The State Senate has passed a bill exempting taxi, livery and bus drivers from the city’s right-of-way law, which if passed by the Assembly and signed into law, would prevent law enforcement from detaining those drivers at the scene of serious accidents involving pedestrians or cyclists.
The right-of-way law makes it a misdemeanor when any driver fails to yield to a pedestrian or cyclist that has right of way, and as a result, kills or injures someone. It was designed to increase the discretion of precinct-level officers in charging reckless drivers that injure pedestrians or cyclists but are otherwise not suspected to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Previously, only a small number of police officers in the department’s Collision Investigation Squad were able to issue arrests at the scene of serious accidents.
The Assembly’s version of the bill, A-648-B, did not make to the floor before that body concluded its session last week.
Should the bill become law, police will not be able to detain cab, livery or bus drivers at the scene of an accident or arrest them under the right-of-way law if the driver has a valid license and is not suspected of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
The Senate’s exemption bill, which was pushed by the Transportation Workers Union Local 100, passed by a wide margin, with 54 votes for and 6 against. State senators who voted against the bill include Daniel Squadron, Brad Hoylman, Liz Krueger, Kemp Hannon, Thomas Croci and the new speaker, John DeFrancisco. The Assembly’s companion bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Walter Mosley, had 16 co-sponsors.
Caroline Samponaro, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, said the Senate’s exemption bill is a setback for street safety in New York City.
“It’s a terrible bill,” said Samponaro said. “We should be holding professional drivers to the highest standards.”
She said the union misrepresented the bill by portraying it as only applying to bus drivers, not livery or cab drivers. “The description on the bill itself grossly misrepresents what the bill would actually do,” she said.
TWU Local 100 officials did not return a request for comment. In statements on their website regarding the passed Senate bill, the union stresses that it does not prevent drivers from being arrested and charged with the right-of-way law after an investigation, but only prevents drivers from being arrested on the scene if there is no evidence of recklessness. According to statements online, their position is that bus drivers should not be treated as criminals before the facts are in.
Representatives from Families for Safe Streets, a pedestrian safety organization made up of families who have lost family members in traffic incidents, said since the right-of-way law was passed police have charged 31 drivers, including six MTA bus operators.
The organization wrote an open letter to TWU Local 100 criticizing the union for what the group said was a de facto exemption from the rules of the road and offering evidence that the law is working. “Last year, MTA bus drivers killed eight people who had the right of way in crosswalks; so far this year, that number is zero,” the letter reads.
Dana Lerner, whose son Cooper was killed last year in the crosswalk by a cabbie who was later charged with failure to exercise due care and fined $500, also criticized the union for pushing the exemption bill.
“This is a devaluation of human life,” Lerner said. “Professional drivers need to be held to the highest standards. The union is claiming that the bus drivers are victims. The true victims here are the people who are being killed and seriously injured on our streets every day.”
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Lerner worked to pass what became known as Cooper’s Law, which would yank the TLC license of any cabbie who was found to have broken traffic law and, as a result, killed or critically injured another person. An investigation by this paper found that since the law went into effect nine months ago, it has only been used twice.
“This law impedes the NYPD from doing its job,” she said. “And this could affect Cooper’s Law, which as we know is not even being enforced.”
But pedestrian safety advocates may have found an unlikely ally in Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, with whom they often disagree when it comes to the intersection of street safety and the law. After the exemption bill was passed, Vance sent a letter to both the Senate and Assembly saying that if the exemption bill were passed into law, it may impede cases against drunk drivers.
“Although the amended bill attempts to exclude drivers who may be driving under the influence of alcohol, police officers often conduct field sobriety tests even when there is no immediate suspicion of impairment, and must often wait a significant period of time for the arrival of equipment to conduct those tests,” Vance wrote. “By prohibiting the detention of (bus, taxi and livery) drivers at the scene of collisions, the bill prevents law enforcement from gathering evidence vital to bringing criminal charges in appropriate cases.”
Samponaro applauded Vance’s letter.
“It’s great to see the DA, who sees a lot of vehicular crime cases, coming out in opposition to a bill that’s going to hinder the prosecution of these cases,” Samponaro said.
Transportation Alternatives representatives said they do not believe that, if passed into law, the right-of-way exemption bill would affect Cooper’s Law or other pedestrian safety laws.