Text and photos by Kenneth Sousie
On a cold and snowy morning in mid February, Council Member Brad Lander of Brooklyn and Council Speaker Corey Johnson rallied on the steps of City Hall, along with advocates for victims of cycling accidents, to demand passage of The Reckless Driver Accountability Act. The act, introduced by Lander, would have the city confiscate the cars of repeat reckless driving offenders, and require them to complete the sort of accountability course, now required of drunk drivers before they can regain their driving privileges.
“This is about lives who have been lost, and this is about preventing the loss of future life,” said Johnson.
The new legislation coincides with a cycling boom in New York, and an increase in pedestrian and cyclist deaths and injuries.
Since 2010, bicycle ridership rose 150 percent, according to a comprehensive government report. Part of this rise is due to shared ridership programs such as CitiBike, which saw over 44.5 million trips between 2013 and 2017; the company is planning to triple its fleet of bicycles to 40,000 during the next five years with the help of a $100 million dollar investment from Lyft. The city, in turn, is planning to add 50 miles of bike lanes by 2020.
Cycling in New York City has never been safer. Yet, according to StreetsBlogNYC, City Hall reported that drivers killed 65 pedestrians and cyclists and injured 7,252 more in 2016. Part of the problem may be unsafe bike lanes. However, many of these injuries and deaths have been caused by repeat offenders–a key target of the new legislation and of cycling activists who have lobbied for it. An investigation of speed cameras found “25,000 habitually reckless drivers who commit five or more violations in a year,” according to Steve Vaccaro, an attorney for the Vaccaro & White firm who testified in front of the New York City Council Transportation Committee in August 2018. One driver had 49 violations in just 2017 alone.
Transportation Alternatives, a New York City non-profit organization formed in 1973, which is known for its work advocating for cyclists and pedestrian rights, is leading the fight against reckless driving. In 2014, the group formed Families For Safe Streets, which represents cyclists, as well as the families of bicyclists, who have been killed or injured.
FFSS’s mission is to push for legal action against reckless drivers while providing programs to New Yorkers who are currently dealing with the loss of a loved one from a reckless driver or the shock of being in a crash themselves. Some events held by the organization include: “Activism as a Way of Healing,” inspiring people to become proactive about bicyclist safety; “Post Crash Body and Mind,” where members help guide individuals through their experience; and “Drumming Thru Trauma,” a music rooted mental and physical healing class.
Lobbying efforts by FFSS and Transportation Alternatives have begun to bear fruit. In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled New York’s Vision Zero Action Plan, a citywide plan with the mission to make streets safer from reckless drivers. The plan drew heavily on data from a 2011 TransAlt report.
Rachel Jones was one of the FFSS activists who stood on the steps of City Hall in February. Her wife, a former attorney for Amnesty International who worked on the organization’s “Death Penalty and Innocence” initiative, was jogging in Park Slope when she was hit by a speeding delivery van even though she was wearing “reflective protective clothing.”
“She flew 10 feet in the air and came down on her head” and suffered permanent brain damage, explained Jones.
“We bear witness to our pain and suffering to press for the elimination of fatalities and injuries on our streets,” said Mary Beth Kelly, a FFSS member.
“We don’t want you to join our group; we don’t want you to experience the traumas and heartaches that reckless drivers have caused all of us and our loved ones,” said Kelly, who spoke about losing her husband of 30 years, a physician, when he was hit by a speeding tow truck while they were cycling together.
Lander said his legislation targets reckless drivers, like Dorothy Bruns, who was responsible for the 2018 pedestrian deaths of Abigail Blumenstein, 4, and Joshua Lew, 1. Burns ran a red light before hitting an unnamed victim who was injured, but not killed, and who was pushing the stroller, carrying Lew. The stroller was dragged by the car down a whole city block. Blumstein’s mother, Broadway actress Ruthie Ann Miles, was also struck and lost her unborn child, a daughter, two months later, due to complications from the impact.
“People’s inclination after that is that it was a random act,” said Lander. “And so we learned later that the driver in the preceding year had five camera violations, had run red lights before and had sped through intersections before.”
The remedies sought by the new legislation work, according to Amanda Berman, Project Director for the Red Hook Community Justice Center, who testified at City Hall.
The Red Hook Community Justice Center offers a Driver Accountability program aimed at reforming reckless drivers; the program would be expanded if the reckless-driving bill is passed.
The Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit group aimed at helping the justice system aid victims by creating innovative programs and research based strategies for criminal justice practitioners, has expanded the group to the Staten Island Justice Center, and with Brooklyn Justice Initiatives. “Together these programs have served over 700 participants in the past two years alone,” said Berman.
Lander added: “We don’t have the power to take away driver’s licenses from reckless drivers, but our speed-cameras program and our red-light cameras program give us the opportunity to give the owners of those cars an opportunity to take a program like the one in Red Hook.”
“We’re going to Albany tomorrow!” shouted an FFSS member, as they prepared to drive to Albany the day after the City Hall rally to advocate for speed cameras in every school zone in New York.
The office of Brad Lander commented by saying the Reckless Driver Accountability Act is currently being worked on in Albany, and is expected to reach a resolution after the next state budget cycle. Preparations for the next budget cycle begin June 2019.