lllegal Turns and Lane Changes: Where Are the Cops?

By Douglas A. Hinnant

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Illegal lane changes, such as the one committed by this taxi driver, often delay traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Cutting in line. We learned in kindergarten that this is unacceptable behavior. We wouldn’t do it waiting for movie tickets or at a grocery store checkout. If we did, we would endure the derisive glares and admonishments from the people we slighted.

Yet for some reason, cutting in line is deemed acceptable by many New York City drivers. The social and moral standards that make this action rude in virtually all other areas of life seem to disappear when people get behind the wheel of an automobile.

This is more than a psychological or sociological issue. When drivers cut in line at exit ramps and turn lanes, they put other drivers, cyclists and pedestrians in danger. They cause delays for the drivers behind them. And they break the law.

Ticketing drivers for these offenses would not only ease traffic. It would also raise revenue for our city when we need it most.

So where is Mayor Michael Bloomberg on this issue? According to spokesman Marc Lavorgna, the mayor has not given consideration to the enforcement of moving violations as a means to control traffic and raise revenue.

To his credit, Mayor Bloomberg has made great efforts to ease traffic congestion. He rides the subway to work every day as an example. Since he took office, he has added more than 370 miles of bike lanes and in the last two years, he has created 20 miles of bus lanes throughout the five boroughs. In 2007 and 2008, he fought to implement a congestion pricing program that would have placed tolls on East River bridges and across 86th Street on avenues coming south into the city. Mayor Bloomberg argued these tolls would reduce the number of cars on the streets and bring in revenue. This plan failed to make it through the State Legislature, despite heavy lobbying on his part.

“Nothing will compete with congestion pricing,” said Mr. LaVorgna.

But unlike congestion pricing, issuing tickets for laws already on the books does not require new legislation nor approval from Albany. It would simply take an email from Bloomberg to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly that says, “Make this a priority.”

Of course the New York Police Department isn’t totally absent.

In 2009, police in New York City issued over 800,000 tickets for moving violations. While this may seem like a lot, only 140,000 of those tickets were written in Manhattan South, which covers everything in the borough below the southern end of Central Park. Thus, the area that comprises over 80% of Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed congestion pricing plan accounts for just 17% of all tickets written.

NYPD policy prohibits officers from giving statements to the press without approval. But one officer, who directs traffic at a busy intersection in Lower Manhattan, spoke on condition of anonymity. He said he gets frustrated at the number of drivers who make improper turns, but he pointed out that on foot, he is basically powerless to stop drivers who ignore him. He added that he would like help ticketing people for moving violations and that more intersections should have officers directing traffic and enforcing the law. But in the end, he said, his primary duty is to keep vehicles moving, so he admitted that he sends drivers making improper turns through the intersection when stopping them would break what he called his rhythm.

During one particular evening rush at the corner of Bowery and Delancey Street, two officers were both waving through drivers who were making a turn from the straight lane. Once they became aware they were being observed for a story on the lack of traffic enforcement, they began to stop those drivers and send them in the proper direction.

And what do the police brass think? We can’t know, because the NYPD did not respond to repeated requests for data on ticketing or explanations of why their law enforcement officers don’t enforce traffic law more heavily. (The 2009 data cited above was only made available by Matthew Weiss, an attorney specializing in fighting traffic tickets, and he had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get them.)

What we can know comes from statistics from the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles.

In 2008, the last year for which data is available, “Turning Improperly” accounted for 3.5% of total accidents in New York City, placing it sixth on the list of causes behind driver inattention, following too closely, failure to yield the right of way, speeding and disregarding traffic control, in that order. Accidents due to improper turns resulted in four deaths and 1,372 injuries, both in the Top 10.

“Unsafe Lane Changing” was eighth on the list, at 3.0%, leading to six deaths and 982 injuries.

Still, according to Mr. Lavorgna, “It’s not realistic from a budget perspective to have a police officer on every corner.”

But officers wouldn’t have to be on every corner. They could just stake out spots where violations frequently occur.

Take the Brooklyn Bridge, for example, which has three lanes on the inbound side. As vehicles enter Manhattan, the right lane exits onto the FDR, leaving the remaining two lanes for travel into Downtown. During the morning rush, the exit lane is often backed up to the top of the bridge or farther. Many drivers, instead of waiting in line, move along in the center and left lanes, then cut over at the last moment.

During the evening rush, a similar occurrence can be seen heading toward the Williamsburg Bridge. The left turn lane from southbound Chrystie Street onto Delancey Street is often backed up for blocks, and drivers can wait through several light cycles before making it through the intersection. Some drivers pull up to the intersection in the lane intended for through traffic, then cut over to make a left turn.

An officer at either of these locations literally wouldn’t be able to write tickets fast enough to keep up with drivers who break the law.

Of course, solutions are seldom as easy as they sound.

Professor Joseph Pollini, who teaches a course called The Traffic Control Function at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said the NYPD does not have the resources to ticket every violation that occurs on a day-to-day basis. As he explained it, the NYPD employs essentially three types of traffic officers, and only one writes traffic tickets regularly.

Traffic enforcement agents, he said, are the uniformed officers you see standing in busy intersections directing traffic. Their primary responsibility is to keep traffic moving. They typically work alone, and they are unarmed, so they are not encouraged to stop cars to write tickets. The one exception is for “blocking the box,” which was changed from a moving violation to a parking violation in 2008 so that these officers could more easily write tickets for the offense.

The Manhattan Traffic Task Force is comprised of officers who typically ride in a squad car. These officers are armed, but they are usually alone. While they are technically responsible for traffic enforcement, for safety reasons they are not encouraged to make car stops either. Instead, their primary duty is to respond to traffic accidents, again according to Professor Pollini.

Finally, he stated, on thoroughfares such as the FDR and the Henry Hudson Parkway, highway patrol officers investigate serious accidents and handle safety issues involving large trucks. They travel alone, but their vehicles are equipped with shotguns, so they often make car stops. For the most part, they write tickets for speeding.

“Once in a while,” Professor Pollini said, they enforce illegal lane changes when drivers cross a solid white line.

Like Mr. LaVorgna and Professor Pollini, a longtime policy analyst, Charles Komanoff, sees problems with ticketing drivers to raise revenue and ease congestion. He estimates that the NYPD would have to issue an average of six to seven tickets a year to each driver in New York City to match the projected revenue from a congestion pricing system.

Mr. Komanoff has spent the last three years creating what he calls a Balanced Transportation Analyzer, a super-sized Excel spreadsheet that analyzes everything from neighborhood populations to the average trip length of taxis to the amount of time it takes for people to board a bus.

The issue of traffic congestion, he explains, is in essence a matter of too many vehicles in a finite amount of space. So without limiting the number of vehicles entering the city, congestion will not ease.

Ticketing drivers at specific corners or exits falls under what Mr. Komanoff calls “surgical” or “micro” enforcement. So would this approach ease my road rage? Probably. Would it make a significant difference to overall congestion or the city’s coffers? Probably not.

Somewhat surprisingly, it is the attorney, Mr. Weiss, who supports increased enforcement of moving violations such as illegal turns and improper lane changes.

Mr. Weiss said, “There are plenty of intersections where [the law] is not enforced, and plenty of places where it would be economical for an officer to enforce that intersection.” He added, “The flow of traffic would proceed better because you don’t have double lanes blocked waiting for people to turn.”

So why do so many drivers ignore common social norms when they get behind the wheel of a car?

Dr. Leon James, a psychologist at the University of Hawaii who has studied driving attitudes and behaviors for 30 years, blames parents. The back seat of a car is a “road rage nursery,” where children pick up the negative and intense emotions of the adult drivers, he says.

By the time we start driving, those attitudes are built-in. Movies and commercials that glamorize aggressive driving, share responsibility, as well, Dr. James says, because they lower our threshold for what is normal and acceptable.

At the intersection of Chrystie and Delancey streets, drivers waiting in the strait lane with their left blinker flashing offered their own explanations as to why they felt it was OK to make an illegal turn.

One taxi driver who was in a hurry to get a fare to JFK was unapologetic. His stance was that cab drivers were in a bigger hurry than other drivers. When asked if he felt cab drivers deserved to break the law, he laughed and said, “This is New York City.”

Another taxi driver’s explanation was, “Everybody’s doing it.” Upon further thought, he acknowledged that what he was doing was wrong, but that he was going to do it anyway.

Finally a woman with her daughter in the passenger seat admitted she was doing the wrong thing, but she explained that she was in a hurry. When asked if she thought she was setting a good example for her daughter, she rolled up her window.

So what can we do about improper turns and illegal lane changes? Is it even realistic to expect a solution?

Mr. Komanoff is currently working on a new model for traffic control that he hopes will make it through city or state legislation. His Balanced Transportation Analyzer does not take into account the enforcement of traffic laws, and he maintains that surgical traffic enforcement would not substantially ease congestion. But he acknowledges that a greater police presence could potentially coincide with an effective and politically tenable plan.

Meanwhile the mayor’s office seems to be standing by the congestion pricing plan that failed to get through Albany, and the NYPD is mute.

Thus it falls on New York City’s drivers who, for the most part, conform to the laws of the road and the standards of common courtesy. Psychologists can ponder the reasons, lawmakers can propose grand plans and policy analysts and lawyers can delve into the details. But without the police to enforce improper turns and illegal lane changes effectively, rude drivers will be in charge of policing themselves.

Yeah. That’s the ticket.