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Posts from the "New York State DMV" Category

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NYC Pedestrian and Cyclist Traffic Injuries Hit Five-Year High in 2013

Motorists injured more pedestrians and cyclists in New York City last year than in any of the previous five years, according to official 2013 data on traffic injuries and deaths released by the state DMV [PDF]. Confirming preliminary NYPD figures, the final DMV stats show total traffic injuries remained near the five-year low — meaning pedestrians and cyclists accounted for a higher share of traffic violence victims on New York City streets in 2013 compared to recent years.

Total traffic injuries increased around 2 percent from 2012 to 2013, while pedestrian injuries went up 5 percent and cyclist injuries rose 8 percent. All told, drivers injured 11,398 pedestrians and 3,817 cyclists last year — the highest totals in any of the last five years.

There were 294 total traffic fatalities in 2013, an 8 percent rise from 2012, when 271 people were killed. More people died in New York City traffic crashes last year than in any of the past five years.

Traffic deaths are more subject to random variation than traffic injuries, and there were some especially large swings in pedestrian and cyclist fatalities last year. Pedestrian deaths increased from 135 in 2012 to 183 in 2013, marking the highest death toll in the last five years after four years of declining fatalities, while cyclist deaths dropped from 17 to 9.

Last year, 65 percent of people killed in traffic were pedestrians and cyclists, compared to 56 percent in 2012.

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DMV Scrambles to Contain Scandal of Wrongful Bike Penalties

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Last Friday, New York State DMV responded to mounting evidence that it has been systematically cheating cyclists by imposing motorist-only surcharges and license points for bicycling violations, contrary to state law. The problem was first brought to DMV’s attention on August 12, in a Streetsblog post. DMV admitted that it was violating the law and agreed to refund the improper surcharge to two cyclists, but did not indicate that it would do the same for other cyclists, or change its procedures going forward.

On September 2, State Senator Brad Hoylman wrote a letter to DMV Commissioner Barbara Fiala demanding that she respond to the August 12 charges against the DMV in Streetsblog. Then on September 17, I filed suit against the DMV on behalf of six cyclists as putative representatives of a statewide class of thousands of cyclists who faced excessive and improper penalties for bicycling violations.

DMV finally broke its month-long silence by responding to Senator Hoylman in a letter delivered last Friday. Commissioner Fiala’s letter details DMV’s extensive efforts to identify all of the cyclists affected by improper ticket coding. DMV says it has reviewed 25 years’ worth of bicycle traffic tickets — including 50,000 bicycle tickets issued in the last five years alone.

Commissioner Fiala states that DMV has taken the following steps to remedy the “regrettable” miscoding of bicycle tickets:

  • Paying refunds to 84 cyclists improperly required to pay motorist-only surcharges
  • Removing penalty points improperly applied to the licenses of 222 cyclists
  • Recoding 570 pending tickets issued for cycling violations that had been miscoded as motor vehicle violations
  • Making plans to issue a memo to law enforcement officials to reduce the incidence of future miscoding of cycling tickets
  • Making plans to change internal DMV procedures used to identify bicycle tickets
  • Making plans to add language to form UT-60 and to the DMV website to advise cyclists that they are not subject to surcharges or penalty points

These are important and welcome steps to help correct the problem. Cyclists owe great thanks to Senator Hoylman for focusing Commissioner Fiala’s attention on the problem, and to the commissioner for her willingness to admit mistakes and to take the problem seriously.

Nonetheless, it appears that DMV’s efforts have only scratched the surface.

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Cyclists Sue New York State DMV for Unlawful Ticket Penalties

New York City cyclists have filed a class action lawsuit against the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles for administering penalties for traffic violations that by law apply only to motorists.

NYPD ticketed thousands during

NYPD ticketed thousands during “Operation Safe Cycle.” How many were cheated by the New York State DMV? Photo via @OpSafeCycle

In an August Streetsblog column, attorney Steve Vaccaro reported that the DMV cheats cyclists who plead guilty to traffic tickets online by billing an $88 surcharge that doesn’t apply to bike violations, and attaching drivers license points that don’t legally apply. The DMV online ticket payment system does not distinguish between bikes and motor vehicles.

The agency acknowledged to Vaccaro that it was violating the law, and agreed to refund the improper surcharge for two of Vaccaro’s clients, but did not indicate that it would do the same for other cyclists, or correct its procedures going forward.

Vaccaro filed suit Tuesday on behalf of six cyclists [PDF]. The plaintiffs seek to be a representative class for cyclists statewide whom the DMV penalized improperly.

“The DMV admits to cheating, but has offered to pay refunds only to bicyclists who request it in writing,” says Vaccaro. “That approach would result in only a small fraction of the persons cheated receiving a refund. DMV has also failed to put forward a plan to prevent the problem from recurring in the future, other than giving DMV staff a ‘reminder’ that different rules apply to bicycle violations.”

In the complaint, one of the plaintiffs says he pled guilty and paid the correct fine, then received a DMV notice threatening to suspend his license and apply additional fines if he didn’t pay the surcharge as well. Another plaintiff asked DMV in writing for an explanation of the “mandatory surcharge,” and was told he had to pay it. Only after repeated inquiries did a DMV staffer agree to revisit whether the surcharge applied to bike tickets.

The complaint says DMV directed all plaintiffs to pay the motorist surcharge and accept three license points as a condition of pleading guilty. The complaint alleges that DMV failed to train employees to distinguish between cyclist and motorist tickets. The suit seeks damages for increased auto insurance premiums that resulted from the wrongful application of license points, as well as changes to the DMV traffic ticket form and web site to prevent cyclists from improper penalties in the future.

Vaccaro filed a freedom of information request for data on how many cyclists may be entitled to refunds, a number that the complaint says may be in the hundreds of thousands. Cyclists who believe they were unlawfully penalized by DMV are encouraged to contact Vaccaro’s firm.

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New York Driver’s Ed Is a Joke

Want a driver’s license? It’s easy. Fill out some paperwork and pop on over to the DMV to take a 20-question test for your learner’s permit. Then, get in some practice with a licensed driver. (But if you’re over 18, you can just ignore that part!) Then sit through a five-hour course before taking a quick road test, like these people. Total cost: about $50 and a few hours. Once your license expires, you can renew it with a few clicks online.

No wonder the United States has such a high traffic fatality rate.

Compare this to Germany, where people are less than half as likely to be killed in traffic. In a new video, CNET’s Brian Cooley explains German requirements for learning to operate a high-speed, multi-ton piece of heavy machinery.

The process starts with 14 to 20 hours of technical training, sometimes more, Cooley says, including a test with 30 multiple-choice questions that determines whether you know how to react to any conceivable situation in traffic. That’s followed by at least twelve 90-minute training sessions behind the wheel, including four on the Auotbahn and three at night. If your instructor isn’t satisfied, you could be sent back for additional training sessions.

Then there’s another written exam that plumbs the depths of German traffic law. Three wrong answers is an automatic failure. Fail it three times, and you have to go back to the technical training sessions. And if you learn on an automatic transmission instead of standard, your license prohibits you from driving anything but an automatic. The entire process takes three to six months and can cost about $2,500.

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Hoylman to New York State DMV: Stop Unlawfully Penalizing NYC Cyclists

State Senator Brad Hoylman is asking the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles to stop issuing improper fines and adding drivers license points for bicycling tickets.

State Senator Brad Hoylman

State Senator Brad Hoylman

Hoylman also wants DMV to refund money to cyclists who were wrongly fined, and rescind points that should not have been attached to their licenses.

In an August “Street Justice” column, attorney Steve Vaccaro reported that the DMV online ticket payment system does not distinguish between bikes and motor vehicles. This means that cyclists who plead guilty and pay traffic tickets online are billed an $88 surcharge that doesn’t apply to bike violations, and get points on their drivers licenses that don’t legally apply.

The DMV acknowledged in a letter to Vaccaro that the agency was violating the law, and agreed to refund the improper surcharge for two of Vaccaro’s clients, but did not indicate that it would do the same for other cyclists, or change its procedures going forward.

Hoylman, who represents a large swath of Manhattan, is the ranking member of the Senate Investigations and Government Operations Committee. Hoylman wrote in a September 2 letter to DMV Commissioner Barbara J. Fiala [PDF]:

I am asking that DMV immediately end the practice of unlawfully charging bicyclists surcharge fees and levying points on their driver licenses, and that the agency alter its online payment system and pre-printed traffic summons forms to clearly reflect bicyclists’ exemption from surcharge fees and driver license points.

Hoylman also asked that DMV supply his office with data on how many cyclists were illegally billed and penalized with license points in the last five years, and that DMV “immediately refund any such overpayments and rescind improperly levied points.”

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New York State DMV Admits to Cheating Cyclists, But Doesn’t Say It Will Stop

The New York State DMV admits that it is incorrectly overcharging cyclists for traffic violations and wrongly adding points to their drivers licenses, but the agency hasn’t agreed to stop doing it.

In his most recent Streetsblog column, attorney Steve Vaccaro pointed out that the DMV’s online payment system does not distinguish between bikes and motor vehicles. As a result, cyclists who plead guilty and pay traffic tickets online are stuck with an $88 surcharge that doesn’t apply to bike violations, and are getting points on their licenses that don’t legally apply.

Vaccaro got a letter from the DMV today acknowledging that, under state law, “there are no points assigned for violations committed by bicyclists,” and that the law “exempts bicycle violations from the mandatory surcharge.”

The DMV agreed to refund the surcharge for two of Vaccaro’s clients, but the letter did not indicate that the agency would fix its web site, or give other cyclists their money back and remove license points they shouldn’t have.

In a letter back to DMV, Vaccaro wrote, “Going forward, it appears that remedying this problem will require more than a reminder to the DMV clerical staff.” In addition to modifying its online payment system, Vaccaro says the traffic ticket form used by NYPD should be changed to “make clear” that the surcharge is not “’mandatory’ for cyclists.”

“They haven’t in any way addressed the web site,” Vaccaro told Streetsblog, ”and they are still sitting on $88/per cyclist moving violations for the last ‘x’ number of years.”

We’ll continue to follow this story as it develops. In the meantime, if you believe you were overcharged or wrongly given license points by DMV within the last two years, you can contact Vaccaro’s office.

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DMV Cheating Cyclists With Unlawful Surcharges and License Points

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As NYPD’s latest bike ticket blitz — “Operation Safe Cycle” – rolls into its second week, here at my law firm we’ve been getting more than the usual number of phone calls and emails from cyclists with questions about summonses. Usually the big question in these discussions is whether to plead guilty, not how to plead guilty. But now it appears that if you pay your fine online for a moving violation while cycling, you’ll probably be paying an $88 surcharge that you shouldn’t be, and getting points on your license that don’t belong there.

The problem arises when cyclists make their plea and pay the fine online, as most who receive traffic tickets in New York City do. Even though traffic tickets issued to cyclists usually indicate on their face that the vehicle is a “bicycle,” the DMV’s online payment system appears to ignore this fact.

Yet the DMV’s own rules with respect to surcharges and license points make crystal clear that they do not apply to cyclists. The specific provisions of law that exempt cyclists from the $88 surcharge and from points are set forth in a letter we recently sent to the DMV demanding that it cease and desist from applying these unlawful penalties. We have yet to receive a response.

This is no simple computer glitch either. Judging from the pre-printed traffic forms supplied by the DMV, you’d think it’s trying deliberately to trick cyclists into overpaying their fines. The form states: “included in the total amount for each violation (except equipment) are mandatory surcharges in the amount of $88. Equipment violations include mandatory surcharges of $58.”

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Bronx DWI Pedestrian Killer Gets 90 Days and Six-Month License Suspension

A judge sentenced a convicted drunk driver to just 90 days in jail and a six-month license suspension for killing a pedestrian in the Bronx.

Thomas Riley, 23, was crossing East Fordham Road near Bathgate Avenue at around 4:20 a.m. on March 20, 2011, when 48-year-old Seth Johnson struck and killed him with a minivan, according to a Post story published the day after the crash.

Victim Thomas Riley and his son Julien. Photo via Daily News

Victim Thomas Riley and his son Julien. Photo via Daily News

Riley worked as a barber and had a young son. “My family is now torn apart because a drunk driver took his life away,” Riley’s sister told the Post.

Johnson was charged by Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson with manslaughter, homicide, speeding, reckless driving, leaving the scene, and separate counts of driving while under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Last December a jury acquitted Johnson of manslaughter, homicide, and leaving the scene, finding him guilty on one count of driving drunk and one count of driving while impaired by drugs and alcohol.

“As a prosecutor, I accept the verdict of the jury,” Bronx vehicular crime chief Joe McCormack told Streetsblog after the trial. “We brought what we felt were appropriate charges, and we did the best we could trying the case.”

Johnson faced a year in jail, but on March 28, Judge Nicholas J. Iacovetta sentenced him to 90 days, three years probation, and $870 in fines, according to court records. His license was suspended for six months. So unless the New York State DMV takes action to keep him off the road, Johnson could driving again before long.

From the Daily News:

“He will be in jail for less than three months and I have to live with a life sentence,” the victim’s mother, Aurea Rivera, said after Bronx Supreme Court Justice Nicholas Iacovetta read the decision. “I want the laws changed so that no one else has to suffer like us.”

Rivera, joined in the courtroom by nearly a dozen friends and relatives, read a statement before the court and called on Mayor de Blasio and other elected officials to toughen vehicular manslaughter and drunk driving laws.

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Until Now, NYS DMV Shielded Driver Violation Histories From Prosecutors

Governor Cuomo announced this week that the state Department of Motor Vehicles will make additional traffic violation data available to prosecutors, but it’s too soon to tell if the change will help make more cases against dangerous drivers.

A Monday press release from Cuomo’s office said prosecutors will in the future be able to obtain information on traffic charges dating back 10 years, even if the original charge was reduced through a plea bargain. Affected charges include violations resulting in license points, drug- and alcohol-related offenses, and aggravated unlicensed operation. The information will be shared so ”prosecutors can make more informed judgments when considering a plea for a current driving charge,” the press release said.

There were a couple of disturbing points about Cuomo’s announcement. One is that this information is only just now being opened up to prosecutors. The second is that drivers are often able to get away with speeding by pleading down to an unrelated charge.

Many times when a motorist goes to court, the original ticket is pled down to a lesser charge. Often this is done because the prosecutor or the court is not aware that the driver has a pattern of dangerous driving behaviors. As an example, it is common practice for courts and prosecutors to allow motorists charged with speeding offenses to plead those charges down to lesser offenses such as parking violations.

In 2010, in town, village, city and district courts, 129,628 speeding charges were pled down from a speeding violation to “parking on pavement.” In 2011, 112,996 such pleas were accepted.

A speeding ticket can add three to 11 license points and can result in DMV action against a license, the press release says. while a “parking on pavement” charge carries no license points. 

John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany, which advocates for transparency in state government, said the policy change was a positive step, but doubted it would make a difference in the number of prosecutions.

“The question is, how will this work in practice?” said Kaehny. “If it’s not totally automated, it won’t be used except in the most serious cases. Prosecutors and investigators are not going to make ad hoc requests to DMV for the tens of thousands cases they see. My guess is that this will be used only for building prosecutions against drivers who kill or almost kill.”

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Will the New York DMV Keep an Unlicensed Killer on the Road?

When a driver in New York loses his license, it’s up to the state Department of Motor Vehicles to decide when, or if, he gets it back. Based on a recent hearing attended by Streetsblog, the DMV adjudication process at times relies primarily on testimony from drivers involved in fatal crashes, rather than police reports or other evidence.

The New York State DMV may put the man who killed Clara Heyworth while driving without a license back behind the wheel. Photo via New York Times

Anthony Webb hit Clara Heyworth with a Honda Accord in the early morning hours of July 10, 2011, as she crossed Vanderbilt Avenue near Dekalb Avenue to meet her husband, Jacob Stevens. Heyworth, 28, died the next day. Webb, 43, was charged with driving while intoxicated, operation of a motor vehicle by an unlicensed driver, reckless driving, reckless endangerment, and assault, among other violations. But after NYPD bungled its investigation of the crash, all charges were dropped except unlicensed driving and driving without an insurance card, to which Webb pled guilty.

On January 28, Webb appeared before administrative law judge Marc Berger for a hearing to, according to the DMV notice, “determine whether or not any registrations, license and/or driving privileges should be suspended or revoked.” In a cramped, windowless room in a building in the Financial District, Webb sat across a conference table from Stevens and his attorney, Steve Vaccaro. (Disclosure: Vaccaro’s law firm is a Streetsblog sponsor.)

Berger set the tone right away. Having only a seven-page police report to work from — an NYPD witness failed to show — Berger did not know where the crash had occurred. When Stevens, who saw it happen, began to tell him the location, Berger snapped at Vaccaro, “He’s not to say anything. You’re strictly observers, both of you, unless I allow you to ask questions.” Minutes later, as Vaccaro looked at his notes, Berger said: “Please stop shuffling papers. Don’t touch another paper. Put it in your lap or whatever you have to do.”

By contrast, Berger’s attitude toward Webb was, for the most part, casual, if not cordial. More important, Berger looked to Webb to fill in the gaps in the NYPD report.

Berger asked Webb for a forensic analysis of the crash and the crash scene — how fast Webb was driving, the presence of street lights, whether cars were parked on the street, which direction Heyworth was walking, where she landed after the collision, and how the car was damaged.

When Webb hesitated, or struggled to answer, Berger asked leading questions, or filled in the answers himself: ”What did you do when you heard the thump, if anything? Brake?”

Though Webb told Berger that Heyworth was crossing from his right, according to Stevens she was crossing from his left. But Webb had the final say on how the crash occurred. After Webb gave his version of events, Berger said, “Okay, that’s fine. That makes sense. I just need answers, and it doesn’t, you know, I’m not looking to trip you up.”

Berger even relied on Webb to tell him if he had been drinking. When a breath test was administered an hour after the crash, it indicated Webb had a blood alcohol content of .07, according a lawsuit filed by Stevens against NYPD. Prosecutors working for former Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes dropped the drunk driving charge against Webb because the 88th Precinct had not calibrated the breath test machine for four years. The machine was later found to be working properly, and prosecutors were publicly admonished by a judge for not pursuing the charge.

Webb told Berger, however, that he was found not guilty of drunk driving, and that he had consumed no alcohol before the crash. This detail was accepted at face value until Vaccaro was permitted to ask questions toward the end of the hearing.

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