Alex Goldmark is a senior producer in the newsroom for New Tech City and Transportation Nation.
Four years ago, 31-year-old assistant professor Rasha Shamoon was struck and killed by a Range Rover at the corner of Bowery and Delancey while riding her bike home at 1:30 a.m.
Police interviewed the three people in the car, but listed no other witnesses in the police report. Several people called 911, but it’s unclear if they saw the crash. Cops determined Shamoon caused the crash and let the driver go.
But Rasha's mother didn't buy the story.
Samira Shamoon turned to the courts to get more answers. She brought a civil suit against the 21-year-old driver where he and his passengers were required to give detailed testimony. In February, the jury placed 95 percent of the fault on the driver, and 5 percent on Rasha Shamoon.
That finding stoked the mounting anger in the cycling community. Bike activists took it as evidence that the police were not serious about investigating cyclist deaths.
Last year, 21 cyclists were struck and killed but only two drivers were arrested. And about 40 percent of the time a driver is involved in a fatality – a pedestrian, cyclist, other motorist or themselves – not even a ticket is issued.
“We as a society have chosen to drive these big cars," said Joe McCormack, an assistant District Attorney for the Bronx whose job it is to prosecute traffic crimes. "And we also as a society have chosen not to criminalize every single small mistake that just has a dramatic consequence because you’re driving a car.”
The year Rasha was struck and killed – 2008 – was the worst in eight years with 26 deaths.
Punishing bad drivers, advocates say, is a way to lower the number. Caroline Samponaro, director of Transportation Alternatives, said if a driver causes a crash that kills a cyclist or pedestrian, he or she should face serious consequences.
“Even if you can’t prevent that crash, you can follow up and make sure that another crash like it doesn’t ever happen,” she said.
But no case has sparked more furor than that of Mathieu Lefevre. The 30-year-old artist was struck and killed by a truck in Williamsburg last October. The driver told police he did not know he hit anyone, so continued driving a few blocks before parking.
No charges were filed because police determined both parties were at fault.
There were no photos from the scene because the police camera broke, according to the police report. The only surveillance video from the scene doesn't show the crash.
The driver told WNYC he had no comment on the crash.
The NYPD's most involved traffic investigations are handled by the Accident Investigation Squad, which has 19 detectives that handle the whole city – down from 24 in 2000 because of budget cuts.
Detectives from this squad only show up when a person dies or is considered likely to die.
In order to make an arrest, the NYPD said a motorist must break two traffic laws for the crash to rise to the level of criminal.
“Speeding alone will not produce criminality” the department said in a statement. “Passing a stop sign only will not provide for criminal charges. They will result in a speeding summons and a stop sign summons only, but together we have established a criminal charge of Criminally Negligent Homicide or higher.”
But arrests do happen when drivers hit and kill cyclists.
In Queens, a driver who sold heroin to an undercover officer was fleeing the scene when he struck and killed a cyclist in 2009. He was sentenced to as many as 15 years in prison. And in a 2006 drunk driving case, the motorist was sentenced to two-and-a-half to five years.
In Manhattan, the driver who struck Marilyn Dershowitz, sister-in-law of prominent lawyer Alan Dershowitz, in 2011 was indicted and the case is pending.
In Brooklyn, three cases where bicyclists have died in the past two years got convictions, all on unlicensed or suspended license charges.
The City Council held a four-hour hearing on traffic safety in February that was sparked by the Lefevre case.
“We realize that these are not just numbers on a piece of paper," NYPD Deputy Chief John Cassidy told council members and victims’ family members. "And in my opening statement when I said one fatality is one too many I seriously believe that.”
At the hearing tearful family members lamented their loss and sharply criticized the NYPD for not keeping them informed in the investigations of the deaths of their loved ones.
Council members called for several reforms of police policy when it comes to cycling safety, in particular, they want the police to conduct more thorough investigations.
Last week, the NYPD announced a change in how they track cyclist crashes. They will more closely monitor the frequency of cases where bikes crash into pedestrians. Those accidents will now be treated and recorded the same as when a motor vehicle hits a pedestrian.
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