Why Motorists Should Pay for Crash Investigations

As any good policy wonk knows, certain activities effectively force people who only bear the costs of that activity to subsidize the beneficiaries. To use the classic contemporary example, fossil fuel polluters receive billions in tax breaks, but pay nothing for the climate change-inducing carbon that they emit.

The same problem applies to private motoring, the costs of which are, in many cases, spread across non-drivers or society at large. The curb lane in front of my home provides free storage for my car-owning neighbors’ vehicles. A portion of my taxes go to maintaining highways I rarely use, caring for uninsured crash victims and asthma patients in city hospitals, bailing out the auto industry because it’s too big to fail, and fighting wars to keep oil cheap.

One aspect of private motoring that benefits motorists while imposing costs on others is crash investigations. Anyone involved in a motor vehicle crash (and remaining conscious afterwards) knows that two NYPD officers are sent to the scene and spend usually about half an hour or more recording information including weather conditions and the contours of the road. (The officers may also spend some time trying to convince you not to make a report.) Many of these crashes involve property damage only.

While the barely relevant details of fender-benders are meticulously documented, members of the NYPD Collision Investigation Squad are supposedly doing in-depth investigations of all crashes involving “critical” injuries.

Why is the public at large paying teams of police officers to gather loss adjustment information for insurance companies in property damage disputes, while acts of serious traffic violence go uninvestigated?

The answer lies with the insurance industry. From an industry-wide perspective, insurers’ interest is not focused on determining fault for a crash. Since any given insurer can just as easily find itself on the defending end as the prosecuting end of a crash-related claim, the captains of the insurance industry don’t really care how fault is allocated in any given crash (however much the individual insurance adjusters assigned to particular crashes may care).

Rather, the insurance industry’s prime objective in crash investigations is to identify insurance fraud, which without question is a concern. One recent bust uncovered a massive $279 million fraud involving staged crashes where the “victims” are rushed to clinics where doctors systematically perform unnecessary medical procedures, and everyone from the “victims” to the clinic owners to the doctors get a piece of the pie. Similar scams are run with property damage claims arising from staged crashes.

But while insurance fraud is a problem, deterring it should not be the driving goal of crash investigation policy.  The public at large should not be subsidizing this police-staffed fraud-detection program, while serious crashes in need of independent investigation are neglected.

The Bloomberg administration made a proposal last year to charge participants in crashes for the cost of the FDNY response to the crash scene. As an FDNY spokesperson explained, “The intention here is to take the burden off of taxpayers and make the parties responsible for accidents pay for the services.”

Mainstream media outlets from the Daily News to the Wall Street Journal predictably lined up to publish windshield-perspective screeds about the “crash tax,” burying the proposal almost immediately. Lost in the “outrage” was the fact that FDNY already charges exorbitant fees to transport crash victims to the hospital. In other words, the city charges pedestrians struck on the sidewalk by motorists for a trip to the ER, and then makes the same pedestrian pay to provide free FDNY responses to property damage sustained in crashes only involving motorists. Why shouldn’t FDNY charge for a response to the scene of crashes involving property damage only?

Indeed, NYPD already charges $10 for a copy of a crash report. Shouldn’t the fee charged for the report more fairly reflect the value of the resources invested when two cops spend half an hour or more at the site of a fender bender? And wouldn’t civilian employees, who don’t have to travel around in pairs and don’t necessarily feel demeaned by investigating crashes (as many NYPD officers seem to) be a better and more efficient choice for investigators?

Fiscal constraints have been offered to justify neglect of crash investigations that state laws mandate police to perform. The fairest and most efficient way to fund these investigations is plainly to have the drivers involved, who enjoy the lion’s share of the benefits of private motoring, pay themselves.

Steve Vaccaro is an attorney with the Law Office of Vaccaro & White.