened penalties and lowered legally acceptable blood alcohol levels. Their activism also attached a social stigma to driving drunk, making the public realize that “drunk drivers were still responsible for the damage they caused, even though the harms they inflicted were unintentional.”

Lerner says a similar shift is needed if New York City is to achieve Vision Zero. “If Cooper died because an impatient or distracted driver made a careless decision, then that driver should be as guilty of a crime as someone who drank alcohol or used drugs before driving,” he writes. “Let’s make destruction caused by irresponsible driving a true crime. And let’s do it soon.”

  • nb8

    Well put!

  • Andy

    While drunk driving is certainly an awful idea, the consequences are because they lost their ability to think. Sober reckless driving is worse because someone consciously made the decision to drive that way. I’d say charge it just the same if not harsher.

  • okb

    In the 90’s there was a shift in social attitudes in domestic violence and states like New York passed mandatory arrest laws. Maybe a mandatory arrest for involuntary homicide will wake people up and change driving behavior.

  • krstrois

    This was a heartbreaking piece and I sat and cried while I read it. Many thanks to Dr. Lerner for bringing his gravitas to a wider audience so soon after such a wrenching loss.

  • thomas040

    In most European countries reckless driving resulting in loss of life is considered manslaughter, which is technically a crime and people do indeed get charged, and thusly drive a lot more carefully.

  • thomas040

    involuntary homicide is called manslaughter i think.

  • jooltman

    And yet our local Paper of Record still thinks reckless driving collisions should be called “accidents” even as they publish important pieces like this one. Ask the NYTimes to change the style guide, or whatever it is making their reporters so recalcitrant on this issue, and get the Grey Lady up to speed with current NYPD-speak and common sense.

  • Kevin Love

    It is not necessary to go to Europe. Just across the New York border into Ontario. Where the crime of Dangerous Driving Causing Death is punishable by 14 years in jail. And police routinely lay precisely this charge.


  • qrt145

    A blog post is not a “column” and I suspect that blog posts undergo a less rigorous editing process than “real” columns (not only based on common sense, but also on observed frequency of spelling errors!). That said, even “real” articles in the NYT use the word “accident” more than they should.

  • jooltman

    Yes, my point was regarding the overall usage of the term “accident” not in this post, which raised the same question as me, but in the wider paper.

  • tracey ge

    Not in BC, the land of hit and runs because even if caught, next to nothing happens.

  • If one truly behaved recklessly, then they absolutely deserve to be punished, jailed, fined, license revoked, whatever it takes. But I believe the majority of deaths are due not to wanton disregard for life on the part of the driver, but rather to “driver error” or merely incompetence at the task of driving. Such motorists may not deserve jail time, but they still need to be taken off the road. What NY and the rest of the country need are mandatory license suspensions in the case of any and all collisions that result in injury (with an appeals process if the vulnerable street user can be shown to have displayed gross negligence, such as jumping off a bridge into the path of a car), and mandatory license revocations for collisions resulting in death (with a process for reapplication, including a strict driving test, after some time has passed).

  • SteveVaccaro

    A big part of the problem in this area is the requirement–sometimes imposed by statute, sometimes read into statutes by judges–that criminality requires “moral blameworthiness” or at least a “gross deviation” from “reasonable” conduct. We are caught in a cycle in which it is considered “reasonable” to take patently unreasonable risks in traffic, by too many cops, prosecutors, judges and juries. Failing to yield to a pedestrian in the crosswalk and taking a life is deemed by too many to be “just” a traffic violation–not “morally blameworthy,” not a “gross deviation.”

    Societal attitudes have to change, but we can help shape them by providing unambiguously for criminal penalties when a driver “unreasonably endangers or interferes” with a pedestrian, as proposed here:

  • JK

    Consider all of the things the mayor and council can do without Albany to get dangerous drivers off the street: how about banning NYC employees without a valid license from driving as part of their jobs? Back in ’96 NYC comptroller Hevesi found that hundreds of city workers had suspended licenses including hundreds of NYPD employees. Or, how about seizing the vehicles of drivers caught with suspended/revoked license, higher civil fines for hitting pedestrians and cyclists; much better training for beat cops responding to crashes — who often treat the cyclist or pedestrian victims as annoyances rather than citizens in need. I’m looking forward to the Feb 15 Vision Zero report from the inter-agency task force. It should include a long laundry list of law enforcement and internal steps the city can take without the excuse of needing state approval.

  • Alan

    The crazy thing is I bet the majority of Americans would find it unreasonable to even just suspend people’s license for 5 years for killing someone.

  • andrelot

    So you want to punish first, instead of giving due process its time to work out? So even in most extreme cases (like a suicide where a pedestrian threw himself in front of a vehicle on a highway), the driver would be severely punished, and in 99% of the country also lose its ability to go and come back to work on a timely manner, even if he/she was not at fault at all?

  • Kevin Love

    A license suspension is not a punishment.

    Driving is a privilege, not a right. Suspending or revoking a driver’s licence is not a punishment.

  • Daniel

    Many of the drivers killing New Yorkers already had their licenses revoked or suspened. What they deserve a slow painful death, but I’ll settle for life in prison. Obviously ever collision should be fully investigated and if no laws were broken then we should not press charges. But in the majority of cases the driver was at fault and should be punished with at minimum 5 years in prison.

  • andrelot

    It is de-facto punishment in the sense of limiting a regular prerogative of people that fit a given criteria (passing driver tests and medical exams) because an incident happened where culpability if any has yet to be determined.

    And it is for extreme views like yours, one that hates the mere act of driving, that is tough to sell sensible policy measures without alienating the overwhelming majority of drivers who are responsible, but nonetheless exposed to the risks of having some other traffic element (other car, pedestrian, cyclists) suddenly hit him/her through no fault of his/her own.

  • andrelot

    If the driver was following traffic rules and couldn’t reasonably have avoided the incident while doing so, then the driver shouldn’t be punished with not a single day in prison. Here is where lies trouble: wanting drivers to be held criminally responsible regardless of whether culpability was determined beyond a reasonable doubt or, worse, assuming all drivers whose cars hit someone are “guilty until proven innocent”.

  • BrooklynDriver

    I have never met a driver in real life that doesn’t believe a driver’s license should be suspended while a collision is investigated. Such a suspension shouldn’t be indefinite. An immediate 30 day suspension is reasonable, but to extend it to 90 days should require a court order. And anything beyond that should require charges to be filed.

    As for when to permanently revoking driving privileges. In my 20 years of driving in NYC I’ve yet to get a moving violation, but I fairly often encounter drivers who commit a half dozen violations in mere minutes. I and most other drivers would like those idiots off our roads ASAP. I’ll give you one bad day, but if you have moving violations on two separate days in the span of five years I don’t want you on the road. Take the license and put the car in a shredder.