A couple years ago I wrote about New York City Administrative Code section 19-190, which says you’re not supposed to hurt a pedestrian who has right of way. The city posted the disposition of every AC 19-190 case online. As I write this, 3,417 tickets have been written, or about one ticket per ten pedestrian injuries. Of the cases that have gone to trial, 90% have been dismissed.
One reason for the low conviction rate is judges don’t want to convict people for “just an accident.” Some think the law is unconstitutional because it asks drivers to prove their innocence. Others want to hear from a witness to the crime.
Since this ticket is heard in a real court the prosecution needs real evidence. If they find you parked on top of a pedestrian in a crosswalk, that’s not enough. They have to prove the pedestrian had right of way and you were careless. If the pedestrian didn’t have right of way, you can intentionally run him over without violating AC 19-190. Doing so is a violation of due care and other criminal laws, but not a violation of right of way. On the other hand, if the pedestrian did have right of way, just a careless tap is enough to convict.
So what happens after they lift your car off the guy underneath? The numbers above say there’s about a 1% chance that a collision with a pedestrian causing injury will lead to a conviction under 19-190. If you’re in a fatal accident the system may work a little harder. The Queens DA made a driver pay $250 for killing a pedestrian. No jail time. A jail sentence for pedicide is as likely as a jail sentence for speeding. That’s not a deterrent. It’s a way to make politicians feel good for pretending to care.
I don’t see a change from the days when bloggers and an episode of Freakonomics pointed out that running down a pedestrian is about the least serious thing you can do on the road in New York City. The maximum fine under the new law is less than the fine for a major speeding ticket. You should be watching for speed traps instead of pedestrians.
AC 19-190 follows the lead of ticket cameras, turning what should be a state law moving violation into a city ordinance violation. If I get a ticket from a police officer for driving 70 miles per hour through a business district, I lose my license and pay about $1,000 in fines and fees. No deals in Traffic Violations Bureau, guilty as charged. If I drive 70 past a camera I pay a small fine. If I drive 70 and hit a pedestrian I can plead to a city code violation, pay a slightly larger fine, and keep my license. This is not a problem unique to the city. Upstate and in many other states actually endangering the public is a less serious offense than the hypothetical danger from making a radar gun go “beep” on an empty highway. Reckless driving is 5 points in New York. 76 in a 55 zone is 6 points.
New York City publishes a data set of all accidents including police-reported causes. Speed doesn’t even make the top ten. By far the most common cause, whether you look at all accidents or only pedestrian injuries, is not paying attention. After that is failure to yield. The point system targets the least serious offenses. It tells drivers to pay more attention to police than pedestrians or other traffic.
The state legislature can take steps to fix this problem.
First, overrule AC 19-190. There’s no reason to try ordinary moving violations under a special city law.
Second, enact a state law governing negligent driving. For example, in Massachusetts it is a crime to drive “negligently so that the lives or safety of the public might be endangered.” (MGL 90-24(2)(a)). This law applies even if nobody is hurt and is commonly charged following injury accidents. Police don’t have prove who had right of way, but they do have to convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that the driver was culpable.
Third, rewrite the speed law to be centered around the basic rule. No fines or points unless they prove your speed was unsafe. The worst degree of speeding should be less serious than the lowest degree of careless driving.
I’m sure that last one won’t fly. Lawmakers who head to Albany going 90 will vote “hell no!” on any bill that would let you drive 70 on the Thruway.
My money is on business as usual. Radar guns are cheap. Nobody sells almost-killed-somebody cameras. Meanwhile, I’ll just keep on waiting for New York to sink into the sea.
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