Yesterday the State Senate passed a bill that would prevent the NYPD from arresting or detaining MTA bus drivers if they are sober or otherwise dutiful and fatally strike pedestrians with the right of way. Bus drivers and member of TWU Local 100 cheered the bill's passage in the gallery, but the de Blasio administration and safe streets advocates say that if the bill clears the Assembly and is signed into law, it could affect as many as 100,000 commercial drivers and profoundly influence the way the NYPD conducts investigations of fatal crashes.
The drivers would still be charged with a misdemeanor under the city's Right of Way law, but under a special protocol.
The bill, which has been amended twice, instructs law enforcement to issue a desk appearance ticket to bus drivers who seriously injure or kill pedestrians and cyclists with the right of way, and notes that police "shall not detain or otherwise prevent such operator from leaving the scene of such accident" after the officer has completed an "immediate investigation" of the scene.
"The only difference is this: a civil servant bus driver who isn't reckless but has an accident, with a bus that has blind spots and traffic signals that send pedestrians into crosswalks at the same time buses are turning left, doesn't get handcuffed at the scene like a robber, a drug dealer or thief who intentionally breaks the law," says Pete Donohue, the spokesman for TWU Local 100, which recently organized a protest against the Right of Way law.
But the bill itself applies to an "omnibus driver" under article 19-A of the state's traffic law, which means that any commercial passenger bus driver would receive the same unique treatment as MTA drivers. Article 19-A also includes "common or contract carrier[s]," which could mean a litany of commercial vehicles. Even if the intent of the bill is clear, its effect appears, at best, ambiguous.
"I spoke with senators yesterday who voted for the bill and sponsored the bill that had a total misunderstanding of what the bill would do," says Caroline Samponaro, the deputy director for Transportation Alternatives.
"The presentation by the union is somehow that the victim is the bus driver. And in this case, it's false. To create exceptions means that the NYPD has to have different procedures and protocol for different types of drivers, creating confusion. It's going to be burdensome, it's going to have a chilling effect on this life-changing law."
Walter Mosley, the Brooklyn Democratic Assemblyman who is sponsoring the legislation, has not responded to a request for comment.
So far, six MTA bus drivers have been charged under the Right of Way law, which was passed last August. No pedestrians have been fatally struck by MTA bus drivers in 2015.
Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for Mayor de Blasio, told us that "the administration and NYPD firmly oppose this legislation, which would drastically weaken protections for New York City pedestrians, and would seriously impede the investigations and decision-making of police officers."
The bill has a good chance of passing in the Assembly, which is controlled by union-supported Democrats.
"We don't have the resources, connections as the union," Samponaro said. "But professional drivers should be held to the highest standards, not be given carve outs and loop holes to get out of responsibility."