Bikers, Pedestrians Increasingly Are Victims of Fatal Accidents

Advocates Want Cops To Get Tougher on Reckless Drivers

A “ghost bike” memorial for Elisio Martinez, killed by a car in August 2009. There are hundreds of memorials like this one throughout New York. Eagle photo by Zach Campbell.

By Zach Campbell

BROOKLYN — “I didn’t see him.”

This was the explanation given by the school bus driver who struck and killed a 57-year-old man in the Bronx last Tuesday. A day later Katherine Yun, 25, was hit by a garbage truck on Broadway in Williamsburg. Yun died later that night at Woodhull Hospital. Neither driver was charged with a crime — according to the NYPD there was “no criminality suspected.”

Mathieu Lefevre, a Canadian artist living in Brooklyn, was struck and killed by a flatbed truck while cycling down Morgan Avenue in Bushwick this past October. The driver left the scene, only to be tracked down later by the NYPD. He claims to not have been aware he hit anybody, and has also not been charged with a crime.

According to New York traffic law, drivers are required to “exercise due care” not to collide with cyclists or pedestrians. Until last year this was a toothless provision; reckless drivers who caused serious injury or death to pedestrians could only be prosecuted if they were intoxicated at the time, or in cases of extreme negligence.

After two high-profile traffic incidents in 2009 involving the death of two children and the serious injury of another at the hands of reckless drivers, the law was amended to include mandatory license suspension and possible fines and jail time.

Still, many say that reckless drivers that hurt or kill pedestrians are getting off easy.

“We’ve found that these laws are not being used at all,” said Lindsey Ganson, safety campaign director at Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy organization for pedestrians, cyclists and mass-transit users. She added that “many cases of gross negligence do not have any repercussions for the driver.”

Transportation Alternatives and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio have begun an investigation into the NYPD’s use of these laws to prosecute reckless drivers, arguing that the NYPD’s Accident Investigation Squad, which responds to every fatal crash in NYC, is not using the new laws to hold drivers accountable.

“[R]ecent laws enacted in Albany have put new tools in the hands of prosecutors to hold accountable people who kill or seriously injure others through negligence behind the wheel,” said de Blasio, “But we must ensure those laws live up to their potential and intent.”

A separate effort has been under way by State Senator John Flanagan (R-Long Island) to give prosecutors new tools in these cases. He sponsored a bill in Albany last January that would create a new charge of vehicular assault in the third degree, essentially closing the loophole and allowing for the prosecution of sober negligence while driving.

According to the office of Dean Skelos, the New York State Senate majority leader, the bill is “stuck” in committee “for political reasons.” Flanagan plans on reintroducing the bill in January.

Supporters of the legislation hope that, with these new tools, reckless drivers will begin to be held accountable for their actions. According to Juan Martinez of Transportation Alternatives, these steps are just the beginning, and real change will come only when the NYPD starts utilizing them.

Martinez hopes they will become a deterrent to dangerous driving, adding that “if you’re driving and you crash into somebody, ‘I didn’t see them’ isn’t a valid excuse when you’re operating a one or two ton piece of machinery.”

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