A lack of automatic penalties for a New York City driver hopping the curb and killing a pedestrian

Sarah Goodyear highlights an interesting legal area: New York City drivers whose cars kill pedestrians on the sidewalk do not automatically receive penalties.

In New York, unless the driver flees the scene (as happened in the Queens case mentioned above) or is intoxicated, crashes that kill pedestrians rarely result in criminal charges. “No criminality was suspected” is the mantra of the NYPD when it comes to pedestrian and cyclist deaths in general. The tepid police response to traffic deaths is even more jarring when applied to cases in which the vehicle actually leaves the roadway and enters what should be inviolate pedestrian space…

I talked to Steve Vaccaro, a lawyer who frequently represents victims of traffic crashes and is an outspoken advocate for pedestrian and bicyclist rights in New York City, and asked him to explain how running your vehicle up onto a sidewalk crowded with pedestrians can be seen as anything other than reckless. He explained to me that recklessness is in the eye of the beholder.“The standard for criminal charges is that the risk you take has to be a gross deviation from the risk a reasonable person would accept,” he says. “It’s about the community norm.”

And the community norm is to accept the explanations proffered by drivers such as the one who killed Martha Atwater – who, according to an unnamed police source quoted in the news, said he had suffered a diabetic blackout. Other drivers are let off the hook after simply “losing control” or hitting the gas instead of the brake. The ease with which pedestrian deaths are accepted by police as just unfortunate “accidents” has led to a deep cynicism among many observers of street safety in New York.

Shouldn’t the community norm instead be an understanding that if you drive your car in such a way that you end up on the sidewalk in the middle of one of the world’s most pedestrian-rich environments, you have somehow failed in your responsibility as a driver? Obviously, there are extreme circumstances, such as mechanical failure, in which a driver is not in any way at fault. But why are we so quick to dismiss the mayhem caused by motor vehicles as inevitable?

Seems odd to me. Frankly, pedestrians are not that protected on sidewalks. The speed and size of cars means the short jump up to the sidewalk isn’t much of an obstruction. But, perhaps this shouldn’t be too surprising considering how much Americans love cars and how much cities have been redesigned to accommodate cars.

This reminds that New Urbanists often make this argument about their neo-traditional designs for narrower streets that allow street parking and both sides and trees in the parkways. These conditions both slow down drivers, which could give pedestrians more time to react, and also provide barriers between drivers and pedestrians. Better that drivers who lose control hit inanimate objects than also harm other people in the process.

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