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Mathieu Lefevre

Transportation Nation

Killed While Cycling: Why So Few Fatal Bike Crashes Lead to Arrest in NYC

Sunday, April 08, 2012

A "bike lift" in silence during a memorial ride for killed cylists, March 2012 (Photo by Alex Goldmark)

Last year, 21 cyclists died in vehicle crashes in New York City.  But only two drivers were arrested and local district attorneys are hard pressed to cite convictions for cyclist deaths.  Instead, they say, cyclists and their advocates don't understand how tough it is to call a traffic crash a crime.

As far as intersections go, Bowery and Delancey is a pretty big one, eight lanes cross six. It’s never really empty, not even at 1:30 in the morning. It was that time of night about four years ago when Rasha Shamoon was fatally struck there by a Range Rover while riding her bike home.

As is standard procedure in traffic deaths in New York City, the police arrived and treated the intersection as a crime scene. They interviewed the three people in the car, but no other witnesses were mentioned in the police report -- several people had called 911 from the scene, but we'll never know if they saw the crash or not. Police determined Rasha Shamoon caused the crash and let the driver go.

Rasha's mother didn't buy the story. Samira Shamoon would later tell a New York city council hearing: “The first police report to the newspaper claimed that Rasha was at fault because she had  run the red light and she was not wearing a helmet.” No helmet was found at the scene, but Rasha was known as obsessive on safety issues.

“Even the statement they got from the driver and his friends were not accurate and complete,” Samira Shamoon lamented. To get more information, she took the driver to civil court.

“We didn’t have any eye witnesses that said he was speeding," says Shamoon's lawyer, Adam White.  "We didn’t have an accident re-constructionist, nothing in the police report that indicated rate of speed.” White used circumstantial evidence: Rasha's whole bike was covered in reflective tape, the passengers gave partially-conflicting accounts, and the 21 year-old driver had at least six previous moving violations.

"Ultimately the jury found that the driver was 95 percent at fault and it put 5 percent of fault on Rasha,” White said of the verdict handed down in February. The Shamoons were awarded $200,000.

The year Rasha Shamoon was hit, 2008, was the worst since 2000 for cyclist deaths: 26 people died. Last year, it was 21. But there were 27 times when a cyclist died, or was thought likely to die in NYC—that's how police categorize cases for record keeping. The NYPD tells WNYC of those 27 cases, two drivers were arrested. Looking at all cases where a driver kills someone -- pedestrian, cyclist, other motorists, themselves -- forty percent of the time, there’s not even a traffic ticket. Explaining why not, gets complicated.

Cyclist deaths in 2011 -- locations and dates from NYC DOT.

Bike advocates like Caroline Samponaro of Transportation Alternatives want the police to get tougher. If drivers cause crashes that kill, she told me, they 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."

As cycling has taken hold in New York, and cases like Rasha Shamoon’s make their rounds on the bike blogs, something of a furor has risen up in the cycling community. Samponaro’s group organized protests outside police headquarters in November after another killed cyclist's family started criticizing the NYPD investigation.

Artist Mathieu Lefevre was hit by a truck in October in Williamsburg. 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.

Erika Lefevre, Mathieu's mother, pressed for more investigation, and publicly complained the police withheld information from her, eventually filing a freedom of information request to see what the investigation report had found.

There were no photos from the scene because the police camera broke, according to the police report. And the only surveillance video from the scene doesn't show the crash.

I called the truck driver several times. When he didn’t return my calls, I went to his house to try to get his side of the story, but all he said was “no comment.”

As for the police, they say they're just following the law.

Sparked largely by the Lefevre case, the City Council held a four-hour hearing on traffic safety in February. “We realize that these are not just numbers on a piece of paper," NYPD Deputy Chief John Cassidy told angry council members and victims' family members. "And in my opening statement when I said one fatality is one too many, I seriously believe that,” he added.

The morning turned into a lesson in organizational charts, patrol guides and traffic law. The NYPD's most involved traffic investigations are handled by the Accident Investigation Squad. In 2000, there were 24 detectives. Now, because of budget cuts, there are 19. They handle the whole city.

So those detectives can only show up when someone dies or is declared likely to die by a medical professional. Asking them to handle more cases, or adding more detectives would be a policy choice, Cassidy said. “It would take resources away from other enforcement initiatives. One person can’t do two separate jobs at the same time.”

Those other initiatives include speed traps and DUI checkpoints. And, as Cassidy pointed out, traffic deaths are at an all time low. "So the accidents that you speak of," he told the council, "are not in fact occurring. So it’s not that we’re not doing anything out there. I think it’s quite the contrary -- we’re doing a lot with [a] lot less.”

I asked the police to explain how they determine when to make arrests, when to issue a ticket, and when to just let the driver go in a fatal crash with a cyclist. In an email, they said a motorist needs to break two traffic laws to rise to the level of criminal.

“Speeding alone will not produce criminality” the statement reads. “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.”

You'd need both to slap cuffs on a driver. And the police would need to witness speeding to prove it in most cases, they point out.

“We as a society have chosen to drive these  big cars," said Joe McCormack, Assistant District Attorney for the Bronx. It’s his job 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,” he said.

I asked all five district attorneys for an accounting of how many times someone who killed a cyclist was convicted of a crime. They all said they don’t track cases that way. But after much prodding for examples of what types of cases lead to jail time, the Queens DA cited two cases. In a 2009 case, a driver who had just sold heroin to an undercover officer was fleeing the scene when he struck and killed a cyclist. He was sentenced to seven-and-a-half to 15 years. In a 2006 drunk driving case, the motorist was sentenced to two-and-a-half to five years.

The Manhattan D.A. pointed to the case of Marilyn Dershowitz, sister-in-law of prominent lawyer Alan Dershowitz. The driver has been indicted. The case is pending.

The Brooklyn D.A. has brought three cases where bicyclists died in the past two years. All got convictions. Two were prosecuted as aggravated unlicensed driving charges. The third death case was tried as a manslaughter but ended with a jury trial conviction of driving with a suspended license.

Only one cyclist died in the Bronx last year. It was a hit and run. The driver was never found.

“There are times where the factual situation that is presented to us doesn’t rise to a crime," McCormack said. "And it’s important to realize that the reason it doesn’t rise to a crime is that society has made that decision that it doesn’t want it to be a crime.”

Some in society do.

When the weather warmed last month, a couple hundred cyclists held a memorial ride to honor the 21 bike riders who were killed on city streets last year. They placed white painted ghost bikes at the site of each crash. Read a statement in front of the 90th Precinct where four cyclists were killed last year, including Lefevre. And rang their bike bells the the backdrop of a bagpipe.

Those 21 deaths, they say, are 21 too many.  On that, the police agree.

Audio of protest used with permission from Streetfilms. In addition to our map above, cyclist deaths from other years are tracked and mapped at Ghostbikes.org

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Transportation Nation

NYPD Defends Role in Investigating Traffic Deaths

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

NYPD officials at a City Council oversight hearing (photo by Kate Hinds)

In two and a half hours of sometimes heated testimony, NYPD brass defended the department's record investigating bike and pedestrian deaths before the New York City Council.

"We have utilized the resources at our disposal...to drive accidents down in the city," said John Cassidy, chief of the NYPD's transportation department.

"There doesn't seem to be any discussion of that at the Council hearing at all," he said. "It seems the fact that accidents are down, injury accidents are down, injuries are down -- those are done by utilizing the patrol force that we have. So it's not that we are not doing anything out there -- I think it's quite the contrary. We are doing a lot with a lot less."

A number of recent deaths -- like Brooklyn cyclist Mathieu LeFevre, who was hit by a truck last October in Brooklyn, and 12-year old Dashane Santana, who was struck by a minivan on the Lower East Side in January -- have caused the council to question how vigorously the NYPD enforces laws in these kinds of cases.

Teresa Pedroza, Santana's grandmother, said: "My granddaughter's gone because it's just that easy for dangerous drivers to end a life on our streets."

Added Erika LeFevre, mother of Mathieu LeFevre: "The only person the NYPD showed courtesy, professionalism and respect towards was the driver who ran over my son," she said, referencing the slogan painted on the side of patrol cars.

"What actually happens when a pedestrian is struck and killed by a car?" City Council member Jimmy Vacca -- who chairs the transportation committee  -- asked at the opening of the oversight hearing. "Anecdotal evidence suggests that unless the driver is drunk or distracted, in the overwhelming majority of cases involving fatalities or serious injury, there are no charges filed at all."

Cassidy said in 2011, the NYPD issued over a million summonses to drivers for moving violations, as well as 10,415 criminal court summonses to truck operators. He added that last year the department issued 13,743 moving violations to bicyclists and 34,813 criminal court summonses to bicyclists.

But this didn't satisfy the council members.  Council member Peter Vallone asked the police brass:  "Are any of you aware, personally, of any reckless endangerment charges brought as a result of one of these traffic injuries?"  After a pause, Cassidy responded: "No, sir."

Recent legislation (known colloquially as Hayley and Diego’s Law) amended section 1146 of the New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law to establish careless driving as a more serious offense. But according to Susan Petito, an attorney for the NYPD, the only officers who write 1146 violations are members of the NYPD's Accident Investigation Squad. The AIS is only called out to investigate if the victim is either dead or has suffered a life-threatening injury.

The AIS, which covers the entire city,  has 19 detectives, one lieutenant, and three sergeants.

"Even with those (1146) summonses that are written," Petito said, "they are invariably dismissed by traffic court, because traffic court judges believe that it's inadequate because it wasn't personally observed."

"It's really unacceptable," said Council Member Brad Lander, who wanted to know why more patrol officers couldn't be authorized to write 1146 violations.

The council wasn't the only frustrated party in the room. "You know, we're well aware of the catastrophic nature of what we are discussing. We realize these are not just numbers on a piece of paper," said Cassidy at one point.

Other city council members complained about what they perceived to be a the NYPD's lack of transparency. At one point Vacca wanted to know how many drivers were charged for criminally bad driving. "Unfortunately, reckless endangerment is not segregated for record keeping purposes in our arrest database," said Petito. "So we can't give you a specific number of reckless endangerment charges connected with speeding ... connected with a vehicle. Unfortunately that data's not available."

"Why is it so hard to get information from the police department?" asked council member Jessica Lappin, who has worked to try to get the NYPD to make more data available to the public. "Why did Mathieu LeFevre's family have to file a FOIL request about their son's death? That's literally adding insult to injury."

Lappin called the NYPD's approach to releasing data "irritating" and "infuriating." "While putting up a PDF may comply with the law, it doesn't comply with our goal. It's information we're entitled to."

After the hearing, Peter Vallone said the council is committed to giving the NYPD the tools they need to go after bad drivers. "They are not paying enough attention to reckless drivers, and I think that's clear from the testimony of all the victims who were here today."

 

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Transportation Nation

TN MOVING STORIES: FAA Funding Agreement Reached; Tappan Zee Bridge Tolls' Worst Case Scenario; MTA, Union Resume Talks

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Top stories on TN: NYC held its first bicycle station community planning workshop. How the stimulus revived the electric car. One academic says NJ Governor Chris Christie’s hiring recommendations at the Port Authority far outpace his predecessor’s patronage hires. House Republicans rolled out parts of a $260 billion transportation infrastructure bill. President Obama dropped by the DC auto show. Karachi has the most beautiful buses in the world.  And: the history of Critical Mass rides.

Tappan Zee Bridge (photo by icadrews via flickr)

Lawmakers say they've reached an agreement on a $63 billion, four-year bill to extend the Federal Aviation Administration's operating authority and the agency's air traffic modernization effort. (AP via NPR)

The U.S. DOT is making $500 million available for a fourth round of TIGER grant funding. (DOT)

Engineers and transportation wonks are crunching numbers for the $5.2 billion Tappan Zee Bridge project to see what drivers might pay if toll revenue alone funds it. Worst-case scenario: $30 tolls by 2022, up from the current $5. (Crain's New York Business)

New York's MTA and the transit workers union will resume contract talks tomorrow. (Wall Street Journal)

Security video in the NYC death of cyclist Mathieu Lefevre differs from the description in the police report. (Streetsblog, New York Times)

The Motor City loses one of its rarest breeds: a woman car executive. (Forbes)

Florida Congressman John Mica needs to decide what district he'll run in. (Orlando Sentinel)

Boston's transit system set a modern ridership record in 2011 -- but those numbers will almost surely dip this year, as the T considers fare increases and service cuts. (Boston Globe)

General Motors’ bankruptcy unit has agreed to pay nearly $24 million to resolve environmental liabilities at Superfund sites in New Jersey, Maryland and Missouri. (Star-Ledger)

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said a Congressional Budget Office report that the highway trust fund would be empty by fiscal year 2014 shows President Obama has been right to call for increased funding for transportation projects. (The Hill)
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