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Village Voice | January 11, 2012

By Graham Rayman

On March 21 of last year, a motorist ran a red light and caused an accident that killed 82-year-old Margaret Choberka. No charges were filed.

On June 30, 78-year-old Yolanda Casal was killed on Amsterdam Avenue. The motorist was charged with driving on a suspended license, but not for driving in reverse at an unsafe speed.

On July 17, motorist Eric Bryant reached 112 miles per hour and careened off FDR Drive and onto a taxi. Eight people were injured. Again, no charges were filed.

On October 24, 2011, Ronald Simpson was hit by a livery cab driver, who fled. Seconds later, he was run over by a sanitation truck. No charges were filed.

In each of these cases--death or injury caused by reckless driving--police opted not to arrest or file charges against the motorists involved.

Now, an advocacy group, citing 14 such fatalities, is pressing the NYPD to change its policy on fatal accidents that involved reckless driving and demanding that police file criminal charges in those cases.

"[The police] are simply not taking that job seriously," says Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives (TA), which is mounting the campaign. "Their cavalier attitude to the epidemic of lawless driving is absolutely unacceptable."

During a rally last month at police headquarters, Transportation Alternatives handed over a petition with 2,650 names demanding that Kelly "enforce traffic laws." Between 2001 and 2010, 1,745 pedestrians and bicyclists were killed in New York City traffic, and 142,485 were injured--60 percent of fatal pedestrian and bicyclist crashes with known causes are caused by drivers' illegal behavior, a TA analysis showed.

A Drum Major Institute study said that someone is killed on city streets once every 35 hours and called the current rate of traffic deaths "unacceptable." About 320 New Yorkers are killed in traffic each year, and nearly 4,000 seriously injured.

A national study by AAA for the period between 2003 and 2007 found that aggressive driving was a factor in 56 percent of fatal crashes. "That speaks volumes about the great need for traffic safety cultural change," the study concluded. A study of New York State figures, similarly, showed that 60 percent of fatal accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists were caused by motorists' dangerous, illegal behavior.

The TA notes that, based on city health department figures, more city residents were killed in traffic than were shot to death.

Moreover, a poll commissioned last month by TA found that 83 percent of voters agreed with stronger enforcement of speeding laws, and 75 percent described a reckless driving crackdown as a "very important" issue for the city.

In 2010, state legislature passed a series of laws--Hayley and Diego's Law and Elle's Law--designed to give the police more power using the Vehicle and Traffic Law in charging dangerous drivers. However, those laws, advocates say, aren't being used by the police. "Despite being given more tools to combat dangerous driving, the police have not changed their enforcement behavior at all," TA spokesman Michael Murphy says.

The family of Mathieu Lefevre, a cyclist fatally hit by a truck in Williamsburg last October, is suing the NYPD for access to the case file. The truck driver claimed he didn't know he hit anyone, and police opted not to file charges against him.

The NYPD has refused to turn over the files and says the investigation was still open, even though the department also said no charges would be filed.

In a December 19 letter to the investigating officers, Lefevre family lawyer Steve Vaccaro alleged that police have made contradictory statements to them. Detectives told them that the driver didn't know he hit anyone, but also told the family that blood and paint from Lefevre's bicycle were found on the driver's side of the front bumper. The accident report indicates the truck "rear-ended" Lefevre and dragged the bicycle 100 feet.

"Common sense tells us that the driver of a vehicle involved in such a collision must be aware a collision occurred," the letter says.

City Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria), the chairman of the Public Safety Committee, says he intends to hold a hearing in the near future on traffic enforcement in general. "They have some legitimate concerns," he says. "Clearly, more has to be done."

Vallone says it has also bothered him that the NYPD never arrests a truck driver who collides with a highway overpass.

In response to the criticism, the NYPD has emphasized the volume of moving violations that it issues as proof that police are aggressively acting to deter reckless driving. NYPD figures show that last year, police issued more than 200,000 moving violations--including 51,000 for speeding. And in a year-end press release, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly touted a 40 percent reduction in traffic deaths over the past decade, saying other cities were envious of the Big Apple's safety record.

Statistics being what they are, the NYPD made more misdemeanor arrests for vehicle and traffic law violations last year compared to 2007. On the other hand, if you compare 2000 to 2010, they are issuing about half of what they used to--13,717 to 6,624.

Meanwhile, the department has made more drunk-driving arrests over the past decade--by about a third more comparing 2000 to 2010.

In 2009, the number of speeding tickets issued dropped, while speeding-related fatalities increased--a trend that reportedly continued over that year.

But the issue, advocates say, isn't really the quantity of summonses issued, but the fact that in the most serious accidents--leading to death or major injury--holding reckless drivers accountable would act as a deterrent.