CYCLE OF RAGE: The DOT’s Reckless Driver Program Scratches the Very Outer Membrane of the Surface

Lesson time. Photo: École polytechnique – J.Barande with the Streetsblog Photoshop Desk
Lesson time. Photo: École polytechnique – J.Barande with the Streetsblog Photoshop Desk
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Like jumbo shrimp or military intelligence, the Dangerous Vehicle Abatement Program is an oxymoron.

It is a program and, yes, it deals with dangerous vehicles. But abatement? You be the judge:

According to the city’s own database, more than 22,300 cars have been slapped 15 or more speeding tickets or five or more red light tickets through this Nov. 28. Under the Dangerous Vehicle Abatement Program, receiving that many tickets puts the owner of the car at risk of the vehicle seized unless he or she takes a city-run safe-driving course.

But through Nov. 28, only 630 drivers have taken the course, with another 450 having been notified of the requirement.

Just 12 vehicles have been seized because the owner skipped the course, the agency said in a quietly issued, Council-mandated report.

If you’re tempted to be impressed that 630 drivers took a city safety course because of their repeatedly reckless driving through school zones, don’t waste your wonderment.

Not only do those drivers, plus the 12 who had their car seized for not taking it, represent fewer than 3 percent of the worst drivers on the road this year, the number of recidivist scofflaws doesn’t even account for the additional month not calculated above or scofflaws from previous years whose reign of terror continues in the manner of a Louis XIV or the fact that speed cameras now issue tickets 24 hours a day, seven days a week and will get more drivers (like Council Member Inna Vernikov) to the 15-or-five threshold faster.

As such, there are far more than 22,000 drivers who continue to speed recklessly through school zones or trip red-light cameras without any punishment whatsoever.

Perhaps you’re thinking that it’s hard for the city to identify the worst offenders. No, it’s easy; the city publishes a database of them that’s updated all the time (creating visualizations like the one below is the tricky part, but I have BetaNYC to thank for that). Here’s what the chart of the worst speed camera violators looks like, ranked by number of tickets per car:

And here’s a visualization of the worst red-light camera offenders (also with hat tip to BetaNYC). Note, there are fewer red-light camera ticket recipients because there are so few red-light cameras in New York City:

A tiny fraction of these reckless drivers are among the 642 drivers who have taken the city course or had their car seized. But the remaining 22,000 or so are hiding in plain sight. Maybe even on your block. Or racing past your kid. Or harassing your grandma.

The leading speed camera offender, for example, bears the New York license plate KPT7816. That car has racked up 311 total violations this year — including several parking tickets written by actual humans after the 15-ticket threshold had been met — so either of those traffic officers could have flagged the black 2021 Chevy SUV for the DOT.

This assault truck shouldn’t be difficult to find: Of the 300-plus camera-issued speeding, red light and bus lane violations this year, 292 have been in a fairly narrow corridor of Queens between Cross Bay Boulevard and Sutter Avenue in Ozone Park and Woodhaven Boulevard in Rego Park. (Cross Bay and Woodhaven are the same roadway, so it’s pretty clear that this scofflaw is a intra-Queens commuter.) Another 16 tickets were acquired in extreme eastern or southern Brooklyn, fairly close to the very same corridor.

It would also be super easy to find the red light king village idiot of New York City: The driver who has racked up 28 red-light camera tickets (plus 141 speed-camera tickets) so far this year does most of his reckless driving in Staten Island, according to city records. Look for a white 2018 Lincoln SUV rushing through that red light at Clove Road and Bard Avenue (18 tickets this year).

Part of the problem with the Dangerous Vehicle Abatement Program is its stunning lack of ambition.

The city law that created the program — Local Law 36 of 2020 [PDF] — appeared to require DOT to create a robust program that “educates vehicle owners about the dangers resulting from vehicle operators exceeding posted speed limits and failing to comply with traffic signals, including the potential to cause injury or death.” Such a program, the law promised, would consist of a course “utilizing a skilled facilitator to actively engage participants in self-reflection and discussion to identify and commit to specific safe driving practices. The goal of such course is to prevent vehicles from becoming dangerous instruments by educating owners about responsible vehicle ownership.”

The catch? The language of the law didn’t require the Department of Transportation to provide the safety course for all repeat scofflaws, but only says that “the department may require” such a course. Plus, the law itself included a suicide provision: it expires three years after it took affect on Oct. 26, 2020.

The DOT is quick to point out that the agency believes the Dangerous Vehicle Abatement Program is a limited pilot program — though the law that created the program makes no mention of limited scale. The agency would not discuss the program’s budget, but said it has sufficient funding to cover the number of drivers that the DOT wants to educate at this time. A spokesman also said that the pilot program will be deeply analyzed when it runs out to see how it can be broadened and improved.

“After building this pilot program from scratch, DOT has engaged over 1,000 vehicle owners, with hundreds so far taking a class to more safely share the road,” said DOT spokesman Vin Barone. “We are successfully developing a proof of concept and will continue to evaluate the program during its pilot stage, working closely with our sister agencies to identify best practices and potential areas for improving the program.”

It is not fully clear, of course, that safety courses even work. The DOT classes in question, which take place in Manhattan, includes a 15-minute film, “Drive Like Your Family Lives Here,” that includes dramatic piano music, text featuring the harsh statistical realities of road violence, and personal stories of five families riven by fatal crashes.

Advocates, frankly, want more teeth to the program beyond re-educating 1/22 of the city’s most reckless drivers.

“The city has the power to hold repeat reckless drivers accountable through the Dangerous Vehicle Abatement Program, but new data shows a clear need for additional investments in the program to get dangerous vehicles off our streets,” said Elizabeth Adams, the senior director of Advocacy and Organizing at Transportation Alternatives.

Through Dec. 4, there have been 95,363 reported crashes in New York City, roughly 282 per day, according to city stats. Those crashes have injured 45,404 people (or 134 per day), including 4,729 cyclists and 7,948 pedestrians, killing 17 bike riders and 114 pedestrians. This is what a public health crisis looks like.

Gersh Kuntzman is editor of Streetsblog who occasionally writes the Cycle of Rage opinion column when something suits his fancy. Those columns are archived here.