Ride a bike on a sidewalk in New York City and you are subject not only to a traffic ticket, but a criminal summons. Amazingly, there is no commensurate penalty for the curb-jumping motorist, despite the potential to inflict far greater harm, and countless deaths and injuries that occur every year. Unless intoxication is a factor, prosecutions are rare — even for crashes that result in death — possibly in part because the act of driving on a city sidewalk is itself not a crime.
In connection with his StreetsPAC endorsement, Council Member Mark Weprin pledged to, in StreetsPAC’s words, “champion legislation in the city council to ensure serious consequences for drivers who, through their own negligence, hop curbs and strike pedestrians on sidewalks.” Weprin says his staff is looking into how such a bill would be crafted.
“We’re going to see what the best possible solution would be,” Weprin told Streetsblog. ”Obviously, the circumstances need to help dictate this a little bit. People’s state of mind and all of that is a big part of it, whether they were reckless in what they did or not. But when someone gets hurt someone needs to pay a price.”
Attorney Steve Vaccaro, a StreetsPAC board member who represents pedestrians and cyclists, says the city needs a law based on current regulations against sidewalk bike riding, which do not require recklessness.
When a cop stops a cyclist for sidewalk riding, Vaccaro says, “There’s no inquiry into whether the cyclist intended to be on a sidewalk, or disregarded a risk that they might end up on a sidewalk, or failed to perceive a risk of ending up on the sidewalk, which would be a criminal negligence standard. There’s just, ‘You’re on the sidewalk, you’re operating a bicycle.’”
“Unless you can show that someone picked you up and put you down and made you go on the sidewalk through no fault of your own, you are guilty of a misdemeanor,” says Vaccaro. “That’s strict liability.”
Vehicular law in New York State generally disfavors strict liability, Vaccaro says, putting the burden on police and prosecutors to prove intent — including the recent case where a driver jumped a curb and hit a parking meter and five people without stopping. “If you’re not drunk, there has to be smoking gun evidence of recklessness that’s shoved in the face of the police or they’ll just call it a mistake.” Vaccaro says. “There’s this incredible disconnect.”