Alan Dershowitz: Penalize Reckless Drivers Before They Kill

Noted attorney Alan Dershowitz says that to dramatically reduce traffic deaths and injuries in NYC, police and prosecutors must crack down on all dangerous drivers, not just those who kill while driving drunk.

In a Daily News op-ed, Dershowitz says he has been rebuffed by 911 operators when he reports reckless drivers. The reason, he says, is police aren’t interested in handling such calls unless a crash has occurred.

Dershowitz’s sister-in-law was killed by a driver in Chelsea in 2011. Ian Clement left the scene after running Marilyn Dershowitz over with a U.S. Postal Service truck as she was cycling with her husband. Though the crash was captured on video, a jury acquitted Clement of hit-and-run.

Dershowitz writes:

It is this combination — little concern about reckless drivers who haven’t killed yet, and legal difficulties in prosecuting drivers who have — that has likely contributed to the epidemic of pedestrians deaths in New York, resulting in a sizable increase in 2013 from 2012. The law, and those who are supposed to enforce it, are not doing their job in deterring dangerous driving because reckless drivers have little to fear from persisting in their potentially lethal behavior. This breakdown reflects a larger moral conundrum: How should the law deal with conduct that causes lethal results in only a small percentage of cases?

Dershowitz says punishing a relatively small number of reckless drivers for killing people does not deter others from driving recklessly, “because few drivers expect to kill and even fewer expect to be successfully prosecuted if they do.”

“Clearly,” he writes, “the law would buy more deterrent bang for the buck if it vigorously prosecuted every reckless driver, regardless of whether they happen to kill.”

Dershowitz offers a few suggestions for increasing enforcement, like making penalties more severe for deadly crashes in which speeding or texting are a factor. He says more frequent ticketing and higher fines for dangerous moving violations might also help.

Dershowitz, who made his name as a civil libertarian, doesn’t explicitly endorse automated enforcement, though he acknowledges that traffic cameras are an important tool. Penalizing all reckless driving behavior might be seen as “governmental action that compromises privacy for prevention,” he says, but he doesn’t think it’s much of a trade-off.

Are these costs worth the benefits of a more proactive and preventive approach? When it comes to dangerous driving, where privacy interests are minimal and safety concerns considerable, the answer is yes.