City Council Might Finally Address How NYPD Applies Right of Way Law

Speaking at the TransAlt Vision Zero Cities conference, public safety committee chair Vanessa Gibson said the Right of Way Law "has to" be enforced.

Thousands of drivers who hit people in crosswalks are still avoiding penalties because NYPD doesn’t consistently enforce the Right of Way Law. Photo: NYC Mayor’s Office
Thousands of drivers who hit people in crosswalks are still avoiding penalties because NYPD doesn’t consistently enforce the Right of Way Law. Photo: NYC Mayor’s Office

City Council Member Vanessa Gibson signaled she would be open to convening a hearing on NYPD application, or lack thereof, of the city’s Right of Way Law.

Council Member Vanessa Gibson
Council Member Vanessa Gibson

Gibson, a Bronx rep who chairs the council’s public safety committee, voiced support for consistent application of the law at Transportation Alternatives’ Vision Zero Cities conference this week, where she was a panelist at a session moderated by attorney Steve Vaccaro.

Joe McCormack, vehicular crimes chief for the Bronx district attorney’s office, was also on the panel, which discussed the evolution of the law and attacks waged against it since its adoption in 2014.

Much of the ground covered by the panel would be familiar to Streetsblog readers, but at the end of the session, safe streets advocate and Manhattan Community Board 7 member Ken Coughlin asked Gibson if the council would address NYPD’s poor enforcement record.

The law — code Section 19-190 — made it an unclassified misdemeanor for New York City motorists to strike people who are walking or biking with the right of way. Just as important, it enabled precinct cops to hold motorists accountable for crashes police don’t personally witness — the type of collision that, though commonplace, historically resulted in no consequences for drivers. NYPD applied the law just once in 2014, and 34 times in 2015. Police filed 39 misdemeanor charges under the Right of Way Law in 2016.

Section 19-190 has a civil summons provision that, according to the law, is supposed to apply when a driver violates someone’s right of way without striking the victim. Last year, however, NYPD issued 1,920 Section 19-190 civil summonses to motorists who injured people. Under the law, those incidents should have triggered misdemeanor charges, but NYPD has limited the misdemeanor provision to cases worked by the Collision Investigation Squad, which only investigates crashes that cause life-threatening injury or death.

vz-report-table (1)
Table: NYC Mayor’s Office

The purpose of the Right of Way Law is not to put people in jail — most if not all misdemeanor cases are pled down to a traffic violation — but to deter dangerous driving. When police apply the law, victims are more likely to get compensated for injuries and drivers are more likely to pay higher insurance rates.

Motorists injured 10,769 pedestrians and 4,591 cyclists in 2016, according to city crash data. DOT’s 2010 pedestrian safety study cited failure to yield as the top contributing factor in 27 percent of pedestrian fatalities and severe injuries. Those figures indicate that in a large number of injury-causing crashes where the victim had the right of way, NYPD is failing to apply the law.

While she didn’t make a definitive commitment, Gibson was receptive to Coughlin’s request for a hearing. “It’s not a matter of encouragement,” she said of Section 19-190 enforcement. “It has to be done.”

Will she follow through?