After six MTA bus drivers were arrested for striking pedestrians under the city's Right of Way Law, the union representing the drivers tried to dismantle the statute. Bus drivers were urged to drive more carefully, as if to prove that on-time bus service and fatality-free streets were incongruous. Campaigns in the City Council and in Albany to exempt bus drivers or cripple the law failed, but the union filed a lawsuit, and last night the City settled. If you're a pedestrian, cyclist, or a bus driver, what does the settlement change?
Everything. Or, nothing. It depends on who you ask.
"This is a huge victory," John Samuelson, the president of TWU Local 100, said in a statement. "I believe it to be a fact that the operators who were arrested, would not be arrested" under the terms of the settlement, Samuelson told us.
"None of the TWU bus operators that were arrested were engaged in reckless operation of a bus. None of them."
Paul Steely White, president of Transportation Alternatives, the safe streets advocacy group that fought for the passage of the Right of Way Law, tells us that Samuelson's statement about the arrested drivers is "patently untrue."
"His exuberance is not warranted," White says. "The Right of Way Law stands as is. All that's happened is the City has issued a clarification codifying what they already do. Samuelson is facing a reelection, he needs to bring something back for his membership."
When the Right of Way Law was passed a year ago, it gave the NYPD the power to charge drivers who injured or killed pedestrians and cyclists who had the right of way with a misdemeanor. Drivers who simply failed to yield without causing injury faced a violation.
Now, the settlement requires that police determine that the driver both failed to yield and failed to exercise due care when handing out a violation, "but it doesn't make any real changes to the misdemeanor," says Mark Taylor, an attorney who represents pedestrians and cyclists struck by drivers.
"I look at this stipulation, and I assume the City agreed: We'll stop arresting bus drivers, unless it really seems like you've done something intentional, or reckless," Taylor told us. "I assume the union's understanding is, that this is going to solve their problem with bus drivers getting regularly arrested, without the kinds of things that would have traditionally led to a driver getting arrested in an accident."
Taylor added, "Whether or not this literally stops the city from doing this under the law, I don't think it does. In reality, those kind of agreements, the City is certainly capable of keeping them. They just communicate it to the police department."
Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for the Mayor's Office, denied that there was any "deal" for the NYPD to stop arresting bus drivers who failed to yield to pedestrians or cyclists.
"That’s neither reflective of how we’ve enforced this law up until now, nor how it will continue to be enforced going forward," Norvell told us.
The DOT has reported [PDF] that 27% of all crashes that result in pedestrian injury or death are caused by drivers failing to yield; in the last four months of 2014 alone, 4,001 pedestrians were injured or killed on New York City streets.
According to Norvell, as of last week, 38 drivers have been charged under the Right of Way Law.
Mayor de Blasio recently suggested that the pedestrian plazas in Times Square should be removed; his DOT is also agonizingly slow to install bike lanes, which studies have shown to substantially reduce injuries. He was quick to release a statement on the TWU settlement assuring us that "protecting New Yorkers is our top priority and the Right of Way Law is a powerful tool to keep pedestrians safe."
White predicts that "we're going to see more assiduous enforcement of Right of Way because the NYPD thankfully has been busy training its precinct officers in how to apply this life-saving law."
To the TWU's claim of victory, White says, "I think that that's going to be a day of reckoning for the union leadership and their members the next time a bus driver is arrested for violating the right of way of a pedestrian or a cyclist, because the law still stands, and if anything, the NYPD is going to be more likely to bring that charge. Hopefully that won't happen, hopefully the drivers are driving more carefully, they understand that it's never acceptable to trade expediency for care, for safety."
Taylor, who is also a civil rights attorney, sees it differently.
"I think the main reason drivers look out for cyclists and pedestrians is basic human decency and a desire not to hurt people, and whether or not you add criminal penalties to that, I don't think it's clear that that's going to change people's conduct and level of care."