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TA Report: NYC District Attorneys Are Failing to Lead on Vision Zero

1:50 PM EST on December 8, 2015

Prosecutions by NYC district attorneys in 2014 reflect a failure to prioritize deterrence of driver behavior that causes the most harm. Chart: Transportation Alternatives, based on data from NYS DMV and NYS Division of Criminal Justice Services [PDF]

New York City district attorneys are not using the power of their offices to deter acts of traffic violence by holding reckless drivers accountable for harming innocent people, according to a new report from Transportation Alternatives.

TA researchers worked with representatives from all five DA’s offices for “Justice Denied: New York City’s District Attorneys Plead Out of Vision Zero” [PDF]. They found that while most motorists who injure and kill people are sober, DAs rarely bring charges for crashes that don't involve driver impairment.

The report says that over the past year, city DAs prosecuted at least 10,000 drivers for DWI, and fewer than 40 drivers for failing to yield to a pedestrian or cyclist, though failing to yield “led to more than six times as many crashes” as DWI. Driver impairment was a factor in 897 fatal and injury crashes, TA found, while failing to yield was a factor in 5,966 collisions. Prosecutors used the Right of Way Law in just 3 percent of applicable cases, according to TA.

TA found that hit-and-run drivers are almost never held accountable in NYC. Of 4,000 hit-and-run crashes in 2015 that resulted in injury and death, fewer than 1 percent of drivers were prosecuted, the report says, with just 50 cases handled by trained NYPD crash investigators leading to 28 arrests.

While 70 percent of pedestrian deaths in 2014 were caused by driver behavior, according to New York State DMV data, the report says DAs brought homicide charges in less than 7 percent of fatal crashes. TA found that prosecutors brought charges in fewer than 2 percent of crashes where drivers were not impaired, fleeing police, or intentionally attacking the victim.

According to TA, in two years New York City district attorneys have applied four city and state safe driving laws -- the Right of Way Law, failure to use due care, Elle’s Law, and the city’s hit-and-run civil penalty -- just 46 times.

The report suggests city DAs use their positions to raise the profile of the reckless driving epidemic in the way that prosecutors helped turn drunk driving into a national priority.

With the remarkable life-saving effect of MADD as an example, there is a clear path forward for D.A.s who are ready to be courageous prosecutors in the name of saving New Yorkers’ lives. Aggressive, noisy, public prosecution is a radically effective deterrent. It has worked for drunk driving. It’s time for New York City’s top prosecutors to demonstrate their concern for 60,000 New Yorkers injured by reckless drivers every year by making the vocal prosecution of lawless drivers their most public stance.

The report also recommends that DAs:

    • Allow crash victims, particularly victims of hit-and-run drivers, to bypass NYPD and report crashes directly to DAs
    • Document and publish data on cases where people were killed by drivers breaking the law. TA says none of the five NYC DAs currently track such data
    • Encourage the expansion of the NYPD Collision Investigation Squad, which handles only a few hundred of the thousands of serious crashes that occur every year
    • Provide comprehensive staff training on traffic laws
    • Lobby to fix laws that make it more difficult to prosecute reckless drivers
    • Offer alternatives to jail sentences, including restorative justice programs

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