Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Right of Way New York City

Right of Way in Action by Jenn Maskell

Over the last few weeks, a new pulse has pushed cycling activism, from direct action into research, back into action, city council hearings, and back into the streets, from stenciling to testifying, to cargo collecting to bike riding with banners while painting badly needed bike lanes in the streets. 

We need bike lanes extending safe routes through the contested streets of New York City.

This is the Right of Way.

Yet, today police cars park in bike lanes; crashes against pedestrians go uninvestigated, with no criminality suspected. 

Yesterday morning, Keegan and other cycling advocates testified at the City Council Oversight  Hearing on the NYPD Collision Investigation Reforms chaired by James Vacca of the City Council Transportation Committee.

Keegan waiting to testify. 

I saw Vacca in the elevator on the way up to the hearings, his vest not quite matching his jacket.

Vacca, right, and Counsel to left. 

He opened the hearings with a vengeance, noting that everywhere he goes in his district, people come up to him to complain about cars.  “Its not the Daytona 500 out here.  They have no regard for anyone, any pedestrians, cyclists or other cars,” noted Vacca.  “Negligent drivers are getting off the hook, while the NYPD continues to only investigate crashes involving fatalities, not injuries.  This is a low standard.  So my committee sent a letter to Ray Kelly calling for increases in investigations to serious injuries.  Crashes involving cars deserve expeditious investigation of critical injuries.”

Peter Vallone Jr,  Chair of the Council's Public Safety Committee, followed noting New Yorkers are more likely to die than see the NYPD follow the laws on the books, which are rarely enforced around crash investigations.  “Reckless endangerment is a misdemeanor which needs to be enforced,” noted Vallone.    “Criminal charges are needed against the cabby who charged into a cyclist in Times Square, chopping his legs off… Failure to exercise due caution is also a criminal charge.”

Vallone welcomed representatives of the NYPD to testify, although none of their testimony was made public to journalists or the public.  Testifying about the crash investigation squad, Deputy Chief Cassidy explained that the NYPD is doing everything it can do.

“There is a degree of discretion,” noted Vacca incredulously.

“They can make a call if an investigation is warranted.”
“What happens at the scene?” asked Vacca.
“It is treated like a crime scene, like any other,” explained Cassidy.
Listening to this, I noted to Keegan: “They are lying.”  The reality is after a collision the police usually leave the scene.

Peter Vallone followed noting his concern that there is a different standard for traffic crashes than other crime scenes.  “Car crashes need to go to the DA before charges can be filed, while other charges do not require this… Reckless endangerment can be charged without witnesses.”

“People are upset with the speed of cars,” explained Vacca.  “People driving think this is the Daytona 500.  They think the road is theirs, with no consideration.  I want speed cameras up in every district.”

James G Van Bramer of Queens was perhaps the most critical of the NYPD.  “36000 car related injuries this year.  That’s a staggering number…. Of the 189 fatalities, how many resulted in criminal charges? 
“20 with arrests” explained the NYPD.“Reckless endangerment is hard to prove. Why issue summonses for failure to excorcize due care? A Summons is not the value of a life,” Bramer concluded.

“Speeding in this city has to be attacked in a meaningful way,” Vacca concluded.

Paul Steely White of Transportation Alternatives followed, echoing the findings from the TA report: “The Enforcement Gap: How Dangerous Drivers Get Away with Risking Your Life.”

Keegan Stephen, of Right of Way, followed:

My name is Keegan Stephan. I am a member of Right of Way, an organization that has been compiling and analyzing crash data since the 1990s.

For this hearing, I have reviewed the crash data Since Ray Kelly’s March 4 letter to James Vacca stating that crash investigations would improve. These numbers are actually very similar to similar periods of time before March 4th, but they are still shocking. In just over six months, 63 people– more people than are sitting in this room – have been killed by automobile while walking or biking in NYC.

In 2/3 of these deaths due to automobiles, the NYPD declared “No Criminality Suspected” within hours of the crash, before the Crash Investigation Squad (CIS) reports could be thoroughly completed.
In 6 of these, the pedestrian was killed on the sidewalk.
In 9 of these, the pedestrian was killed in the crosswalk and the driver was admittedly turning, clearly failing to yield right of way, and still no charges.

This clear disconnect between the strong circumstantial evidence of driver culpability and the premature exoneration of the drivers by the NYPD, make the other 26 cases in which the NYPD declared No Criminality Suspected, themselves suspect. (And as Mr Komanoff testified,) This calls for an expedited, reliable disclosure of crash investigation material to the public, rather than the current system where victim’s families must toil through the FOIL process for months to obtain this information.

Since Ray Kelly’s letter, there have also been 14 cases – another 25% - where a driver killed a cyclist or pedestrian and fled the scene. In only 4 of these hit-and-run cases has the driver been apprehended. That is only 25%, far below the city’s 75% success rate of closing a homicide case. And in all 4 of these deadly hit-and-run cases where the driver was actually apprehended by the NYPD, the NYPD has only charged the driver with leaving the scene, not with any crime related to the death of the pedestrian, despite the driver either feeling the need to flee, or claiming not to have noticed they killed someone. In only one case over this period of time was a deadly driver charged with a DUI, and that is only thing he was charged with – a charge that typically carries a small fine and mandated substance abuse classes – despite killing someone. Also during this period of time, two killer drivers were driving with suspended licenses, and charged only with driving with suspended licenses – no charges for the driving that led to the death of the pedestrian.

In only 4 of these 63 cases – just 6% - were drivers charged with reckless endangerment or worse, and all of these were rather exceptional cases, such as one during a police chase and another in which the driver admitted to intentionally killing her boyfriend.

It seems clear to me that to deter traffic violence for the safety of all, the NYPD
1. Must do a better job of investigating deadly hit-and-runs.
2. Must not declare the absence or presence of criminality at the scene of a crash, or allow anonymous leaks to the press.
3. Must charge for crimes in a much higher percentage of crashes than they are.
4. Must be required to release their reports to the public or a neutral third party for review.

Thank you for your time. -Keegan Stephan

Finishing their testimony, there was silence in the room.  It was clear that Keegan, as well as White and company from Trans Alternatives had gotten the Council’s attention. 

 “I seriously doubt every precinct station has four speed cameras,” chairman Vacca stated in response, reiterating his point that he assumed the NYPD was lying to everyone.  “I seriously doubt it.”  The NYPD’s lies and manipulation of the statistics came shining through.

Cycling advocate Steve Vaccaro followed. 
Charlie Komanoff, another cycling advocate and member of Right of Way, spoke as well. 

My name is Charles Komanoff. I am a statistician, an economist and a policy analyst. I have lived in New York City for 45 years, most of that time in lower Manhattan. Over this period our city streets have been made safer and more livable. But one element that has not changed one iota is the indifference of the New York City Police Department to the well-being and rights of walkers and bicycle-riders.

I am in complete accord with testimony by Steve Vaccaro on the need to overhaul NYPD protocols at sites of serious injury crashes to pedestrians and cyclists, and testimony by Keegan Stephan calling on City government to terminate the NYPD’s knee-jerk absolution of driving behaviors causing death or injury. I have two dimensions to add to theirs, which arise from my experience in the late 1990s leading the group Right Of Way in analyzing data from hundreds of fatal pedestrian and cyclist crashes, which we distilled in our landmark report, KILLED BY AUTOMOBILE.

First, Right Of Way calls on the Public Safety and Transportation Committees to lead the City Council to mandate that all crash investigation reports by the NYPD’s newly constituted Collision Investigation Squad be made available to the public. The squad’s meticulous reconstructions of driver and victim behaviors constitute a wealth of vital information. Yet none of it ever reaches the public, elected officials, advocates or health professionals. Making it fully available will inform and improve street engineering, traffic law enforcement, prosecution and adjudication, and public education. The outcome will be fewer fatalities and grievous injuries, along with street environments that encourage and enable New Yorkers to engage in healthful active transportation.

Second, we call on your committees to craft legislation directing and enabling the NYPD to access and analyze driver telephone and other digital device data pertinent to all fatal and serious-injury crashes, along with vehicle “black box” (Event Data Recorder) information, and to ensure that these data are made part of every Collision Investigation Squad report.

You may have read yesterday’s New York Times page-one story reporting that mortality statistics in states such as Georgia, Ohio and California grossly understate the frequency of accidental firearm deaths of children. Fictitious reporting by medical examiners and coroners helps the National Rifle Association block preventive measures such as safe storage laws. Indeed, the Times story illuminated how an NRA-imposed data blackout supports the gun lobby’s agenda to stop legislation that could address accidental gun violence.
This deplorable situation with firearms is mirrored by the NYPD’s treatment of incidents of traffic violence. Our police operate under a presumption that drivers who have injured or killed pedestrians or bicyclists were not at fault. This presumption undergirds the failure of the criminal justice system to exact consequences for lethal driving behaviors, and perpetuates the ongoing epidemic of traffic violence documented by my fellow witnesses.

It’s past time for the NYPD to eliminate its “no criminality suspected” presumption and to adopt a data-based, evidence-based public health paradigm. The Council can catalyze this transformation by mandating public disclosure of all NYPD CIS investigations and ensuring that these investigations include all relevant digital data. By allowing health professionals and other concerned New Yorkers to pinpoint the true causes of serious-injury and fatal crashes, the Council will do much to end the entrenched practice of defining drivers’ deviancy down and to usher in truly safe and livable streets.

The testimony was not the first action by Right of Way in recent weeks. The week before the group helped provide a gift to the city, via direct action. 

A press release declared:
As part of Bikes4Life, the international celebration of World Car Free Day, activists install a bike lane as a “gift to the city” where British Tourist Sian Green was maimed by a curb-jumping cab driver in an altercation with a cyclist

New York, NY – Bikes4Life is an international celebration of World Car Free Day organized in dozens of cities across the world that encourages participants to create “life-lines” and give a “citizen’s gift” to their city.

As their gift to New York City, activists with Right of Way, a Direct Action Street Justice group, installed a bike lane on 6th Avenue from 42nd St to 59th St. Until then, the bike lane on 6th Avenue terminated at 42nd St, causing car and bicycle traffic to abruptly merge into one lane. This infrastructure contributed to dangerous interactions among drivers, cyclists, and even pedestrians.

On Thursday morning, August 22nd, cab driver Mohammed Himon drove onto the sidewalk on this stretch of 6th Ave when he said he intentionally stepped on the gas because he had gone blind with rage during an altercation with a cyclist. On the sidewalk, Himon ran over pedestrian Sian Green, severing her leg.

“While accelerating into a cyclist and onto a sidewalk is unacceptable and we hope Himon is charged with serious crimes, sometimes basic infrastructure can calm traffic and save lives,” said organizer Keegan Stephan. “In this case, a continuation of the 6th Avenue Bike Lane from 42nd Street to Central Park could have created the space and distinction needed to prevent Himon’s atrocious actions. If someone had done this sooner, Sian Green might not have lost her leg.”

“As part of Bikes4Life, we celebrate the amazing work the DOT has done over the last 7 years to make our streets more safe and livable, such as their redesign of Times Square just one block from here, but the work is never done. That is why we gave this bike lane as a gift to the city. We hope that it makes 6th Avenue safer for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers alike.”

Antonio Rivera

Right of Way is part of an ongoing expanding sustainable urbanism, born of  a right to organize, ride bikes, plant gardens, and organize a better city for today. Here, activists build on each other's work.  This is the right to the city to be celebrated. 

For cycling advocates, it begins with the line from the street, to the pedestrian plaza where we have dance parties.

From there, it extends into public spaces, parks where we did outreach for the LUNGS festival Saturday. 

It moves from the squats to the gardens, where we hang out, create art and enjoy living.

Here we draw lines from spaces, such as Petit Versailles, Children's Magical Garden to Siempre Verde Garden, where our city becomes a model for right of way into a more caring future. 

1 comment:

  1. Could not be prouder of those testimonies read at City Council. I look forward to Ray Kelly's exit and a new NYPD that gives collision investigation the legitimacy it needs.