Will the City Council Press NYPD to Enforce the Right of Way Law?

NYPD is barely enforcing a key Vision Zero law more than a year after it took effect, and it seems the City Council isn’t planning to do anything about it.

He's the Energizer bunny of car-centric thinking. Photo: Policy Exchange/Flickr

The pressure is not on Police Commissioner Bill Bratton to take pedestrian safety seriously. Photo: Policy Exchange/Flickr

The aim of the Right of Way Law, also known as Administrative Code Section 19-190, was to give NYPD precinct officers a tool to penalize motorists who injure or kill. The law made it a misdemeanor for drivers to strike pedestrians and cyclists who have the right of way. After it took effect, NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan said all 35,000 uniformed officers would be trained to enforce it.

The Right of Way Law is a centerpiece of Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative. Failure to yield is the top contributing factor in 27 percent of pedestrian fatalities and severe injuries, according to DOT’s 2010 pedestrian safety study. But NYPD is not applying the law in proportion to the scale of damage caused by drivers who fail to yield.

Precinct cops are starting to use the Right of Way Law, but mostly to issue traffic summonses, not misdemeanor charges. The misdemeanor provision remains the province of the Collision Investigation Squad — and CIS has applied it in just a handful of cases.

Last fall Mayor de Blasio’s office told Streetsblog that, in addition to misdemeanor cases handled by CIS, precinct cops are issuing Section 19-190 summonses for failure-to-yield violations that don’t result in physical harm. The violations are classified as traffic infractions, not crimes, and are subject to a $250 fine.

According to the city’s open data portal (enter “19-190” in the search field), NYPD cited 145 drivers for traffic infractions under Section 19-190 from September 2015, when NYPD began tracking the summonses, through mid-December. Of those 145 cases, 31 were dismissed.

Meanwhile, the number of Right of Way Law misdemeanor cases is stuck in double digits — DNAinfo reported Monday that 31 drivers who killed people were charged criminally in the first 16 months the law was on the books — though New York City drivers injured thousands of people in that time. Nearly all reported charges were filed after crashes worked by CIS, which handles only the most severe collisions, causing critical injury or death.

When Chief Chan said all precinct cops would be trained to apply the law, the implication was they would enforce both the misdemeanor and infraction provisions. If NYPD policy restricts precinct officers to issuing Section 19-190 summonses, while leaving more serious penalties to CIS, the department is limiting the law’s potential to reduce traffic violence.

The current City Council has pressed NYPD on street safety before. One pending bill, for example, would require the department to release information on hit-and-run cases. I contacted the office of council transportation chair Ydanis Rodriguez to ask if he was considering measures to hold NYPD accountable for putting the Right of Way Law to use. The transportation committee could, for instance, hold oversight hearings about NYPD’s application of the law.

In a statement, Rodriguez called on police and district attorneys to increase “enforcement and coordination” but didn’t specify any steps the council will take to provide oversight:

Vision Zero has proven a tremendous success in New York and we see real progress in the number of lives saved. The focus for 2016 should be building on this success with increased enforcement and coordination between the NYPD and our District Attorneys across the city. Victims of crashes, both those who are tragically killed and those who face minor to serious injuries, should be availed by the justice system. This takes dangerous drivers off the streets, making them safer for everyone.

NYPD’s application of the Right of Way Law has lacked the urgency that the threat of reckless or negligent driving demands. It’s hard to see how that will change without more pressure from the council.