De Blasio Defends Right-of-Way Law to Dimwits in Albany [Updated]

Update [February 26]: The quote from the mayor has been updated to include his full response.

At a hearing in Albany this morning, Mayor Bill de Blasio defended the new city law that enables police to file misdemeanor charges against drivers who injure or kill people with the right of way. He also shed some light on how officers determine whether to file charges.

Mayor Bill de Blasio testifies in Albany this morning. Image: NY Assembly
Mayor de Blasio in Albany this morning. Image: NY Assembly

State Senator Marty Golden, who represents Bay Ridge, focused on the high-profile arrests of bus drivers who have killed or injured pedestrians in crosswalks. Golden asked if the Right-of-Way Law is even necessary. “If it’s an accident, it’s an accident. Do we need to arrest these people, and is that necessary?” Golden asked. “Should we be locking up bus drivers?”

Here is the heart of the mayor’s response:

Senator, the law that was passed by the City Council, which I signed, makes clear that when an individual fails to yield to pedestrians where they should — the pedestrian has the walk sign and they’re crossing the street and there’s still a crash… what the law dictates is that if there is serious injury or fatality, and if the officers on the scene determine that it was an avoidable injury or fatality, they are obligated to pursue an arrest. If the officers determine that it was unavoidable, meaning something happened that no driver could have possibly foreseen or responded to in time, they have the option of giving a summons. So this is a new law with a clear standard. It is a stricter standard than that which existed previously, and that’s for a reason, because people were being killed and grievously hurt in all sorts of instances and there wasn’t a clear enough legal consequence. So the law, I think, has been a step forward. It should be applied respectfully and sensitively, especially — I agree with you — our public service workers always deserve respect in every situation, and I appreciate the work they do. But again, the officer on the scene has to make a determination… If the officer believes it was 100 percent avoidable, that is an arrest situation.

At an MTA press conference minutes later, Daily News reporter Pete Donohue asked MTA Chair Tom Prendergast whether he thought bus drivers who injure or kill pedestrians in crosswalks should be subject to the Right-of-Way Law. Prendergast’s response avoided answering questions about the law itself.

“For whatever reason, the legislation was written the way it was. I’m not going to get into details of it,” Prendergast said, stressing that bus driver unions, the city, and the MTA alike are working to reduce crashes. “I drove a bus for 30 days,” Prendergast said. “The two hazards that you’re most faced with are right turns and left turns, and so I can totally appreciate the difficulties bus drivers have.”

While Prendergast did not address how the law is enforced or whether bus drivers should receive the special exemption that the TWU is seeking, he did say the MTA may adjust bus routes to limit turns through crowded crosswalks and may ask DOT to offset pedestrian crossings to minimize conflicts. (In the 1990s, the Giuliani administration moved some Midtown crosswalks to mid-block locations and installed pedestrian barriers at corners, which remain in place today.)

During de Blasio’s testimony, Assembly Member Denny Farrell complained about pedestrians waiting just off the curb before crossing the street. This behavior doesn’t register as a factor in studies of severe traffic injuries, but de Blasio replied: “Even though vehicles are the centerpiece of the challenge, pedestrians have a responsibility too.”

Later, Assembly Member Joe Borelli of Staten Island expressed skepticism about city data showing the safety benefits of speed cameras. “The jury’s already come back,” de Blasio said of speed cameras and reduced speed limits. “There is no question that it is working.”

Assembly Member N. Nick Perry complained that bus lanes on Utica Avenue, which have reduced bus travel times by up to 15 percent [PDF], are a “ticket trap” that were “implemented without any proper study.” De Blasio defended bus lanes generally (“we want to speed up mass transit”) and said Perry will receive a reply from DOT about reducing the number of hours the bus lanes are in effect.

In his testimony, de Blasio highlighted the threat posed by dwindling state and federal infrastructure funding. “The state must also do more to fund the MTA’s capital plan, a situation that is reaching crisis levels,” de Blasio said. “The current MTA capital plan is woefully underfunded… [and] the governor’s contribution of just $750 million does not begin to address the critical needs.”

De Blasio has not committed additional city funds to the MTA, which is a state authority whose budget Albany has repeatedly raided in recent years. The mayor also did not endorse a specific funding source, such as toll reform, which requires Albany approval. But he did say the state must come up with a solution to fill the capital plan’s $15.2 billion gap. “We cannot ask riders alone to sustain the system with fare increases,” he warned.

  • BBnet3000

    Is Golden the reason the plan to eliminate parking minimums near subway lines (which is only for non-market housing anyway) excluded Bay Ridge? This guy is single-handedly an anti-urban monster tearing at our fair city.

  • AnoNYC

    Any mention of the Move NY plan?

  • r

    A driver spent 20 minutes in cuffs for breaking destroying a girl’s life and Pete Donohue is ON IT.

  • Eric McClure

    New York City bus-route maps identify all the turns that drivers have to make. NYC DOT and the MTA can work together to modify routes, if possible, to streamline turning movements, and where it’s not possible, DOT can take steps, such as installing leading pedestrian intervals, to reduce conflicts. This should be a priority for both agencies, and the TWU.

  • JudenChino

    Think you’re missing a word here: “De Blasio has not committed additional city funds to the MTA, which is a state authority whose budget Albany has repeatedly [ed: raided] in recent years.

  • Good eye. Fixed it.

  • Liam Griffin

    If your job is to carry a gun, and you accidentally kill or maim somebody with that gun, are you held accountable even if “it was an accident” or you “didn’t see them”?

    How is driving a vehicle any different? Where is the sense of personal responsibility? When are people going to stop calling these things “accidents” instead of “avoidable collisions”?

  • Correction please, Joe Borelli of Staten Island is an Assembly member, not a state Senator.

    Worthy to note that he has been making noise lately about red light cameras on silive.com

  • millerstephen

    Corrected. Thank you.

  • tbatts666

    Last week I read on strong towns an idea that we treat every car crash like airlines and governments treat airplane crashes.

    Every airplane crash is an opportunity to analyze what went wrong, and make sure it never happens again.

    It’s not just rolled under the rug as an oppsie.

    So it seems like usually traffic violence is written off as a mistake. What we are advocating for now shifts the blame to the driver.

    What we need to do is make systems that don’t try to shift the blame, but instead make sure traffic violence doesn’t happen.

    I am happy to support criminalizing traffic violence if only that I think it is a stepping stone to realizing accidents aren’t accidents, they are preventable.

  • com63

    I once heard that this is the approach Volvo took to accidents involving their cars in Sweden back in the 70s and 80s when they were very safety minded when everyone else was not.

  • AnoNYC

    Is Bay Ridge seriously getting omitted from the elimination of parking minimums proposal for affordable units? That’s no good and could repeat itself elsewhere.

  • BBnet3000

    At least on the map here (called out in the comments by Larry Littlefield): http://www.streetsblog.org/2015/02/24/citys-proposed-transit-zone-takes-only-the-smallest-step-for-parking-reform/

  • AnoNYC

    Ugh, sets a bad precedent.

  • Nathanael

    If you’re a police officer and you “accidentally” shoot innocent bystanders dozens of times, apparently you are *not* held accountable. There are famous examples of this from both LA and NY.

    Of course, this is why most citizens consider the LAPD and NYPD to be dangerous criminals. Because they certainly SHOULD be held accountable. Unfortunately, right now, they aren’t being held accountable.

  • southtaborrez

    Just one question. How many family and friends is Marty Golden willing to sacrifice for an accident?

  • Lora Tenenbaum

    Leading pedestrian intervals would help…and a conflict free system whereby there is a red light for turning vehicles while pedestrians walk and vice versa would help even more.

  • Joe R.

    Three problems with that approach:

    1) It increases signal phase complexity even more, especially at the many three way intersections which exist.

    2) The pedestrian-only phase usurps some of the green interval for vehicles, reducing intersection capacity. It also makes red light phases longer, which increases driver delays/frustration. While I don’t have much sympathy there, the fact is these things are the root cause of aggressive driving.

    3) Pedestrians in general ignore don’t walk signals if it’s clear just as cyclists ignore red lights if it’s clear. If you have separate pedestrian-only phases and vehicle green phases, when the light is green on the parallel street to allow thru and turning movements, the pedestrian phase will be red. However, unless vehicles are turning, people will still try to cross the street-effectively defeating the purpose of the separate phasing in the first place.

    I personally feel just banning turns (both right and especially left) at intersections with heavy pedestrian traffic is a better approach. It also has the secondary effect of making car trips more circuitous, hence less convenient, thereby discouraging car use.

  • stairbob

    If you give the pedestrians the walk phase before the left turn phase, most peds will either finish crossing before the green arrow or be more visible to the drivers who are starting from a stopped position.

  • Joe R.

    Most intersections with separate left turn phases already do that. Perhaps at intersections which already have a left turn phase we might also consider a right turn phase simultaneous with the left turn phase. It wouldn’t add any time to the light cycle, but it would keep drivers from turning into crossing pedestrians.

    Or we could just ban turns at such intersections which I feel is a vastly superior solution.

  • Joe R.

    If we really did that (and I support doing so wholeheartedly) it’s likely the NTSB would shut down motor traffic altogether until ways could be found to make it radically safer. There’s no way planes would be allowed to fly at all if they killed 35,000 people each year, for example. I suspect the end result of treating car crashes like plane crashes would be fast tracking self-driving cars, while at the same time practically eliminating motor vehicles wherever we could. So long as humans are in control, I’m not seeing any way we won’t continue to have unacceptable numbers of traffic deaths.

  • Welcome, and thank you for the informative piece above.

  • Tyson White

    “pedestrians have a responsibility too.”
    Responsibility for what? For their own deaths? Thank you very much. I’ll keep that in mind!

  • JJ7530

    I guess they are saying, keep your eyes and ears open when crossing the road. Don’t think that you are the only thing on the road. Don’t you look left and right before you cross a street? That is basic childhood indoctrination. Don’t J walk. Yes you do have responsibilities.

  • Tyson White

    How will keeping my eyes and ears open help if a driver drives into me? That I can jump out of the way? Explain, please.

  • JJ7530

    Do you mean the driver who mounts the curb and takes you out on the foot path ?

  • Tyson White

    I mean when I’m crossing the road where it says walk and the driver who is making a turn is obligated to yield.

  • JJ7530

    So are you saying that when you cross a street you blindly step out onto the road without looking? Yes accidents happen, that’s why they’re called accidents. Even when we drive we don’t assume everything. I am just saying that just because the light is green don’t step off the curb without checking it’s safe to do so. Yes the car is in the same position to check, but if minute the road is clear then the next a pedestrian decides to step out just as you are turning then disaster happens.. We recently had that very same scenario happen. It was early morning, a young woman was on her way to work, she was in a hurry and ran onto the road just as a truck was turning. It all happened so quickly the truck couldn’t stop in time and collected her. A tragic case of not being aware of your surroundings. Had she looked before she stepped off the curb she would have seen the truck with its indicator on coming around the corner. She is dead and the truck driver is traumatised for life. Yes she had right of way. Sad all around.

  • Joe R.

    That’s all good in theory but here’s one big flaw—NYC unfortunately prioritizes car storage over safety. Just about everywhere else prohibits parking within at least 15 or 20 feet of a crosswalk, often more. You can’t see turning cars if parked cars block your line of sight. And turning drivers can’t see pedestrians, either, until they’re well into their turn. Pedestrians crossing streets often can’t see oncoming traffic until they’re already in a traffic lane. How can you safely cross streets at all then? Waiting for the walk signal doesn’t guarantee safety. What if you start to cross (blindly because you can’t see oncoming traffic due to parked vehicles) and a car runs the red light? NYC should immediately ban parking within at least 20 feet of a crosswalk, better yet 50 to 75 feet. Everywhere. I don’t care how much it reduces the supply of curbside parking. It’s not NYC’s problem to supply space for people’s private property. Safety should come first. Our warped priorities are disgusting.

  • JJ7530

    You’re absolutely right.

  • Tyson White

    How does calling them “accidents” make them any less severe? If they happened once in a while, I’d be inclined to call them accidents. But they happen with extreme regularity, JJ!

    The only thing a pedestrian should look for is if the signal says Walk or Don’t Walk. A driver making a turn into a crosswalk should do so very slowly while looking for pedestrian. Not swing around the corner like a highway exit ramp. If something should happen, the onus should be on the driver to prove that it was not his/her fault that he/she exercised due care and was unable to yield. To stay on topic, this is exactly the point of the right-of-way law.

    To oppose this law is to basically give an AUTOMATIC defense to ALL drivers who run over pedestrians in the crosswalk just because every now and then a driver may actually have a legitimate defense. Try and apply that to any other tort law and see how rational that sounds.

  • Andrew

    So are you saying that when you cross a street you blindly step out onto the road without looking?

    For some reason discussion of pedestrians sometimes confuses matters, so for a moment let’s look at a simple case with no pedestrians. Say you and I are both driving toward a four-way intersection. You have the green light and I have the red light, but we both proceed through the intersection at right angles. In the ensuing collision, you are killed. What do you think is the best message to spread in the hopes of preventing a recurrence? Do we brush it off as an accident and say that you should have looked both ways before proceeding past the green light? Or do we say that I caused the crash – and killed you – by running a red light?

    Yes accidents happen, that’s why they’re called accidents. Even when we drive we don’t assume everything.

    Failure to watch for pedestrians when one is required to yield to pedestrians is not accidental.

    I am just saying that just because the light is green don’t step off the curb without checking it’s safe to do so.

    Great idea. What happens when I see that a motorist is preparing to turn in my direction and I keep going, under the mistaken impression that the motorist intends to obey the law and yield to me?

    Yes the car is in the same position to check,

    Actually, the motorist is in a very different legal position. If the motorist is required to yield to the pedestrian, that means (definitionally) the pedestrian is not required to expected to yield to the motorist. If the motorist is required to yield to the pedestrian, it’s the pedestrian’s turn to go and the motorist’s turn to wait. So why are you telling the pedestrian to wait?

    but if one minute the road is clear then the next a pedestrian decides to step out just as you are turning then disaster happens..

    Not if the motorist is actually watching for pedestrians, as the law requires.

    We recently had that very same scenario happen. It was early morning, a young woman was on her way to work, she was in a hurry and ran onto the road just as a truck was turning. It all happened so quickly the truck couldn’t stop in time and collected her.

    I’m not aware of the specific case you’re discussing, but I’ll assume that the motorist was, in this case, legally required to yield to pedestrians. (Please correct me if I’m mistaken.)

    If the truck couldn’t stop in time for a pedestrian to whom its driver was legally obligated to yield, then the truck was moving too fast for conditions. Or, perhaps, the driver didn’t see the pedestrian in time simply because he wasn’t bothering to watch for pedestrians. Or both.

    Funny how you describe the dead pedestrian as “in a hurry” rather than the motorist who wasn’t yielding to pedestrians.

    A tragic case of not being aware o f your surroundings.

    Exactly. Had the motorist been aware of the pedestrian approaching the nearby crosswalk, perhaps he would have stopped for her.

    Had she looked before she stepped off the curb she would have seen the truck with its indicator on coming around the corner.

    …and then what? Every day when I cross the street, I see motorists waiting to turn, yet I go ahead and cross anyway, because (a) the law tells me that I am crossing at the appropriate time and (b) if I waited for every motorist to finish turning, I’d never be able to get across the street.

    She is dead and the truck driver is traumatised for life.

    Yes, the truck driver who failed to yield to a pedestrian is traumatised for life. That isn’t the pedestrian’s fault.

    Yes she had right of way.

    Congratulations on admitting it! So why were you expecting her to stop, and why aren’t you holding the motorist responsible for his failure to yield?

    Sad all around.

    Yes, as is your insistence on blaming the victim who, as far as I can tell, did nothing wrong.

  • Tyson White

    Excellent! Like explaining common sense.

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