AT LAST! Car-Loving De Blasio Calls For ‘Higher Penalties’ For Drivers Who Kill

Artists's rendition of enforcement vs. design waging a battle around the mayor.
Artists's rendition of enforcement vs. design waging a battle around the mayor.

The mayor doesn’t just want to throw the book at reckless drivers, he wants to print a heavier tome to chuck at them.

“We need new laws that cause much more consequence if a motorist is negligent and they kill someone, even if it wasn’t their intention,” Hizzoner said on WNYC’s weekly “Ask the Mayor” segment in response to a listener question about how the de Blasio Administration could encourage the NYPD to get more interested in actual traffic enforcement. “There have to be much higher penalties. That’s an area we have to improve.”

Ya think?

Of the 18 cyclists who have been killed this year, only two drivers have been charged. In so many cyclist deaths over the years, plus this year’s deaths of Robert Sommer, Yisroel Schwartz, Ernest Askew and Robyn Hightman, a driver escaped charges simply by remaining on the scene. In such cases, offers seem to start with the presumption that a driver who remained on the scene simply made an innocent mistake that could happen to anyone. Often in such cases, the driver is the only living witness to the incident — and few drivers admit they were distracted, speeding or reckless.

There’s rarely enforcement or real investigations attached to hit-and-run cases as well — despite the felony charge attached to the crime. Police announced a person of interest in the case of the hit-and-run driver who killed Aurilla Lawrence in February this year, but have otherwise not released any information about who might have killed her.

The NYPD’s Collision Investigation Squad, which takes the lead on traffic crashes around the city, only manages about 150 crash investigations per year — in a city with more than 40,000 injury-causing crashes per year. In 2019, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill refused to take $2 million to hire 15 additional detectives at the CIS. O’Neill felt it was fine to keep the CIS staffed with just 25 cops — clearly not enough cops on the face of it, based on one key statistic: only 492 drivers were arrested last year despite 5,699 hit-and-run crashes involving death or serious injury.

Drivers simply escape arrest by telling police they didn’t know they hit someone, as they did in the case of cyclist Mathieu Lefevre in 2011 or pedestrian Linda Douglas earlier this year.

Even in the cases where drivers are charged with crimes after killing cyclists, the police and prosecutors haven’t brought the most serious charges available. The truck driver who killed Chaim Joseph in Midtown Manhattan was charged with failure to yield, but was not charged with leaving the scene of a crash, despite the fact that he drove away from the collision. And recently, the van driver who threw his door open in the path of Em Samolewicz was issued a summons, one that only tops out at a $138 fine, for opening his door into traffic.

What’s difficult to identify is what the mayor wants done to fix this oversight that he decided to identify. Does he want to see the hit-and-run statute applied more forcefully so that, like in Hightman’s case, a driver can’t say he was unaware he hit someone? Does he want cops and prosecutors to treat dooring like a violation of the right-of-way law, and thus as a criminal violation instead of a summons-worthy incident, as attorney Steve Vaccaro suggested it could be? He could also ask his own police force to give out more tickets for blocking bike lanes and for failure to yield — though the NYPD seems reluctant. Even during last month’s high-profile “crackdown” on those two violations, cops wrote just five bike lane tickets per precinct per day and just two failure-to-yield tickets per precinct per day. Both crimes occur hundreds of times per day in every precinct; most cyclists and pedestrian see it multiple times on every ride or walk.

But, the mayor didn’t specifically mention any laws on the air, and his office did not respond to a request for comment when asked what he would like to see changed.

Enforcement, of course, is a thorny issue in New York City, where the NYPD floats between indifference — as when this cyclist politely asked a NYPD officer to not park in a bike lane — and outright contempt, like when this cyclist sought police help after she was doored, only to be written up herself.

Worst of all, Mayor de Blasio would be counting on a police force uninterested in safe driving themselves. A monthlong Streetsblog investigation discovered that 58 percent of officers’ personal vehicles have been slapped with summonses for speeding or blowing red lights — and 38 percent have repeat violations. (The mayor promised Streetsblog in April that he would hold these reckless drivers accountable, but he has done nothing.)

So it’s no surprise that safe streets advocates are wary of leaning on the NYPD to do more.

“Stricter penalties alone are not a deterrent, and we should use caution when it comes to giving the NYPD a larger role in Vision Zero,” said TransAlt Deputy Director Marco Conner. “The key to driving down the rate of death and injury on our streets is widespread, unbiased automated enforcement, like the City’s wildly successful speed safety camera program. Mayor de Blasio ought to double down on using technology to deter the other dangerous behaviors that are all too common on our streets, like failure to yield, blocking bike lanes, and blocking the box.”

Other street safety voices noted that there was more to Vision Zero than just making sure negligent drivers face consequences.

“[The comment] shows the mayor’s philosophy about Vision Zero,” said Doug Gordon. “He sees it as, as long as we’re punishing bad drivers, everything will be fine. But part of Vision Zero is making the street better for people. You can have a city where drivers are getting tickets and summonses and still have it be a bad city to walk and bike in.”

Gordon also made sure to point out that rather than reactive measures to negligent driving, the better route to take is proactive street design that prevents the kind of deadly speeding and reckless behavior that harms pedestrians and cyclists.

“You want to take that personal element out of [traffic enforcement] as much as possible,” Gordon said. “It’s better for everybody, especially disadvantaged, vulnerable populations.”

  • com63

    They should just treat road deaths the same as murders and hold precincts accountable for bringing the stats down. They’ll quickly figure out that cars are the problem.

  • Tomas Paine

    Hmm, why not require that new cars have cameras inside them, pointed at the driver? That way if some doofus was playing with his little instagram toy while driving and hurt someone, there would a record of his/her reckless disregard.

  • NYCBK123

    So let’s pass Lander’s bill into law

  • Joe R.

    We should train drivers to be more attentive. I like the way the Japanese train railway engineers. They have to point at signals and announce the aspect. They also have to verbally acknowledge speed limits. We require the same of drivers.

  • Joe R.

    Just go all-in on driverless cars as soon as the technology is perfected. Ban human driving on public roads altogether. Once machines can drive better and safer there’s no longer any rationale for allowing humans to drive.

  • WodOffPooH

    Failing to yield and blocking the box are so sad in this city. As a driver you yield to pedestrians or bikers and you get stuck in the box, ticket. If you are more aggresive and don’t want to block the box now you’re failing to yield. I think a lot of the bike riders on here want a fairytale. I think some of the bike riders should drive around Manhattan and come up with solutions from inside a car, not on a bike pointing fingers. Know your enemy, right?
    No one wants anyone to die but driving in NYC is probably the most difficult driving in this entire country.

  • Please note that blocking the box has nothing to do with yielding to pedestrians.

    Blocking the box occurs when a driver ignores the first basic tenet of traversing through an intersection: you do not enter an intersection unless there is room for your vehicle on the other side.

  • Wilfried84

    How about, don’t cross into the intersection until there’s space for you on the other side, before the light turns yellow? Yeah, you might have to wait a light cycle (as opposed to making the intersection impassible in the other direction for a light cycle). My heart bleeds for you. One of the major things that makes driving difficult (and makes the streets a pain in the ass and unsafe for everyone else)? Blocking the box. Cause? Drivers. Want to solve the traffic problem? Get out of your car. Want to get around traffic? Ride a bike. I can almost always get through when cars are at a dead standstill.

  • Wilfried84
  • William Lawson

    There are perfectly good laws on the books already – like involuntary manslaughter, the legal definition of which fits the description of many acts of fatal traffic violence perfectly, without needing “intent.” The problem is that our terminally lazy cops and DA’s dismiss them with a wave of the hand, claiming that it’s “too hard” to get a conviction. Back when I was a kid, if I refused to do something on the basis of it being “too hard,” I’d be asked “how do you know if you don’t even try?”

    The whole “too hard to get a conviction” crapola is so offensive when you consider how much effort the authorities put into crimes like financial fraud. They will unleash the full extent of their investigatory powers. No stone is left unturned. They will think nothing of pouring over millions of documents over a course of months or even years, interviewing hundreds of people, doing whatever it takes to achieve that oh so important ‘”financial justice.”

    Human justice, on the other hand, is not as important to the authorities, especially when they know they can dismiss entire categories of homicide by saying it’s too hard to prosecute, thus significantly reducing their workload. In their minds, they aren’t failing anyone, because they have been brainwashed to believe that a certain number of traffic fatalities are “expected,” or even “acts of God.” It really doesn’t matter what new laws De Blasio has in mind – the NYPD and the DA’s will just find ways to avoid their enforcement too. Never mind new laws, we need to replace cops and district attorneys who refuse to do their jobs.

  • William Lawson

    How hard is it to follow the INTENT of those laws and NOT DRIVE INTO THE BOX UNTIL IT’S CLEAR ON THE OTHER SIDE? That’s why the law exists, to encourage drivers to do that. Despite this, the roads are full of idiots who squeeze through lights only to get stuck in the box or on the crosswalk on the other side because it wasn’t clear yet. And you think these people are “victims”? Get out of here! They’re exactly the kind of non-compliant, impatient idiots we’re trying to discourage from driving.

  • Joe R.

    You know the real reason drivers get stuck blocking the box? It’s because there are simply too many cars on the streets in Manhattan, and as a result you end up with gridlock. The answer isn’t to “come up with solutions from inside a car” because there are none. Cars take up a lot of space. When a lot of people insist on driving into the same 23 square miles you end up with congestion. Unless you have business where you need to move heavy loads around Manhattan all day long there’s no reason whatsoever to be driving there. Even if you live in a place not accessible to public transit the solution is to drive to the nearest train station, park, and take the train into Manhattan, not drive all the way in. Maybe if more people did this blocking the box wouldn’t be an issue because you would always have space to cross the intersection on a green light.

  • Rex Rocket

    Ticket? Blocking the box? When did that last happen, 1988? There was a push once, and signs threatened a $250 fine (only slightly higher than the fine for rolling through an empty intersection at 5 am on a bike), but at least on the East Side, zero enforcement since forever.

  • WodOffPooH

    How do you know if the box is clear if pedestrians are idiots that randomly decide to bolt out into the street

  • William Lawson

    “How do you know if the box is clear” — WE’RE NOT TALKING ABOUT THE BOX BEING CLEAR, WE’RE TALKING ABOUT THE ROAD PAST THE CROSSWALK BEING CLEAR. You’re not supposed to proceed through the intersection unless you can get all the way across and over the opposite crosswalk. Stop in the box: ticket. Stop in the crosswalk: ticket. Stop making pathetic excuses.

  • WodOffPooH

    I’m telling you NYC police are on corners waiting to give drivers tickets for not yielding to pedestrians and if they do and don’t clear the intersection you get a blocking the box. Damn if you do damn if you don’t. Driving ain’t as easy as y’all believe.

  • No, cops are definitely not at corners waiting to give drivers tickets for failing to yield to pedestrians or for blocking the box. They ought to do that; but they sure ain’t doing it.

    But, more important: one thing has nothing to do with the other. Yielding to pedestrians does not cause you to block the box. Someone who thinks that these two things are related might be even more incompetent than is the norm amongst drivers.

    It cannot be repeated enough (because you evidently do not know this) that you should not enter an intersection unless there is room for you to exit it on the other side. Even if you have a green light and even there are no pedestrians, you must stay behind the stopping line until room opens up on the other side of the intersection.

    You know who understands this principle? Truck drivers. They may be a bunch of savages who do plenty wrong; but they are aware of the size of their vehicles, and they typically will not enter an intersection unless they know they can get out the front end of it.

  • kevd

    I can promise you no one ever gets a blocking the box ticket because they are impeded by crossing pedestrians while turning.
    Because, even if hundreds of ped are crossing (with the right of way, not “randomly” as you suggest), when the light cycle changes those pedestrians no longer have a walk cycle and the turning vehicle can continue ahead of the vehicles who then have the light.
    The ONLY time the box is blocked is when drivers refuse to wait for there to be clear space to appear past the intersection before entering the intersection – and nearly always when going straight.
    They’re then stuck in the middle of the intersection and prevent crossing traffic from going straight and in an attempt to get out of the way, then block the cross walk forcing legally crossing peds to fine their own way across. See Varick st. every single afternoon for an example.

    I’ve yet to see a single ticket issued for blocking the box there.

    You’re just making shit up to distract from the real problem of selfish drivers impeding each other and endangering everyone else.

  • kevd

    You’re living in a fantasy world.

  • qrt145

    Actually it is possible to end up blocking the box due to yielding to pedestrians. I see it in Midtown almost daily. A motorist enters the intersection with the green light and plenty of room on the other side, but several pedestrians decide to cross against the light, across the motorist’s path on the far end of the intersection. The motorist stops not to hit the pedestrians; by then there is already a steady stream of people crossing. Then the light turns red and even the law-abiding pedestrians start crossing. Now the motorist is stuck blocking the box until the crosswalk clears, which may take considerable time during hours of heavy pedestrian volume. (Perhaps a sign that Midtown should officially be a pedestrian zone, but the fact is that, as it is now, driving there positively sucks.)

  • in 18 years living in Manhattan I’ve never seen a driver get ticketed for blocking a box.

  • Ah, OK; I can see that scenario. But you’re right that no driver is going to get a ticket for that.

    Still, I wish they would get tickets for the more straightforward type of blocking the box, caused by the driver racing to beat the light while paying no mind to the possibility of clearing the intersection.

  • WodOffPooH

    one yes they are. two, if youre at a busy crossing and every light there is heavy pedestrian traffic technically you should never be able to make a turn. Pedestrians dont ever stop flowing so you cant technically make i through the intersection before the light turns. Example W 37th and 7th ave. or 39th and 8th ave. There is a never ending flow of pedestrians and technically every driver is either blocking the box or failing to yield to pedestrians. To make a turn in NYC u have to inch into pedestrian traffic so that one car per light can make a turn. If you actually drove in midtown you might know that.

  • WodOffPooH

    glad u know this is a possibility. I have gotten two such tickets in the last two weeks since the young white lady ran the light and ran into that cement truck. Ever since then the city has been hounding good drivers and bad a like. I drive for a living and im scared to drive after every time a white woman is hit by a car.

  • Frank Kotter

    I have never, ever, ever seen nor heard of this.

    Seek psychological help for delusions.

  • HamTech87

    When I’m driving in the city (typically Manhattan), I wait until the other side is clear before proceeding through the intersection. But I find two things happen: (1) a driver in the lane to my side speeds ahead into the space across from my lane; and, (2) I get honked at by drivers behind me for not going into the intersection even when no space exists on the other side.

  • I definitely understand the problem there.

    Still, I must thank you for resisting further degrading our street environment by participating in illegal acts, even when you are pressured to do so by the bad behaviour of other drivers.

  • reasonableexplanation

    I never block the box, but I see people do it, and get ticketed for it fairly regularly, at least in Manhattan. The traffic person just goes up to the car, scans the registration, and prints it right there.

  • reasonableexplanation

    I see it about 2x a week in midtown.

  • Rex Rocket

    I don’t think they can write moving violations. You have to see the DL. It’s just a parking ticket of some kind that will never be paid.

  • Rex Rocket

    “This is an area we have to improve.” = The kiss of death from Mayor Bill “Polling Zero” de Blasio.

  • jeremy

    Then you shouldn’t be driving if you find it hard

  • WodOffPooH

    Hey if u can get me a bullshit office job that pays me 80k to bring my dog into work and drink craft beer and not do a damn thing I will stop driving all together.

  • Noah

    If you want a well-paying office job, you’ll have to learn proper spelling and grammar first.

  • WodOffPooH

    Why is attacking ones spelling or grammar white mens go to weapon online. Like since I was 17 years old, whenever I got into an argument with a white guy he always attempted to suggest he was smarter than me. Do you think this superiority complex has anything to do with white men being the predominant mass shooters?

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