With Bus Fatalities Down, Albany Shouldn’t Meddle With Right of Way Law

In 2014 MTA bus drivers killed eight people in crosswalks. Some of those fatalities occurred after the Right of Way Law took effect last August, and several bus drivers were arrested and charged under the law.

The year is nearly half over, and to this point MTA bus drivers haven’t fatally struck anyone in 2015. It’s a small sample size, but with bus-involved fatalities down, state lawmakers should not tamper with the Right of Way Law.

A bill sponsored by Assembly Member Walter T. Mosley and state Senator Martin Dilan would prohibit police from detaining bus drivers and other for-hire drivers suspected of violating the Right of Way Law. Officers would instead be required to issue a desk appearance ticket when police have “reasonable cause to believe” an “omnibus” driver has committed a “traffic infraction or misdemeanor” in a crash involving a pedestrian or cyclist. If the driver has a valid license, remains at the scene, and cooperates with police, the bill says officers “shall not detain or otherwise prevent” the driver from leaving the scene after police complete an “immediate investigation.”

The bill seems intended to spare bus drivers who injure and kill people the indignity of being placed in cuffs. But its scope is such that it would severely compromise police officers’ ability to get dangerous drivers off the roads.

For one thing, “omnibus” includes not only to MTA bus drivers, but all professional for-hire drivers, including yellow and green taxi drivers, livery drivers, and drivers working for services like Uber and Lyft, anywhere in New York State.

After outcry from traffic safety advocates, including Families for Safe Streets, the bill was amended so that omnibus drivers would not be able to avoid arrest for offenses defined under state Vehicle Traffic Law, like driving drunk. But in addition to Right of Way Law violators, police would not be able to detain drivers suspected of other violations, including reckless endangerment and assault — offenses that are not part of the VTL.

The bill has drawn memos of opposition from Mayor de Blasio, Families for Safe Streets/Transportation Alternatives, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. From the FSS/TA memo:

The bill would create a special treatment for a certain set of drivers, mandating different standards for police practices and how the rules of the road are applied. The bill attempts to micro-manage and hamstring the police in an area where police officers must have some level of discretion. Furthermore, the special treatment it seeks does not include an exception for suspected crimes that include more serious degrees of culpability. A police officer could be forced to provide this special treatment even for a reckless or intentionally violent act by a driver behind the wheel.

The bill was dormant for months after it was introduced, but has seen movement this week in the Senate and Assembly. Members of Families for Safe Streets recently traveled to Albany to encourage lawmakers to leave the Right of Way Law alone. Families for Safe Streets and TA have mounted a Twitter campaign featuring New Yorkers who support the Right of Way Law.