When We Treat Driving as a Fundamental Right, People Lose Their Lives

The time to get a dangerous driver off the road is before they cause grave harm.

Vigil for Abigail Blumenstein and Joshua Lew. Video still: WCBS
Vigil for Abigail Blumenstein and Joshua Lew. Video still: WCBS

When I moved to New York from Georgia 12 years ago, one of the first things I did was get a drivers license.

The New York State DMV gives new residents 30 days to exchange an out of state license. It could hardly have been easier. If your old license is valid — or it expired less than 24 months prior — and you’ve had it longer than six months, all you have to do to swap it for a New York license is take an eye test.

It didn’t matter that, with little experience driving in urban settings, I was relocating to the densest city in the country. (Downtown Athens, where I lived, is one of the more walkable environments in the south, but it’s no Manhattan.) With no instruction on how driving in NYC differs from driving elsewhere, it’s no surprise that I unwittingly broke a city parking law on moving day.

Getting a New York license from scratch is only marginally more involved. When Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, went through the process in 2014, his required five-hour course actually took just 90 minutes. “It clearly left a lot to be desired,” White told Streetsblog. “Anyone can pass this 15-question quiz, and you take this class from a rinky-dink outfit, and you’re on the road.”

When my first New York license expired after five years, an eye test was all it took to get an eight-year renewal. As I age and my body deteriorates, as everyone’s does, I expect a periodic eye exam and renewal fee will be my only interaction with the DMV. Since the eye test form can be submitted online, it’s conceivable I will never have to set foot in a New York DMV office again.

Treating driving privileges as a fundamental right is how someone like Dorothy Bruns draws attention only after doing grave harm. Media outlets are reporting that Bruns, who killed Abigail Blumenstein and Joshua Lew and injured their mothers and another pedestrian in Park Slope Monday, has serious health issues, including multiple sclerosis, that could affect her ability to drive.

“In the months before Bruns climbed behind the wheel of her white Volvo, her appearance became so haggard that a neighbor worried about her taking the wheel,” the Daily News reported. “Bruns was barely able to walk at times, and her MS could have increased her chances of seizures.”

Bruns, 44, has a history of heart attacks and strokes, according to the News. NYPD and Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez are reportedly investigating her medical history. Her license was suspended in the meantime.

It takes considerable effort to lose a New York drivers license. For example, accumulating 11 or more license points within 18 months “may” trigger a license suspension, according to the DMV. When the suspension period is up (often after just a few weeks), all a driver has to do to get privileges reinstated is complete some paperwork and pay a fee.

Though the car she was driving was tagged eight times in less than two years for running red lights and speeding in school zones, Bruns had a “clean” driving record, in part because in New York, camera violations don’t result in license points.

“If Bruns had racked up these charges through traditional, human-enforced speeding and red-light tickets, she could have accrued enough ‘points’ under the state’s penalty system to lose her license,” wrote Nicole Gelinas in City Journal. “Clearly, the New York system is seriously flawed.”

Officials and the media are questioning how someone who posed such an obvious and significant threat to public safety was allowed to drive. “She should have had her license and her car taken away from her long ago,” City Council Member Brad Lander, who represents the district where Monday’s crash occurred, told the Times. “Who are the people who are too dangerous to be driving, and how do we make sure that they’re not?”

Attorney Steve Vaccaro, who specializes in representing traffic violence victims, said on Twitter that cities like New York should have more stringent license requirements, because “urban driving is orders of magnitude more dangerous.” As it stands, not even cab drivers are required to take a New York City road test.

The danger is that enthusiasm for developing and adopting reforms will wane as this story fades from the news cycle. Electeds will have to sustain the momentum in order to prevent the next horrific crash.

“I don’t want the cops to arrest my children’s killer,” said Doug Gordon, a.k.a. Brooklyn Spoke, at yesterday’s street safety rally in Park Slope. “I want my children to not be killed.”

  • vnm

    “Her license was suspended in the meantime.” Does that prevent her from getting behind the wheel in the future? How many articles does Streetsblog publish each year about drivers whose licenses have been suspended, who nevertheless cause major mayhem on the roads, like death and destruction?

  • Altered Beast ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ

    we definitely need car control. Also, car control is a dope band name.

  • Vooch

    We need to accept DL reform will take a decade.

    I suggest our efforts will reap more rewards in promoting;

    pedestrian zones
    traffic calming engineering

  • Isaac B

    If we could convince a significant percentage of people outside the Manhattan core (where it’s the norm) that they can get places by walking and taking transit (or car service) and that “it’s OK”. For two many people in “the boroughs” driving yourself is “status” and taking transit is stigmatized.

  • Driver

    There should be a medical certification requirement similar to what is currently required (federally) for CDL holders. It is the drivers responsibility to get certified bi-annually by a qualified doctor who’s obligation is not to the patient but to the safety of the general public.

  • Driver

    Taking transit can be restrictively time consuming depending on where you are going and when.

  • Rex Rocket

    Is her car impounded? Because not having a license doesn’t mean you can’t drive.

  • Albert

    By retrofitting cities to make it easier & easier to get around by car, we’ve let any other way of getting around become unappealing, inconvenient, expensive and even impossible.

    Because of this, a person who become unable to drive safely, because of age or infirmity is understandably horrified by the idea of losing or compromising their freedom, income, youth, etc.

    If my late mother or my late brother-in-law had had public transit so extensive, inexpensive, efficient, safe and appealing that they *knew* they could’ve gone anywhere they wanted, easier and more pleasantly than they could’ve by dragging around a 2-ton hunk of metal through traffic jams, they would have been much more likely to make the choice to stop driving when the time came. And they never would have gotten into the crashes that finally woke them up to the need to stop driving.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Oooof, this really comes off as out of touch.

    It’s not a stigma of transit that pushes people to drive in the boros, hell, the vast majority of boro drivers commute to work via transit and use their cars for other things.

    Cars really shine when you’re driving anywhere except manhattan. A 15 min car trip is often a 45min+ bus trip, not because of congestion but stops and routes and so forth. And if we’re talking about boro to boro or trips to the suburbs? Fuggetaboutit!

  • reasonableexplanation

    If the goal is to have safer behavior by drivers, I think focusing on driving tests is fighting yesterday’s battles.

    Self-driving cars are coming, and the goal of safe streets advocates is to have them come sooner than later, so most human driving can be phased completely.

    You’ll save far more lives, faster, if focus is targeted on allowing self driving cars to come to market sooner. Plus, this way you’re not fighting against anybody, but for everybody.

  • Isaac B

    I understand that none of the trips you make could possibly be done better and less stressful by walking, transit or Uber/Lyft. But perhaps there are other people out there…

  • Being killed by a car is also restrictively time-consuming.

  • davistrain

    Two comments come to mind: 1) I’ve forgotten who said it, might have been a lawyer or even a judge, but in regards to revoking the license of a “negligent operator” [incompetent or reckless motorist] to this person, “Taking away his license would be like sentencing him to house arrest.” This is an attitude of many Americans, the sort who will “give up their cars when they pry my cold, dead fingers from the steering wheel.” 2) In a “household finance advice” column a few years ago, the single mother of a teenage boy was wondering how to pay for another car, since her feckless son had wrecked his. The gist of the columnist’s advice was, “Don’t buy the kid another car–get him a bicycle and a stack of bus timetables.”

  • Self driving cars aren’t going to magically fix the problem of bad drivers. Nobody really thinks that driver’s licenses should be given away as a participation award merely for walking through a line at the DMV. The reason we give driver’s licenses to anybody is because of AAA, who successfully bribes politicians in every state in order to quell any legislation that can reduce its customer base.

    Self driving cars aren’t going to fix this corruption. In fact we’re already seeing federal legislation undoing California’s carefully crafted regulation of self driving cars. Self driving technology can safe lives, but not when its unregulated development puts profits over safety.


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