One Year Later, Bratton’s NYPD Rarely Enforcing Key Vision Zero Law

Mayor Bill de Blasio, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, and NYPD Transportation Chief Thomas Chan. The Right of Way Law is a key component of de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative, but NYPD barely enforces it.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, and NYPD Transportation Chief Thomas Chan. The Right of Way Law is a key component of de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative, but NYPD barely enforces it a year after it took effect.

Last weekend marked the one-year anniversary of the Right of Way Law, also known as code Section 19-190, which made it a misdemeanor for motorists in New York City to harm people who are walking and biking with the right of way.

The law is a legislative centerpiece of Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative. It was supposed to put an end to the days when motorists who failed to yield could injure people without facing any consequences. But one year in, that goal is still a long way off, with NYPD rarely enforcing the new law.

According to a New York Times story published in June, NYPD charged “at least 31” drivers in the 10 months after the law took effect. During that same period, New York City motorists injured 11,606 pedestrians and cyclists, and killed 118. Since failure to yield is the primary factor in 27 percent of serious pedestrian injuries and deaths in New York City, according to NYC DOT’s 2010 Pedestrian Safety Study and Action Plan [PDF], it’s all but certain that most drivers who violate the law are not cited by NYPD. (We asked the mayor’s office for current data on Right of Way Law charges. We’ll post it if we get it.)

Last October, NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan said all 35,000 uniformed officers would be trained to enforce the Right of Way Law. This would allow the department to apply the law in collisions not deemed serious enough to warrant attention from the Collision Investigation Squad, a small, specialized unit that works a few hundred crashes per year, almost all of them fatalities. But with only a few dozen cases brought by NYPD since the law took effect, most motorists who injure and kill rule-abiding New Yorkers continue to do so with impunity.

Given the high profile of some Right of Way cases brought by police and prosecutors, it’s possible the law may be having a deterrent effect anyway. NYPD charged several MTA bus drivers for injuring or killing people in crosswalks — cases that got a lot of publicity when the Transport Workers Union called for bus drivers to be exempt from the law. While MTA bus drivers killed eight people in crosswalks last year, to this point no such crashes have occurred in 2015.

In the 11 months after the Right of Way Law took effect — September 2014 through July 2015 — New York City motorists injured 9,334 people walking and killed 112, according to NYPD data. In the same time frame one year prior — September 2013 through July 2014 — drivers injured 10,658 pedestrians, and killed 141. Those figures represent a 12 percent decline in pedestrian injuries year to year, and a 20 percent drop in deaths.

It’s difficult to say to what extent the Right of Way Law has factored into declines in injuries and fatalities. Street redesigns, traffic safety cameras, and stepped-up NYPD enforcement of other serious traffic violations are part of the Vision Zero program as well. But the law gives NYPD the means to hold drivers accountable, to some extent, for injuring and killing people who were following traffic rules. Ideally, police would apply the law consistently to achieve a strong deterrent effect.

This is why it’s crucial to beat back attacks on the law. Families for Safe Streets, Transportation Alternatives, and Mayor de Blasio succeeded in fending off a TWU attempt — abetted by the Daily News — to weaken the law in the state legislature, but there is little doubt TWU will try again next year. In the meantime, a TWU-backed City Council bill to exempt bus drivers has support from 24 council reps, most of whom helped pass the Right of Way Law. A second council bill that would kneecap NYPD crash investigations by creating loopholes for motorists who hurt and kill people was introduced last June.

If NYPD enforced the Right of Way Law as intended and achieved a more demonstrable impact on street safety, the reduction in injuries and deaths could help turn back the attacks on the law. It’s understandable that the department would need time to train officers to apply the law, but since it’s a matter of life and death, a year should be more than enough.