State lawmakers are trying to make it easier to charge reckless drivers, following a spike in pedestrian deaths on New York City streets that's claimed the lives of six people, including two children, in just five days.
Announced on Friday by Brooklyn State Senator Andrew Gounardes, the three-part legislative package would establish a database that ranks vehicles by how likely they are to cause harm on the road, and would expand pedestrian rights by deeming every intersection a crosswalk, regardless of how it's marked.
The third in the trio of bills, and likely the most controversial, would give prosecutors more freedom to apply criminal charges against reckless drivers that kill or seriously injure other road users.
The legislation's aims are twofold: upping penalties for hit-and-run drivers who claim they didn't know they hit a person, and eliminating a judicial precedent stipulating that prosecutors must prove a driver committed two misdemeanors before bringing a charge of criminal negligence.
That precedent, known as the rule of two, has long been cited by local district attorneys as justification for letting killer drivers walk free — even when they're caught mowing down pedestrians in a crosswalk or on a sidewalk.
In many of those cases, DAs should be bringing criminal penalties anyway, according to Daniel Flanzig, an attorney who often represents pedestrians and cyclists. "It's more of a guideline than a real law that prosecutors must follow," he told Gothamist. Still, the state law would likely make prosecutors more willing to to take up cases, he said. As it stands, roughly 95 percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes avoid any charges at all.
Equally consequential is the bill's focus on hit-and-run drivers, advocates said. Under the current statute, drivers caught leaving the scene of a crash face far stiffer penalties if there is "known" bodily injury. Recent deaths, including those of Brooklyn messenger Aurilla Lawrence and 4-year-old Luz Gonzalez, have shown how drivers responsible for deadly hit-and-runs can avoid criminal penalties by claiming ignorance of "known" injury.
"I see multiple weekly hit-and-run crashes, and it's almost always the first thing anybody ever says," Flanzig told Gothamist. "It's always been a ridiculous defense. This would take it out of the defense attorneys' arsenal."
Assemblymember Dan Quart has introduced a companion bill in the state assembly.
But efforts to clamp down on reckless drivers have historically struggled in Albany because, as Queens State Senator Mike Gianaris once noted, "city residents are more likely to support the changes than people who live in suburbs or upstate, where the car culture is stronger."
Bills previously introduced by Gounardes that would expand charges for drugged driving and require a written exam upon renewal of a license have stalled in committee.
"In memory of those we lost, we must do everything in our power to make our streets safe for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers alike,” Gounardes said in a statement. “It’s time to say goodbye to the days when drivers, no matter how reckless and careless, could injure and kill our neighbors with impunity. It’s time for every single person to feel safe walking down the street.”
A spokesperson for Governor Andrew Cuomo's office did not immediately respond to inquiries about whether he would back the legislative package.