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Council Members Press NYPD to Enforce the Law in Death of Sui Leung

Under a new Vision Zero law, a driver who critically injures or kills a pedestrian or cyclist who has the right of way is guilty of a misdemeanor. But nearly two months after it took effect, there is no evidence NYPD is applying the law, known as Section 19-190, as Mayor de Blasio and the City Council intended. This week, three council members expressly asked NYPD to charge a motorist who killed a senior in Manhattan, and the response from NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan has troubling implications about how police are enforcing the new law.

Image: NBC

On the afternoon of September 25, a commercial van driver hit 82-year-old Sui Leung as she crossed in the crosswalk at Kenmare and Elizabeth Streets. Leung was pronounced dead at Downtown Hospital. NYPD would not identify the driver, but the van belonged to Party Rental Ltd. of Teterboro, New Jersey.

“Police did not suspect any criminality and the driver was not charged,” the Daily News reported. NYPD told Streetsblog the driver had a green light. But a visit to the intersection showed that there is no exclusive turn phase at Kenmare and Elizabeth -- meaning Leung would have had a walk signal when the driver had a green, and would therefore have had the right of way.

"She had the right of way," said City Council Member Margaret Chin, who represents the area where the crash occurred. "The driver is supposed to yield to pedestrians."

Chin told Streetsblog her staff has spoken with Leung's family. "From what we know of Ms. Leung, she's an active senior," said Chin. "She goes to the senior center every day. She walks from her home to Chinatown. The family is also very upset about what happened."

"It's just so clear that she had the right of way and the driver needs to be prosecuted," Chin said. "You're talking about someone getting killed."

On Wednesday, Chin and other council members sent a letter to Chan [PDF]. Based on the details provided in the NYPD crash report, which according to Chin showed Leung "unquestionably did nothing wrong," she urged NYPD to file charges under Section 19-190. The letter was co-signed by Council Member Rosie Mendez, who represents the area where Leung lived, and Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the council transportation committee.

[W]e feel strongly that in order to achieve justice in this case, charges must be filed against the driver.

If we are really serious about committing to the principles of Vision Zero in New York City, as well as clearly sending that message to all our residents, we must hold drivers fully accountable when their negligent actions result in pedestrian injuries or deaths. This is about creating a true culture shift in our city reagrding street safety, as well as establishing a strong standard of equal respect and justice for all who use the road, whether they are pedestrians, cyclists or drivers, and regardless of their age or level of mobility.

Chan has called Chin's office in response, according to her spokesperson, Sam Spokony. "He said that the investigation is still open," Spokony said. "They're looking at additional video." Chan said a witness whom investigators want to interview is currently out of the state.

Spokony said Chan "didn't promise anything" in terms of filing charges, and would keep Chin informed. "That's definitely encouraging," said Spokony. "Obviously, the case isn't closed."

Section 19-190, however, was meant to put an end to NYPD’s "observed violation rule" -- which prevented precinct officers from citing motorists unless they personally witnessed a violation. The new law is supposed to empower these officers to charge motorists who injure or kill whether or not they see the act itself. Given the thousands of crashes that injure pedestrians and cyclists each year and historical data showing the prevalence of motorists' failure to yield as a primary cause, local officers should be issuing Section 19-190 charges multiple times a day.

But judging from the one known application of the law since it took effect, and information provided by Chan to Chin's office, NYPD is reserving its use for the most serious crashes, which are investigated by the Collision Investigation Squad.

Drivers injured and killed over 16,000 pedestrians and cyclists in 2013; CIS works around 300 cases a year. Unless NYPD begins enforcing Section 19-190 as it was intended, the vast majority of drivers who harm pedestrians and cyclists will continue to go unpenalized.

"Something should have been done at the scene," said Chin. "There was clear evidence of what happened."

Chin suggested the council may hold oversight hearings on Section 19-190 enforcement. "It is part of our commitment to Vision Zero," she said, "so we want to make sure in situations like this that drivers are held accountable."

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