Senior Struck By Unlicensed Driver in UES Crosswalk Has Died

Keiko Ohnishi was hit in a crosswalk by an accused unlicensed driver. The driver was charged with unlicensed operation and failure to yield but was not charged under the city's new Right of Way Law. Image: Google Maps
Keiko Ohnishi was hit in a crosswalk by a driver who was charged with unlicensed operation and failure to yield but was not charged under the city’s new Right of Way Law. Image: Google Maps

A senior struck by an allegedly unlicensed motorist in an Upper East Side crosswalk this September has died from her injuries, according to NYPD’s monthly traffic crash report and WNYC’s Mean Streets project. Though the driver was ticketed for failure to yield, he was not charged under the new Vision Zero law that makes it a crime for motorists to harm pedestrians who have the right of way.

At around 9:47 on the morning of September 4, Kristin Rodriguez, 25, drove a minivan into 66-year-old Keiko Ohnishi as she walked with a cane across Madison Avenue at E. 98th Street, near Mount Sinai Hospital, the Daily News reported.

From the Post:

“[The van] hit her and she [flew] up and back down and he kept on going with her under him,” said Tracy Molloy, 39, who was waiting for the bus when she saw the horrific accident.

“He was trying to make the light like every New York City driver,” she said.

“He drove completely over her, over her legs. He must have felt the bump and heard people scream so he stopped,” said another witness Neud Clermont. “Blood was coming out of her ears.

“I walked over and started to pull her dress down, and the driver was panicking. He was like, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t see you!’” said Clermont.

Ohnishi was admitted to Mount Sinai in critical condition. She succumbed to her injuries, NYPD confirmed.

Rodriguez, whose van reportedly had North Carolina plates, was summonsed for failure to yield and charged with third degree aggravated unlicensed operation, according to NYPD and court records. He was not charged under city code Section 19-190, known as the Right of Way Law, which made it a misdemeanor to strike a pedestrian or cyclist who has the right of way. The law was adopted as part of a package of Vision Zero legislation intended to reduce traffic injuries and deaths.

Since it took effect in August, however, NYPD and city district attorneys are known to have applied the Right of Way Law only a handful of times. In late October — more than two months after police were supposed to begin enforcing the law — NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan told Streetsblog the department was “in the process” of training precinct officers on how to apply it. Streetsblog filed a freedom of information request for more information on the training process.

Aggravated unlicensed operation is seemingly the default charge against unlicensed drivers who kill New York City pedestrians. It’s also applied when unlicensed drivers commit non-criminal traffic infractions. Third degree aggravated unlicensed operation carries a maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. Drivers who plead guilty are normally fined with no jail time. At least one city DA, Brooklyn’s Ken Thompson, has cut the $500 fine in half for a motorist who killed someone.

In September, drivers killed at least four pedestrians, including Ohnishi, who appear to have had the right of way, based on published accounts. Streetsblog has asked NYPD if charges were filed in the other three cases.

Kristin Rodriguez is next scheduled to appear in court in December.

  • Andres Dee

    Tragic. Unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle should be a felony. If someone dies, it should be manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide. And “I didn’t see” should trigger immediate removal from the road pending resolution of a full battery of physical, neurological and toxicology exams.

  • lop

    Nationwide 19% of fatal crashes (not just pedestrians) involved at least one driver without a valid license at the time of the crash. In NYC 8% of pedestrian fatal crashes involved an unlicensed driver 2006-2008. They receive disproportionate attention because it is one of the rare cases that the general consensus is that the driver did something wrong, I.e. it wasn’t just an ‘accident’.

    Even if you eliminate those drivers from the road the bulk of the problem will remain.

    Now declaring it a felony to drive without a license seems acceptable if you live and travel to transit rich areas, but that isn’t the case for most people. Within the city it is more likely to be true than nationwide, so unlicensed drivers can maintain their mobility without driving, hence the lower share of fatal crashes involving unlicensed drivers.

    But even within the city many trips are poorly served by transit, even if one end, or one leg of the trip is in a transit rich area.

    The low licensing standard is well known, so it isn’t just that this would keep bad drivers off the road.

    Some bad drivers will be kept off, but who else? Many states suspend driver’s licenses for offenses unrelated to driving ability. In NY for example, your license can be suspended for advocating the overthrow of the government. In many states if you are unable to afford court ordered child support, or choose not to pay it, your license can be suspended. Many drug offenses can lead to license suspension even if the offender did not operate or attempt to operate a motor vehicle while intoxicated.

    I’m not saying that driving without a license, especially if the driver is at fault in a crash, should go unpunished. But a felony is a serious offense. I would argue too serious, especially for the overwhelming majority of cases where an unlicensed operator managed not to crash, or was not at fault in a crash. Lesser penalties might prove a sufficient deterrence. To start with perhaps the car should be impounded, sold at auction, even if the driver was not the owner of the vehicle.

  • Cold Shoaler

    Licenses should be much harder to get, and require something more than paying a fee and demonstrating that you can see in order to keep. There should be real consequences for driving without one. Impoundment of the vehicle seems like a good start. It doesn’t seem severe enough in cases where the unlicensed driver causes death, injury, or even significant property damage. Since there’s nothing to physically prevent someone from driving another car, perhaps house arrest or some other electronic monitoring would work.

  • A. Scott Falk

    That’s quite sad. FYI, that intersection is not on the Upper East Side, but in Harlem (East Harlem?). Regardless, this is terrible news on multiple fronts.

  • It is awfully easy to get and keep a drivers license. When I renewed my license a while back, I took only a vision test. For all the DMV knew I hadn’t driven a vehicle in two decades.

  • Andres Dee

    Are you kidding? If not, this is unadulterated bullcrap.

    Operating potentially lethal machinery in public is serious business. Doing so illegally should be a serious offense. The person primarily responsible should be the driver.

    Are you saying that we should give people a break and allow them to drive unlicensed because there’s not enough transit in some areas? Those people should a. get licensed b. ask their government for better transit c. move. (Contrast the allowances we make for bad drivers, even convicted DUIs, with the “let ’em live under a bridge” policies we have for convicted sex offenders.)

  • Nicholas

    Could a person or group sue NYPD or the District Attorney for specific performance, to apply the charges the voters enacted?

    I believe they could and that we should begin this initiative. Anyone able to file the suits?

  • ahwr

    If you go pee behind a bush and a kid walks up to you you can get convicted as sex offender for exposing yourself to a child, no matter your intention, and then you are compared to rapists for the rest of your life. It’s a horribly injust system, not one that should be emulated in other areas.

    Justifying harsh punishments for driving without a license depends on a couple assumptions. One, that having and keeping a license is proof of the necessary skill and temperment to drive safely. And two, that not having a license is proof that one is proof that one does not have both the skill and temperment to operate a vehicle safely.

    Both are false. Most bad and dangerous drivers have a license, and most fatal car crashes involve only licensed drivers. Many capable drivers do not. If your license expired yesterday and you haven’t got it renewed because you forgot to have your mail forwarded when you moved and didn’t get the application making it a felony to drive is ridiculous. Few people know when their license even expires. If your license was suspended for a reason having nothing to do with operating a motor vehicle, an all too common occurence, driving should not be a felony. If you limit this to within NYC when someone’s license was suspended for bad driving you’d have something more equitable.

  • Cold Shoaler

    “Few people know when their license even expires.” I bet they’d know when if it was a felony to drive after it expired. I do agree with your point that suspending/revoking licenses is a ‘tool’ courts use broadly and inappropriately. However, for motorists who’ve lost their driving privileges for driving related infractions I do think the consequences should be much more server, regardless of where you live or what your transit options are. That’s a matter of convenience for the unlicensed driver and has nothing to do with the hazard they present to the public.

  • Maggie

    Echoing lop’s numbers, when I researched this awhile back, the best stats I found on deaths caused by unlicensed drivers came from a November 2011 study by the AAA. 21,000 deaths over 2007-2009 involved drivers without a valid license. I wish we used smartcard tech to deter or prevent unlicensed drivers from getting behind the wheel at all. Quoting the report’s stats here:

    “Results show that 87.2% of drivers involved in fatal crashes in years 2007–2009 had a valid license, 6.7% had a license that had had been suspended or revoked, 1.1% had a license that had expired or had been cancelled or denied, and 5.0% were unlicensed. Overall, 18.2% of fatal crashes involved a driver who was unlicensed or invalidly licensed; these crashes resulted in the deaths of 21,049 people.”

  • Tyson White

    Without routine traffic stops we’ll never pick up the thousands of unlicensed drivers and remove them off the streets!

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