Paterson Signs Two Traffic Justice Bills Into Law

On Friday evening, New York Governor David Paterson signed two bills intended to make streets safer by giving law enforcement greater leeway to bring charges against reckless drivers.

alg_children.jpgDiego Martinez and Hayley Ng were killed when a van left idling and unattended careened backwards into a group of pre-schoolers on a Chinatown sidewalk. The driver was not charged.
As Streetsblog readers are well aware, New York City pedestrians and cyclists are seriously injured or killed by vehicular mayhem on a daily basis, but in the vast majority of cases, the motorist remains free to get right back behind the wheel. Even on crowded city streets, it's exceedingly rare for drivers who maim or kill to face consequences more serious than a traffic ticket.

One reason prosecutors hesitate to bring charges is that the standards for proving criminal negligence or recklessness can be difficult to meet. Hayley and Diego's Law, sponsored by Dan Squadron in the State Senate and Brian Kavanagh in the Assembly, creates an intermediate charge -- a traffic violation called careless driving -- which prosecutors can use in cases where criminal convictions seem unlikely. Motorists found guilty of careless driving will have to complete a driver education course and face fines up to $750, jail time up to 15 days, and license suspensions up to six months -- or a year for repeat offenders.

"We expect that the NYPD and District Attorneys are always looking at all the different options to hold people accountable for actions that lead to injuries and deaths," said Transportation Alternatives' senior policy advisor Peter Goldwasser. "With this law, we expect that they will be able to do that to an even greater degree and create a deterrent effect."

Joseph McCormack, chief of the Vehicular Crimes Bureau at the Bronx District Attorney's office, said he would have applied the careless driving charge to Randolph Belle, the motorist who executed an illegal U-Turn on West Kingsbridge Road last week, causing a livery cab driver to veer into a bus shelter, killing one person and severely injuring several others.

McCormack decided not to press charges based on a 2008 case, People v. McGrantham, in which the Court of Appeals -- the highest court in New York state -- ruled that limousine driver James McGrantham was not guilty of criminal negligence after he entered the Belt Parkway at night going the wrong direction, then executed a U-Turn in the middle of the highway instead of pulling over outside the flow of traffic to correct course. A motorcyclist coming around a curve crashed into the limo and died.

Paterson signed a second law on Friday that should also keep dangerous drivers off the road. Under Elle’s Law, any driver who causes serious physical injury to another person while committing a traffic violation will automatically have his or her license suspended for a period of six months by the DMV. Drivers who have been involved in any similar incidents within the previous five years will have their licenses suspended for a full year.

Upper East Side representative Micah Kellner introduced the bill after Elle Vanderberghe, 3 years old at the time, suffered serious brain injuries when a motorist backed up through a crosswalk on 82nd Street to grab an open parking space. "I think a lot of folks want to believe that our streets are safe, but they're clearly not," said Kellner. "One thing we need to make clear is that driving is a privilege, not a right, and if you're going to endanger the public welfare, we're going to take that privilege away from you."

Together, Elle's Law and Hayley and Diego's Law should result in more consistent revocation of driving privileges after people commit dangerous acts behind the wheel. And while the system of license suspensions in New York suffers from a revolving door problem, the new laws may lead to suspensions that carry greater consequences. A Court of Appeals ruling earlier this year, in People v. Caban, holds that driving with a suspended license can be used as evidence of criminal negligence, if the suspension was due to unsafe driving.

It will take years to assess the full impact of Hayley and Diego's Law, but a similar law that passed in Oregon a few years ago should give New Yorkers a good idea of the challenges to expect.

The Oregon statute differs from Hayley and Diego's Law in that the officer has to actively determine that someone was driving carelessly, said attorney Bob Mionske, who writes the Road Rights column for Bicycling Magazine. Under New York's law, there's a presumption that the driver was at fault in some crashes. "It shifts the burden," said Mionske. "You're sort of on the cutting edge in New York."

Despite its differences, Oregon's vulnerable users law remains the closest comparison to New York's. "Here, it's made a big difference," argued Ray Thomas, another bike lawyer. "The options are so limited in terms of what can be done in most cases," he said. Another infraction adds to the enforcement toolkit. He pointed to the high-publicity case of a Portland bus driver who hit five pedestrians in a crosswalk, killing two; the driver was prosecuted under the vulnerable users law.

Thomas admitted, though, that the state law hasn't shown equal benefit everywhere in Oregon. Though prominent in Portland, said Thomas, "across the state, law enforcement has been slow or reluctant to use it." He attributed the uneven application to two things that many police departments and district attorneys want to avoid: "New thinking and more work."

The Oregon law also hasn't penetrated public perception very widely. Estimating how many Oregonians were aware of the law, Mionske guessed "less than 3 percent, and they're the ones already in the choir." Comparing careless driving to drunk driving, Mionske said that there will be a real deterrent effect when law enforcement and advocates join forces to create "a ripple of fear through the driving community." That hasn't happened with the vulnerable users law, yet. 

What both Mionske and Thomas implied is that once legislation like Hayley and Diego's Law goes into effect, law enforcement needs to buy into it. Then, in each city and town, the enforcement effort must be accompanied by a coordinated campaign to inform people of the new consequences of careless driving.

In New York, where traffic violations cause serious injuries with terrible frequency, Hayley and Diego's Law should become a commonly applied legal tool as soon as it takes effect. "If it's only used 50 percent of the time it's applicable, you could still see it being used almost every other day," said Goldwasser, noting that frequent application of the law must come first, before public awareness will follow. "The district attorneys have to use it, the press has to pick it up, and people have to see that it exists, and that careless driving has consequences."