New York City will likely increase the maximum civil penalty for drivers who flee the scene of a car crash from $10,000 to $20,000 for crashes that result in death, following a unanimous City Council Transportation Committee vote on Tuesday morning.
Under the new legislation, maximum fines for hit-and-runs would exceed DWI fines, which max out at $10,000.
The vote will go before the entire city council later this week. Pending council approval, the legislation will go before the Mayor.
"Hit-and-run crashes are the most egregious, because drivers literally leave victims to die," said Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez before casting his vote in favor. "Hit-and-run is an epidemic that we are committed to eradicate."
The goal is to "close the drunken drivers loophole, which makes it more efficient for drunk drivers to leave the site of a crash," he added.
Today's vote is a step towards strengthening the Justice For Hit and Run Victims Act, passed in September 2014 as a supplement to Mayor Bill de Blasio's Vision Zero initiative. In the intervening year, hit-and-run crashes have held steady. According to the City, 38,000 hit-and-runs have been documented this year to date, resulting in 4,000 injuries and 34,000 cases of property damage.
Last Tuesday night, 17-year-old Ovidio Jaramillo was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver in the crosswalk at the intersection of Northern Boulevard and Junction Boulevard in Queens. The driver, behind the wheel of a black Toyota Camry, is still at large.
And on Sunday, an unlicensed driver struck 21-year-old Urabia Nelson in a Far Rockaway intersection as she pushed a 9-year-old child to safety on the sidewalk. She remains in critical condition.
"My vote is dedicated to Miss Nelson, who sacrificed her body to a child she was with," said Councilmember Donovan Richards, who represents her district. "May the gentleman who did this be hit with the stiffest fine and be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."
To be sure, civil penalties are only impactful to the extent that they are applied. According to a report issued last week by Transportation Alternatives, fewer than 1% of the drivers involved in roughly 4,000 hit-and-run crashes this year that resulted in injury or death were charged with a crime.
An accompanying piece of legislation, also unanimously approved by the committee, would attempt to monitor this discrepancy: the police department would be required to issue reports four times a year on the number of violations issued for crashes that result in serious injuries, and annually on the number of hit-and-run complaints received, compared to the number of arrests made.
Reached by phone this afternoon, Transportation Alternatives Director Paul Steely White said that the new fines would be a "welcome first step."
"It's a big problem that the penalty for a hit-and-run is less than the penalty for drunk driving," he added. "It creates a perverse incentive to flee the scene. Now we really need Albany to create a uniform sanction that will also increase jail time for hit-and-run drivers, and send a clear message that hit-and-run is an unconscionable act."
Transportation Alternatives is currently pushing for legislation, supported by the NY State DAs Association, that would elevate leaving the scene of a fatal crash to a C felony, and leaving the scene of a crash causing serious injury to a D felony.
Under current law, it is a C felony to kill someone while driving under the influence, but only a D felony to leave the scene of a fatal crash.