Comptroller Lander: Make City Drivers Safer By Punishing Agencies for Crashes

That crash is gonna cost you (no, really)!

City Comptroller Brad Lander says that settlements to victims of crashes caused by city workers in city vehicles should be paid for by the agency whose worker caused the damage — instead of from the general city budget — as a way to get agency brass to incentivize safety.

“The city should place the budgeted allocation for projected settlement costs within each agency’s budget,” Lander’s office recommends in the new report, issued Sunday night. “Agencies that reduce claims settlements below the projected amounts would be able to apply a portion of the savings towards the following year’s budget, while agencies whose claims exceed their projections would be responsible for covering the costs.”

That and other recommendations are part of the report analyzing 10 years of city settlements for vehicular crashes involving municipal workers.

There’s nothing new about the numbers in Lander’s report — Streetsblog has covered the $653.9 million in personal injury settlement claims filed between fiscal year 2012 and 2021, and that crash settlements have risen from $75 million in fiscal year 2012 to $130 million in fiscal year 2021.

But this time, Lander’s office provided a bounty of recommendations that go beyond the cold hard numbers. The advice in the report [PDF] includes:

  • Accelerating the adoption of vehicle technologies and design features proven to reduce crashes: Offering a hat tip to the city’s 2017 plan for a safer fleet that included new technology such as speed governors, Lander wants the rollout to, well, roll out faster. For instance, only 6 percent of the city fleet is equipped with automatic emergency braking technology. And the city’s speed cap program remains only a pilot, albeit a successful one.

    Click to enlarge. Chart: Comptroller's Office
    Click to enlarge. Chart: Comptroller’s Office
  • Create a direct vision standard for fleet vehicles: Many trucks and SUVs have terrible sightlines that leads to crashes, yet the city has not set a minimum amount of visibility for its fleet, the report says. London set such a standard in 2021.
  • Reduce the overall size of the city fleet: Here’s a proposal that has stymied mayors for generations. Between July 2011 and June 2021, the city fleet grew by more than 10 percent — a period when total settlement costs nearly doubled to $130 million (see chart). The city fleet remains the largest in the nation, with close to 30,000 vehicles — 23,664 of which are on the roads. Related to that…
  • Reduce the size of the vehicles in the fleet: Like everyone else, the city has moved towards acquiring more SUVs in its fleet, especially in the police department fleet. In 2015, for example, the city fleet comprised roughly 8,000 sedans and 2,500 SUVs. By June 2022, there were about 7,000 sedans and 4,500 SUVs (see chart). “Within the City
    Click to enlarge. Chart: Comptroller's Office
    Click to enlarge. Chart: Comptroller’s Office

    fleet, larger vehicles were involved in more frequent and expensive claims than smaller vehicle types. … Trucks accounted for 29 percent of the city Fleet in 2021, but nearly 40 percent of claims over $1 million. Overall, larger passenger vehicles including pick-ups, vans, and SUVs collectively account for 22 percent of settlement costs over $1 million, with most of these crashes occurring after FY 2016.” The share of SUVs in the city fleet has grown more than any other vehicle type, from 10 percent in FY 2015 to 18 percent today.

  • Strengthen individual accountability: There does not appear to be serious discipline for workers who crash city cars, as most crashes are considered “accidents.” Lander believes there should be more accountability. “The city should hold the driver accountable via a series of responses that escalate from remedial driver education to temporary to permanent suspension of city vehicle driving privileges,” The report says.
  • The recommendation about agency budgets: “Settlement payments arising from crash claims (like other claims settlements) currently come out of the city’s General Fund rather than the budgets of the agency responsible. This practice leaves little incentive for agencies to reduce claims or change the practices from which claims arise,” the report alleges.

“In cases when a New Yorker is hit and harmed by a squad car or a garbage truck, it’s New York City taxpayers who have to settle the bill,” Lander said in a statement. “By accelerating adoption of fleet safety technologies, reducing the size and number of vehicles in the city fleet, and holding city drivers and agencies accountable, we can save lives – and many of millions of dollars, too.”

Safety advocates liked what they heard.

“Each department should be responsible for safe driving,” said Elizabeth Adams, the senior director of Advocacy and Organizing at Transportation Alternatives. “Comptroller Lander’s proposal to hold agencies responsible for reducing crashes is an important step toward creating a safer city.”

On the plus side, the total number of claims that the city has settled has dropped from roughly 820 in fiscal year 2012 to about 520 in fiscal year 2021. But the average amount of the settlement is soaring, from $15,187 in FY 2012 to $242,365 in FY 2021.

On the down side, cops remain the biggest and costliest culprit for taxpayer-funded city payouts. By June 2022, NYPD vehicles made up 32 percent of the municipal fleet yet were involved in 35 percent of crashes resulting in claims, and the $246.8 million in payouts that year represented 37.7 percent of the overall cost.

Chart: Comptroller's Office
Chart: Comptroller’s Office

After initial publication of this story, a City Hall spokesman sent over the following statement:

“While the report does not cover this administration, since Mayor Adams has been in office, our streets have gotten safer, and pedestrian deaths are now near record lows. Fiscal responsibility and street safety have been hallmarks of the Adams administration. Since last year, we have taken significant strides to align our fleet management with our street safety goals, with a successful pilot to nearly eliminate speeding in city vehicles and an initiative to reduce the city’s fleet by nearly 900 non-emergency vehicles, saving more than $13 million and leading to five million fewer miles driven per year.”

City Hall also thought the Comptroller’s report needed more context, especially in light of the fact that the average crash settlement increased over the 10-year period, even as overall traffic injuries declined about 8 percent. A City Hall spokesperson suggested that the increasing size of the average payout is not related to fleet crashes or street design.