Alan Dershowitz: Penalize Reckless Drivers Before They Kill

Noted attorney Alan Dershowitz says that to dramatically reduce traffic deaths and injuries in NYC, police and prosecutors must crack down on all dangerous drivers, not just those who kill while driving drunk.

In a Daily News op-ed, Dershowitz says he has been rebuffed by 911 operators when he reports reckless drivers. The reason, he says, is police aren’t interested in handling such calls unless a crash has occurred.

Dershowitz’s sister-in-law was killed by a driver in Chelsea in 2011. Ian Clement left the scene after running Marilyn Dershowitz over with a U.S. Postal Service truck as she was cycling with her husband. Though the crash was captured on video, a jury acquitted Clement of hit-and-run.

Dershowitz writes:

It is this combination — little concern about reckless drivers who haven’t killed yet, and legal difficulties in prosecuting drivers who have — that has likely contributed to the epidemic of pedestrians deaths in New York, resulting in a sizable increase in 2013 from 2012. The law, and those who are supposed to enforce it, are not doing their job in deterring dangerous driving because reckless drivers have little to fear from persisting in their potentially lethal behavior. This breakdown reflects a larger moral conundrum: How should the law deal with conduct that causes lethal results in only a small percentage of cases?

Dershowitz says punishing a relatively small number of reckless drivers for killing people does not deter others from driving recklessly, “because few drivers expect to kill and even fewer expect to be successfully prosecuted if they do.”

“Clearly,” he writes, “the law would buy more deterrent bang for the buck if it vigorously prosecuted every reckless driver, regardless of whether they happen to kill.”

Dershowitz offers a few suggestions for increasing enforcement, like making penalties more severe for deadly crashes in which speeding or texting are a factor. He says more frequent ticketing and higher fines for dangerous moving violations might also help.

Dershowitz, who made his name as a civil libertarian, doesn’t explicitly endorse automated enforcement, though he acknowledges that traffic cameras are an important tool. Penalizing all reckless driving behavior might be seen as “governmental action that compromises privacy for prevention,” he says, but he doesn’t think it’s much of a trade-off.

Are these costs worth the benefits of a more proactive and preventive approach? When it comes to dangerous driving, where privacy interests are minimal and safety concerns considerable, the answer is yes.

  • Kevin Love

    In places that care about human life, reckless and negligent car drivers that do not kill are criminally prosecuted. For example, see:

  • Aunt Bike

    I’ve been rebuffed by 911 operators too. It’s helpful to call 311 first, they’ll connect you with 911. Then the 911 operator has to argue with two people telling them that according to, “The City accepts reports of reckless driving. Call 911 to report reckless driving”.

  • Suzannah Troy

    Hey Alan please fight to get the USPS to use license plates; to obey the laws and if they do break laws to be held accountable. The USPS break the laws often and don’t even pay tickets here in New York City if the NYPD even bother to ticket violations because Postal Police are mostly window dressing. Reminder your sister-in-law wasn’t the first killed by the United States Postal Service while driving…USPS get away with murder.

  • Real NYer

    If the law won’t help with this problem then, perhaps, citizens ought to take the law into their own hands and start taking vigilante action against some of these motorists. They have license plates. They can be found and identified.

  • Aenveigh

    I don’t understand the American concern with automated enforcement. You’re on public roads – and could be seen by a police officer, or a camera. What’s the difference, except one is always there? I guess that’s the problem… the odds of being caught if you’re breaking the law are that much higher.
    Look at any country with automated enforcement, and I can guarantee it’s got half or less the road toll of the USA. Because speed and red light cameras work.

  • Rabi Abonour

    The difference is that the one that’s always there is more likely to catch you. Opposition to automated enforcement is simply a desire to get away with breaking the law disguised as civil libertarianism.

  • Nathanael

    Dershowitz is correct. The police need to take reports of reckless driving seriously, *before* people get killed.

    Automated enforcement is a bit of a red herring. In the rural areas, it’s never going to be feasible to do automated enforcement…. but the police STILL need to respond to reports of reckless driving. Which they don’t.


    I tend to disagree with your statement. There are serious accuracy problems with automated systems, especially speed cameras. On top of that, many municipalities see them as more of a cash cow than a means of improving traffic safety, so they often reduce the due process protections a driver would normally have when contesting a ticket. Click the link below to read about the mess in Baltimore after they installed speed cameras:


    You really can’t rely on automated enforcement when it comes to aggressive and/or reckless driving. Low profile or unmarked cars are by far the best way to go after aggressive driving, which includes more than just speeding and/or red light violations. Tailgating & unsafe lane changes are probably more common offenses than speeding and red light violations, and they are every bit as dangerous.

    Moreover, NYC has an issue with bike riders that do not obey the traffic laws, and the timing of lights and crossing signals need to be adjusted so that pedestrians no longer cross while cars are turning in dense areas and vice versa.


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