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Slap ’em with words: Anatomy of a Daily News editorial on Vision Zero

February 22, 2015

The editorial style of the Daily News has always been fairly straightforward: make short, declarative statements, and pretend to stake out a position of moral clarity on a subject that, right or wrong, inspires a lot of passion. This style is in full focus in Sunday’s editorial, “Slap ’em with summonses: The right way to enforce the Vision Zero failure to yield law against bus drivers and others.”

Most of what the Daily News editorial board proposes, however, relies on straw-men arguments, faulty logic and a lack of facts on which policy proposals should be based. And, as becomes apparent partway through the piece, what the board proposes in no way involves enforcing the Vision Zero failure to yield law against bus drivers and others.

Seventeen drivers, including six Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus operators, have been run through the criminal justice system so far. In the latest case, Francisco de Jesus’ Brooklyn bus collided with teenage Jiahuan Xu and mangled her left leg as he attempted a left turn.

If you flip this construct around and start with the fact that 143 pedestrians were killed in New York City in 2014 and that 21 people have lost their lives in traffic this year so far — not to mention those who have received life-altering injuries — the fact that only 17 motorists have been “run through the criminal justice system” seems like the bigger outrage. Violating a pedestrian’s legal right of way is against the law. Through what other system should people who commit crimes be run?

There seems to be a large amount of concern over handcuffing and jailing drivers who, at least until the point that they killed or seriously injured someone, had a clean driving record. The police have their reasons for such protocol, but Pete Donohue and Errol Louis, for example, have a point: the American way of cuffing people for everything from violating open container laws to jogging in a park after dark certainly feels excessive. But questioning the need to cuff a veteran bus driver is separate from asking whether or not there should be criminal consequences for drivers who, however unintentionally, kill or maim pedestrians.

So that there is no misunderstanding: The goal of saving lives on the streets and preventing injuries is aces. Let’s do it.

But let’s do it right.

Like I said: short, declarative statements and an insistence that what follows, dear reader, Must Be The Solution No One Has Thought Of Yet.

The criminalizing of failure-to-yield accidents grew out of the notion, espoused by some transportation advocates, that there is virtually no such thing as a traffic accident. In almost every case, someone did something wrong, so that’s a crime.

Here’s the straw man. No advocate believes there aren’t honest-to-god accidents that are beyond the scope of criminal liability or prosecution. What transportation advocates actually espouse is that authorities and the press should hold off on calling a collision an “accident” until the circumstances of the incident are known.

Then there’s the the idea that advocates believe that “in almost every case, someone did something wrong, so that’s a crime.” There seems to be a lot of motivation on the part of the Daily News to characterize advocates’ position as too harsh and to also narrowly define recklessness or carelessness as “intending to harm,” a meaning that would decriminalize nearly all traffic violence. If there was no intent, then it was just an accident, right? But that’s just ridiculous. No credible advocate believes that drivers wake up in the morning intending to kill someone.

Yes, sometimes there are genuine accidents. However, the criminalizing of failure-to-yield collisions grew out of the notion that people who commit crimes, including the crime of negligence, ought to face criminal consequences.

True enough, a criminal penalty can serve as a deterrent to someone who is, say, on the fence about robbing a bank. But meting out jail to a paltry handful of drivers on the streets is unlikely to prevent many from lapsing into momentary inattention that has tragic results. (See this Op-Ed for a view from the driver’s seat.)

Drivers operate giant pieces of machinery with the potential to do great harm. What the News dismisses as mere “momentary inattention” can have tragic consequences for people on foot, on bikes, and, yes, in cars. And when a tragedy strikes, it should be on investigators to determine if a driver did everything he could to avoid the kind of momentary lapse of attention that can kill another human being. This should not be a controversial position.

Here’s where the faulty logic comes in. As far as the efficacy of “meting out jail to a paltry handful of drivers” in order to prevent other tragedies, I’d say the strategy is working well so far. In just one week, the Daily News has printed numerous opinion pieces on the subject of failure to yield, inspiring a healthy debate across New York City. Not only that, but the TWU has repeatedly urged its drivers to wait until pedestrians clear crosswalks before completing a turn. Public awareness of pedestrians’ legal right of way has probably never been higher than it is right now.

The far more effective and fairer way to change driver behavior would be for the NYPD to ramp up failure-to-yield summonses before anyone has been hit. Cops now issue an average of roughly 50 a day. Five hundred, with a concentrated public education campaign, might do the trick.

Here’s the lack of facts. How does the Daily News know that this would be more effective that arrests? And why stop with 500? The cops could probably hand out that many summons on one corner in Brooklyn in the span of a few hours. So why not hand out 5,000 summons a day? How about 50,000? Wouldn’t 500,000 summons do the trick? And what’s a “concentrated public education campaign”? How long would it last and how would it be carried out? There’s also a bit of a straw-man argument at play here, since no advocate would argue that that ramping up preventative failure-to-yield summons and arresting drivers who hit people with the right of way are mutually exclusive.

Most importantly, despite the editorial’s title, the board’s proposal isn’t a way to “enforce the Vision Zero failure to yield law against bus drivers and others,” It’s a pie-in-the-sky way of hoping that the law is never enforced.

As it is now, the mayor and Council have achieved an outsized assault on some of the safest, best-trained drivers in the city: the MTA’s 11,000-plus bus operators, who covered 152 million miles last year under tough circumstances.

There’s no question that bus drivers appear to be bearing a disproportionate amount of the consequences under Section 19-190. There’s also no question that MTA drivers are, mile for mile, doing remarkable jobs under very difficult circumstances. That being said, professional drivers, especially those carrying passengers as part of a public transportation system, ought to be held to a tougher standard than the average motorist.

There’s also a very easy way to make it seem as if the Right of Way law isn’t unfairly targeting drivers while ignoring offenses committed by other drivers and that’s to arrest other drivers.

Those who hit pedestrians undergo intensive investigation and are subject to internal discipline. None, including de Jesus, intended any harm. The Transport Workers Union has said that the mirror on his bus may have placed the teenager he hit in a blind spot, perhaps defeating a criminal case.

Uncertain, after-the-fact prosecutions are an unfair waste of time. A credible threat of attention-getting fines is the way to go.

There’s that idea of “intent” again. Let me re-emphasize that no one thinks de Jesus saw a pedestrian in the crosswalk and decided to run her over anyway. But internal investigations as a means for determining what went wrong in a case where a bus driver strikes someone are highly problematic. What justice does this leave for a teen with a mangled leg or the parents left without a child? And if the only consequence is “internal discipline,” how does the greater message get out to drivers that a pedestrian’s right of way is sacrosanct? The public, not just the MTA ad TWU, has a vested interest in public investigations of events that put public lives at risk.

As to my original point about this editorial and its lack of basic logic, the last two lines bring it all into focus. To a degree, all prosecutions are uncertain. That doesn’t make them a waste of time, provided police officers make arrests based on credible evidence, investigations are thorough, and prosecutors are well prepared. That all prosecutions happen after the fact is just something we all have to accept, due to the linear nature of time.



  1. February 23, 2015 8:20 am

    Doug, you are absolutely right about the notion of charging more drivers with failure to yield.

    I still disagree with you about the efficacy of internal investigations. Aviation crashes are investigated as safety investigations first and foremost so that if there were a problem with the fleet, it can be remedied in other planes. This good idea is not applied to passenger automobiles, I think because it would cost too much to recall all cars with a particular problem.

    • invisiblevisibleman permalink
      February 23, 2015 11:14 am

      The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does indeed investigate faults with vehicles and order recalls if the manufacturer doesn’t initiate one first. That’s what’s happened with, for example, General Motors’ faulty ignition switches. The cost/benefit equation is complex, too. GM would have had to spend a lot less if it had got onto the faulty ignition switch problem 10 years ago when it was first emerging than it is having to spend now – not least because it’s paying compensation to the families of at least 58 people who died and for numerous people who received life-saving injuries. The difference between cars and other transportation modes is that a very high proportion of automobile crashes are a result of operator error. Very little is done in the US to eliminate contributors to crashes such as excess speed and failure to yield.

  2. Bob F permalink
    February 23, 2015 10:54 am

    Problem with handing out 50,000 failure to yield tickets per day is lack of NYPD officer resources. A much better PROVEN way to increase street safety is to install speed cameras city-wide, and have them operating 24/7. We could look to MD to see to what extent this might diminish failure-to-yield crashes.


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