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NYPD Ticketing More Drivers for Harming People With the Right of Way

NYPD issued 1,920 civil summonses under the Right of Way Law last year. Since 2014 police have used the law to file misdemeanor charges against 74 motorists who severely injured or killed people with the right of way. Photo: Brad Aaron

NYPD began to apply the city's Right of Way Law more extensively in 2016. The department scaled up summonses issued to drivers who injured people walking or biking with the right of way, according to Mayor de Blasio's Vision Zero report. Misdemeanor charges, meanwhile, were still applied in just a few dozen cases.

Also known as Administrative Code Section 19-190, the Right of Way Law gives precinct officers a tool to hold drivers accountable for harming pedestrians and cyclists who are following traffic rules.

Before the law was enacted, NYPD protocol prevented precinct officers from following up on crashes they did not personally witness. A turning driver could hit someone in the crosswalk with a car and face no consequences. With no finding of fault in court, victims had a hard time receiving adequate compensation.

When the Right of Way Law took effect, in 2014, the intent was to deter one of the most common causes of injury and death on New York City streets. Under the law, drivers who violate a victim's right of way are subject to an unclassified misdemeanor charge or a civil summons.

NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan said all 35,000 uniformed officers would be trained to enforce the Right of Way Law. But in the first two years after the law was enacted, it was applied in only a few dozen cases, typically involving severe injury or death, handled by specialists with the NYPD's Collision Investigation Squad. The NYPD did not issue any civil summonses for violating the Right of Way Law in 2014 or 2015.

That changed in 2016, when police issued 1,920 civil summonses to drivers who injured people walking and biking with the right of way (see page 44 of the mayor's "Vision Zero Year Three Report").

Table: NYC mayor’s office
Table: NYC Mayor’s Office
Table: NYC mayor’s office

The civil summons does not carry the weight of a misdemeanor charge (though those are usually pled down to a traffic violation anyway). However, it can have financial implications for motorists, and a finding of guilt on the part of a driver helps the victim recover damages from insurance companies and in civil court.

"[Section] 19-190 has a misdemeanor component or a violation component," said Adam White, an attorney who represents crash victims, in an email to Streetsblog. "A plea of guilty to either or a conviction for either has the same impact in a civil action and likely the same impact to one’s insurance carrier, i.e. putting them at an increased risk and hence raising their premiums."

City motorists injured 10,769 pedestrians and 4,591 cyclists in 2016, according to city crash data. DOT's 2010 pedestrian safety study cited failure to yield as the top contributing factor in 27 percent of pedestrian fatalities and severe injuries. Based on those numbers, NYPD is applying the Right of Way summons in a substantial number of cases where it applies, but far from all of them. We also don't know how many summonses or misdemeanor charges result in guilty pleas or convictions.

NYPD has charged 74 drivers with a misdemeanor under Section 19-190 since the law took effect, according to the mayor's report. NYPD told Streetsblog police apply misdemeanor charges only after crashes that result in critical injury or death -- crashes investigated by the Collision Investigation Squad.

So if you injure someone walking or biking with the right of way, you will most likely drive away with a summons, if that.

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