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Posts from the "NYPD Crash Investigations" Category

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For Cooper’s Law to Work, NYPD Must Change Its Approach to Traffic Crashes

For Cooper’s Law to be effective, ticketing reckless drivers will have to become the rule for NYPD, rather than the exception. Graphic by Carly Clark. Citation data via Transportation Alternatives.

One of the most substantive traffic safety bills passed by the City Council Thursday was Intro 171 — “Cooper’s Law” — which allows the Taxi and Limousine Commission to suspend or revoke hack licenses of cab drivers who cause critical injury or death as a result of breaking traffic laws. The effectiveness of the law, however, depends on NYPD, which often does not ticket drivers involved in serious crashes.

The driver who killed Cooper Stock, the law’s namesake, was cited for failure to yield. But the cab drivers who fatally struck Kelly Gordon and Timothy Keith, for example, were reportedly not summonsed for those crashes. Nor was the cabbie who severed the leg of Sian Green. Even with Cooper’s Law in effect, all of those cab drivers would theoretically remain in good standing with the TLC.

It is too early to know whether NYPD is ticketing more drivers who injure and kill since the advent of Vision Zero, but another item on yesterday’s agenda might be instructive. The council passed a resolution asking Albany to elevate violations of the state’s vulnerable user law to misdemeanor status, which would let cops ticket drivers based on probable cause. NYPD has said it can’t cite drivers for mere traffic violations unless an officer personally witnesses the incident.

Hayley and Diego’s Law — also named after children killed by a driver who avoided criminal charges — was meant to give police a middle ground between a traffic violation and a crime. Because the department only issues careless driving citations if the crash is investigated by the Collision Investigation Squad, NYPD has for years failed to enforce the law as intended. As a result, fewer than 1 percent of New York City drivers who injure and kill pedestrians and cyclists are cited for careless driving.

Another potential hindrance is that NYPD investigates a fraction of serious traffic crashes. Though Ray Kelly purportedly retired the “likely to die” rule, only CIS personnel are trained to do more than check off boxes on the state-issued collision report form. In 2011 NYPD investigated just 304 of 3,192 fatal or serious collisions, according to the office of former comptroller John Liu. Even with reported additions to CIS, the unit has nowhere close to the staff it needs to properly investigate all serious crashes.

If NYPD limits enforcement of Cooper’s Law to CIS-investigated collisions, or does not change its approach to traffic crashes in a meaningful way, dangerous cab drivers will remain on the job.

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NYPD and the Press Parrot Driver’s Account of Crash That Killed Lisa Julian

Yesterday’s fatal East Village crash is another example of how NYPD and the press blame deceased pedestrians and cyclists based mostly on the word of the drivers who killed them.

“Woman, 47, crossing against light in NoHo struck by car, killed on Thursday,” read the Daily News headline. But the only evidence presented that Lisa Julian was crossing against the light came from Oliver Parris, who hit her with an SUV as she crossed Third Avenue at St. Marks Place at around 6:30 a.m.

Lisa Julian. Photo via New York Post

Lisa Julian. Photo via New York Post

Here’s Parris, as quoted by the Daily News:

“I was trying to swerve from her and I couldn’t do it in time,” said Parris, who said that Julian was crossing against the light. Parris was on his way home from his job as a newspaper deliveryman at the time of the accident.

“She was walking,” he said. “I don’t think she was paying attention.”

And the Post:

“She was crossing against the light. I had a green light,” he said sadly.

“I tried to avoid her. I swerved.”

Julian was pronounced dead at Beth Israel hospital. ”She was a loving, upbeat, and interesting person,” Alexander Rubinstein, the victim’s boyfriend, told the Post. “She was very happy. It’s tough to talk about her right now.”

Reporters for the Daily News, the Post, and DNAinfo take care to note that Parris was upset, and that he did not flee the scene. These details cast Parris in a sympathetic light, and are offered in lieu of critical analysis. Not only do reporters accept Parris’s word that it was Julian who disregarded the signal, they don’t question whether Parris himself was “paying attention,” though state law requires motorists to exercise due care to avoid running people over.

Assuming that Julian did cross against the signal raises other issues. If reports are correct that Parris was driving straight ahead, why didn’t he see Julian in the street in front of him? How close did he get before he saw her? Why did he have to swerve in the first place? This information is critical to determining how the crash occurred. While it may be too early to expect answers to all these questions, it’s also premature to accept the driver’s account as definitive.

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Witness: Crash That Killed Marlene Baharlias Likely Caught on Video

A man who says he saw the Tuesday crash that killed Marlene Baharlias echoes the story told by others: The driver backed into the senior on a Sheepshead Bay sidewalk. The witness believes a security camera in his building recorded the crash, but NYPD does not share details of crash investigations unless compelled by freedom of information requests.

Photo: ##http://media.ny1.com/media/2014/3/18/images/bkpedstruck77d56c6c-4ade-42b5-8284-8f761861d6c9.jpg##NY1##

Photo: NY1

Witnesses told Brooklyn Daily and News 12 that Baharlias, 77, and her husband were walking together near 2060 E. 19th Street when a woman driving a Mercedes SUV, reportedly attempting to park, accelerated in reverse, jumped the curb and struck her.

Colin Edwards sent us a corroborating account via email:

I was at my living room in the building when I heard the commotion. I looked from my window and saw the SUV backing very fast in reverse on the sidewalk. At this point the woman (Mrs. Baharlias) was already ran over by the car and laying in between the wheelbase of the car. Then the driver, in her panic, put the car in drive and ran the victim [over]  a second time, while the husband and two other guys were yelling at her to stop.

Baharlias was pronounced dead at Coney Island Hospital. No charges were immediately filed against the driver.

“It was absolutely criminal the speed and reckless manner [with] which the SUV driver reversed,” Edwards said. “She completely lost control over the car.”

As we wrote yesterday, anonymous NYPD sources told the Post Baharlias was jaywalking. The Post reported the claim without question. Many pedestrians and cyclists killed by motorists in recent years were initially blamed by NYPD and the press and were vindicated later, after the media lost interest in their stories.

Edwards said a security camera in his building probably recorded the crash, but NYPD makes it exceedingly difficult to determine if investigators tried to collect video evidence. As Streetsblog has reported for years, NYPD crash investigations are kept hidden, even from victims’ loved ones. WNYC reported today that the families of Alison Liao and Sammy Cohen Eckstein, children killed by motorists within the last five months, were forced to file freedom of information requests to get crash reports from NYPD.

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Marlene Baharlias, 77, Killed by Motorist, Blamed by NYPD and the Post

A senior was killed Tuesday in Sheepshead Bay by a driver who witnesses say backed onto a sidewalk — contrary to anonymous NYPD sources who told the Post the victim was jaywalking. No charges were filed.

Marlene Baharlias, 77, was walking home from the doctor with her husband when the driver of a Mercedes SUV backed onto the curb in front of 2060 E. 19th Street, according to witnesses who spoke with News 12 and Brooklyn Daily.

Photo: New York Post

Photo: New York Post

“She was walking on the sidewalk with her husband, the poor woman,” said Shlomo Hava, a neighbor who saw the accident unfold.

Hava said he wanted to help, but seeing her injuries, he knew there was little he could do.

“All her face was smashed — I was shocked,” he said.

Baharlias was pronounced dead at Coney Island Hospital.

In a five-sentence story, Post reporter Dana Sauchelli blamed Baharlias for her own death, citing police sources who said she “was jaywalking when she stepped off an East 19th street curb mid-block.” The Post is the only media outlet we found that claimed Baharlias was attempting to cross the street outside a crosswalk. The story was accompanied by a photo of the SUV parked almost perpendicular to the sidewalk, with the back end over the curb, and the description embedded with the photo said the victim ”was run over by SUV on the sidewalk.” Regardless, for all Post readers know, Baharlias put herself in harm’s way.

In the immediate aftermath of traffic crashes, anonymous NYPD sources are notorious for leaking information that assigns responsibility to deceased pedestrians and cyclists. When Allision Liao was killed last October, police told the media the 4 year old “broke free from her grandmother while they were crossing the street.” To the contrary, video of the crash revealed Allison was holding her grandmother’s hand when Ahmad Abu-Zayedeha drove into both of them in a Queens crosswalk. Pedestrian Seth Kahn and cyclists Mathieu Lefevre and Rasha Shamoon are also among those who in recent years were initially blamed by NYPD for the crashes that killed them and were later exonerated, either after further investigation or in civil court.

Data consistently show drivers are usually at fault in crashes that hurt and kill NYC pedestrians. NYC DOT’s landmark 2010 pedestrian safety study found that motorist behavior was the main factor in 78.5 percent of serious pedestrian injuries and fatalities. A 2012 Transportation Alternatives report found that, according to data from the state DOT, 60 percent of fatal New York City pedestrian and cyclist crashes with known causes between 1995 and 2009 were the result of motorists breaking traffic laws. And NYC DOT data from 2011 revealed that half of pedestrians killed in city crosswalks were crossing with the signal.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn Daily reported that motorists picking up kids from a school close to where Baharlias was hit pose a danger to pedestrians.

Locals said the end of the school day may have contributed to the fatal accident. Parents jockey for the position when picking up their kids, sometimes double- or triple- parking, one neighbor said.

“If you see a spot, its like a race to see who can get that spot,” said William Perry, who lives on the block. “Its just an accident waiting to happen.”

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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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No Summonses for DSNY Driver Who Killed Man in Crown Heights Crosswalk

Gedalia Gruntzweig was killed in broad daylight by a city sanitation driver making a right turn at a signalized intersection with crosswalks. The red arrow represents the movement of the driver and the white arrow the movement of the victim, according to reports and photos from the scene. Image: Google Maps

Gedalia Gruntzweig was killed in broad daylight by a city sanitation driver making a right turn at a signalized intersection with crosswalks. The red arrow represents the movement of the driver and the white arrow the movement of the victim, according to reports and photos from the scene. Image: Google Maps

A pedestrian crossing with the right of way was struck and killed in Crown Heights Sunday by a city sanitation worker who was not charged or ticketed by NYPD.

Gedalia Gruntzweig, 25, was walking with friends when, at approximately 9:08 a.m., he was hit at the corner of Carroll Street and Kingston Avenue. Published reports say Gruntzweig was in the crosswalk when the driver of a city sanitation hauler, identified by the Daily News as Marlon Martinez, hit him while turning right.

From the Post:

Security camera footage from a nearby store showed that the sanitation truck had the green light when it turned right from Kingston onto Carroll, said a resident who lives in the building and saw the footage, which was turned over to police.

But Gruntzweig and his friend also had the “walk signal” when they stepped into the crosswalk on Carroll, law-enforcement sources said.

The victim was hit by the front side of the truck, knocked down and run over by its rear wheels, sources said. The driver apparently didn’t see the man before hitting him, sources said.

Gedalia Gruntzweig. Photo via New York Post

Gedalia Gruntzweig. Photo via New York Post

NYPD told Gothamist that Gruntzweig was crossing Carroll Street from south to north, and that two other pedestrians were also injured.

According to reports, Gruntzweig was originally from Ukraine. City Council Member Laurie Cumbo told the Times he was a rabbinical student in New Jersey and was visiting the city for an engagement party.

Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero Action Plan contains a number of goals for the city fleet, including driver training and vehicles with improved visibility and other safety features. Among its near-term targets: “Ensure all City fleet vehicles are equipped with technology that record speeding and other dangerous driving behaviors, by the end of 2014.”

A central tenet of Vision Zero is, as the action plan states, “vigorous law enforcement against dangerous driving.” Though reports are consistent that the victim had the right of way in this case, and Martinez reportedly drove a truck into three people in a crosswalk on a neighborhood street, NYPD issued no summonses for careless driving or failure to yield.

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De Blasio Wants Albany to Make Careless Driving a Crime [Updated]

NYPD currently issues careless driving summonses to fewer than 1 percent of motorists who injure and kill pedestrians and cyclists. Graphic by Carly Clark. Citation data via Transportation Alternatives.

As part of his Vision Zero agenda, Mayor Bill de Blasio wants Albany to elevate careless driving to a criminal offense, increasing penalties while making it easier for police to hold reckless motorists accountable.

Enacted in 2010, Hayley and Diego’s Law was intended as a default infraction for crashes that injure pedestrians and cyclists. But under Ray Kelly, NYPD normally applied the law only in cases of very serious injury or death, seemingly in place of criminal charges. Department protocol prohibits precinct cops from issuing careless driving citations unless an officer witnesses a violation or the crash is investigated by the Collision Investigation Squad. As a result, fewer than 1 percent of New York City drivers who injure and kill pedestrians and cyclists are cited for careless driving.

Department brass told the City Council two years ago that the current policy came after summonses were dismissed in court because officers weren’t witnessing violations, though NYPD didn’t say how many cases were thrown out. State lawmakers have so far failed to pass an amendment that would allow beat cops to write careless driving summonses, and de Blasio wants to take a somewhat different approach.

From the Vision Zero blueprint, released Tuesday:

The City supports amendments to the Hayley and Diego law to make this violation a misdemeanor, increasing the penalties associated with carelessly harming a pedestrian or bicyclist. By making this a crime rather than a traffic infraction, the law would explicitly allow a police officer to issue a summons to a person who failed to exercise due care and seriously injured or killed a pedestrian or bicyclist, based on probable cause, even if the officer was not present to witness the crash.

The city also wants to extend vulnerable user status to highway workers.

Right now, drivers summonsed for careless driving are subject to a mandatory drivers’ ed course, fines of up to $750, jail time of up to 15 days, and a license suspension of up to six months. A de Blasio spokesperson told Streetsblog it’s not clear yet what class of misdemeanor the city will aim for, but the lowest level, an unclassified misdemeanor, would put careless driving on par with third degree aggravated unlicensed operation and first-offense DWI.

Perhaps more important, classifying careless driving as a crime would theoretically lift the NYPD’s self-imposed ban on enforcing the law.

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80-Year-Old Pedestrian and MTA Bus Driver Killed in Separate Crashes

Senior Margarita Seda was killed in the middle of the day by a driver making a left turn at at a signalized intersection with marked crosswalks. He was cited for careless driving and failure to yield. Image: Google Maps

Senior Margarita Seda was killed in the middle of the day by a driver making a left turn at a signalized intersection with marked crosswalks. The driver was cited for careless driving and failure to yield. The red arrow represents the movement of the driver and the white arrow the movement of the victim, according to reports. Image: Google Maps

In the last 24 hours, an 80-year-old pedestrian and an MTA bus driver were killed in crashes in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

At around 1:35 p.m. Tuesday, Margarita Seda was struck by the driver of a GMC vehicle as she crossed Grand Street at Graham Avenue in Williamsburg, according to WCBS and the Daily News. WCBS reported that Seda was crossing Grand north to south when the driver, traveling north on Graham, struck her while making a left turn onto Grand. Seda suffered head injuries and died at Bellevue Hospital.

The unnamed motorist was summonsed for careless driving and failure to yield to a pedestrian.

Grand Street and Graham Avenue are two-lane streets that meet at a signalized intersection, and there is strong evidence that the victim was in the crosswalk and had a walk signal, based on published reports and the fact that NYPD cited the driver. If it occurred as described, yesterday’s crash appears nearly identical to the one that killed Maude Savage, the 72-year-old who was hit by an unlicensed driver last November while crossing with the signal at Sutter and Euclid Avenues in East New York. The man who killed Savage was charged criminally, but only because he was driving without a license.

This type of crash is not rare. At least 30 NYC pedestrians and cyclists have been killed by turning motorists since January 2013, and for the most part the drivers were breaking the law by failing to yield. As we wrote after Savage’s death, that this deadly behavior does not apparently meet the standard of criminal negligence is a sign that New York’s criminal justice system is failing to hold drivers accountable for killing law-abiding pedestrians.

The crash that killed Margarita Seda occurred in the City Council district represented by Antonio Reynoso, and in the 90th Precinct, where in 2013 local officers cited 35 drivers for failing to yield to pedestrians, and wrote 311 speeding tickets.

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How NYPD’s Opaque Crash Investigations Spoil Its Street Safety Message

Last month, the Upper East Side’s 19th Precinct devoted two full pages to traffic safety in its inaugural monthly newsletter. In an echo of Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, who claimed at the initial Vision Zero press conference that 73 percent of crashes injuring pedestrians are the victim’s fault, it featured an eyebrow-raising statistic that blames four of the five Upper East Side pedestrian fatalities in 2013 on the dead victims. But that’s a misleading way to characterize the cause of most pedestrian deaths, and given NYPD’s track record of rushing to blame victims in its crash investigations, it may not even be an accurate depiction of these five Upper East Side deaths.

Renee Thompson and Kenneth McMilleon were two of five pedestrians killed on the Upper East Side last year. Neither . Top: Post Bottom: Daily News

Renee Thompson and Kenneth McMilleon were two of five pedestrians killed on the Upper East Side last year. Top: NY Post; Bottom: Daily News

In a section written by Capt. Oliver Pufolkes [PDF], the precinct’s January newsletter (brought to our attention by a commenter, emphasis added) reads:

Using our data-driven performance management system (Traffic Stat) there are lessons we have gleaned from looking at data for the past calendar year (2013). Last year 59% of pedestrians that were involved in traffic collisions were 61 years of age or older, and 59% of the contributing factor was either driver inattention or drivers’ failure to yield right of way to pedestrians — typically during a turn. Pedestrian error accounted for 10% of those collisions. A thorough investigation by our Department’s Highway Collision Scene Unit revealed that 80% of the pedestrian fatalities (4 out of 5) that occurred last year were due to pedestrian error.

The precinct clarified that each statistic the piece references covers only the pedestrian crashes and fatalities in the precinct, which lies east of Central Park between 59th and 96th Streets.

There’s something curious about these statistics: 10 percent of all Upper East Side pedestrian collisions were caused by pedestrian error, but in the five cases where the victim died, “pedestrian error” jumped to 80 percent. While this is a small sample, it seems that Upper East Side pedestrians who did not survive collisions and could not tell their side of the story were far more likely to be blamed for causing the crash than pedestrians who survived.

The precinct’s stats echo a claim Bratton made last month at Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero announcement. Speaking about pedestrian crashes citywide, the police commissioner said that “pedestrian error contributed to 73 percent of collisions, and 66 percent are directly related to the actions of pedestrians.” NYPD never offered an explanation for this claim, but the 19th Precinct did cite a source for its numbers: the “Highway Collision Scene Unit.” Presumably this is a reference to the Collision Investigation Squad, the unit within NYPD’s Highway Division responsible for investigations of traffic fatalities and critical injuries.

In most cases, CIS investigations involve victims who don’t live to tell police their account. The motorists who do the killing, however, can tell their story, and CIS crash reports often rely heavily on what drivers and their passengers tell investigators. As Streetsblog’s Brad Aaron explained last month:

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Council Overrides Bloomberg Veto of NYPD Hit-and-Run Transparency Bill

The City Council today voted to override a number of vetoes handed down by former Mayor Bloomberg. According to the Staten Island Advance, among the bills passed was Intro 1055, which requires NYPD to release information on hit-and-run crashes and investigations.

The bill mandates that NYPD report quarterly on the total number of “critical injury” hit-and-run crashes, the number of crashes that resulted in arrest, and the number of crashes for which no arrest was made. It requires the department to provide the council with crash locations, and “a brief description of what steps were taken to investigate” each incident. Crash data, disaggregated by precinct, will be posted online.

The council originally passed the bill in December. In his veto message, Bloomberg said the bill was unworkably vague, and claimed that requiring NYPD to reveal hit-and-run data would compromise investigations while “draining scarce resources from actual police functions.”

Intro 1055 was co-authored by former Council Member Leroy Comrie, along with Peter Koo and Rosie Mendez. Koo told Streetsblog in January that he would work to override the veto. The transportation committee, led by new chairman Ydanis Rodriguez, voted unanimously to override last week.

NYPD is required to begin compliance with the law in July 2015.