NYCDOT, Flickr

The city’s Zero Street Team in the Bronx in 2019. (Credit: NYCDOT, Flickr)

During the annual State of the City speech last week, Mayor Bill de Blasio detailed plans for his remaining months in office, including the creation of a new NYPD unit to specifically enforce traffic safety violations. His announcement follows a disappointing year for Vision Zero in 2019, when overall city traffic deaths rose from the year before for the first time since 2013, including an alarming spike in cyclist fatalities

The new “Vision Zero Unit” will consist of 100 NYPD members tasked with enforcement against drivers who commit “the most dangerous behaviors” behind the wheel, including speeding, running red lights and failing to yield to pedestrians, according to the mayor’s plan.

Failure to yield can be particularly dangerous, safety advocates say: For the month of December, it was the third most common contributing factor in crashes that caused fatalities or serious injury, according to the NYPD’s most recent monthly traffic report. Six years ago, lawmakers passed a bill to toughen penalties for drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians or cyclists, particularly if they kill or injure them in the process — behavior that would previously warrant little, if any, consequences

Administrative Code 19-190, otherwise known as the the Right of Way Law, created new civil and criminal penalties for drivers who fail to yield. Under one provision of the law, drivers who physically injure a pedestrian or cyclist while doing so could be subject to a misdemeanor charge and up to 30 days in jail under the law. In addition to or as an alternative to that, police have the option of issuing a civil summons — to be heard in the city’s administrative courts — with a fine of up to $250. 

But in the years since the law was passed, street safety advocates say it’s fallen far short of its purpose. City Limits reported last year that the law had thus far largely been carried out through the issuance of civil summonses rather than criminal penalties, and the majority of those summonses issued under AC 19-190 ended up being dismissed after a city administrative hearing, with the drivers facing no fines. 

Recent numbers show a similar pattern: Since June 1, when City Limits last reported on the issue, police issued 2,181 summonses to drivers under AC 19-190 where failure to yield was the top charge, according to city data. Of those, nearly half — 1,075 tickets — were dismissed following a hearing with the city’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings (OATH). Those dismissals include 898 incidents where the driver struck and physically injured a pedestrian or cyclist, city data shows. 

Of the total summonses issued during the full year of 2019 where 19-190 was the top charge, 56 percent were dismissed, the numbers show.

The city says this rate of dismissal is comparable to the overall dismissal rate at OATH, which adjudicates summonses issued by more than a dozen city agencies. And while summonses can get tossed out for a number of reasons, street safety advocates say one factor is that police officers are not required to attend OATH summons hearings, and the victims involved in a crash are not typically notified or involved in the hearing, either. That means decisions are often rendered based on a driver’s own testimony and what little information an officer included on the written ticket. Summonses can also get dismissed if an officer filled out a ticket incorrectly, or failed to include the right information on it. 

“No tribunal could ever adjudicate these charges meaningfully without the cops showing up,” Steve Vaccaro, a personal injury lawyer who helped advocate for 19-190’s passage, told City Limits last year.

Recently dismissed 19-190 summonses include one issued to the driver of a car that struck a man in a Brooklyn crosswalk in September. The victim was taken to the hospital — written as “KCH” on the summons, presumably Kings County Hospital — with “injury to head/body.” Two months later, that summons was dismissed at an OATH hearing based on the “credible testimony,” given by the driver, who said the victim was not seriously injured and had been crossing against the light at the time of crash so did not have the right of way, OATH documents show.

In another case, a bicyclist riding in Bushwick in October told police he “hit into” a car whose driver failed to yield while turning; the cyclist was taken to Brookdale Hospital with “pain to body,” according to the issued summons. At an OATH hearing for the ticket in December, the driver told an administrative judge that a truck was blocking his view of the cyclist as he turned, and that the cyclist “was riding a motorized bike and going very fast.” While the OATH judge did “not find respondent’s testimony entirely credible,” the ticket was tossed out anyway because the NYPD failed to properly complete the proof of service paperwork, according to OATH documents.

Another dismissed 19-190 case, which took place in Queens in September, involved a driver who struck a man as he was crossing the street while holding his one-year-old daughter. The man suffered minor lacerations to his leg, and while the baby’s “head grazed the pavement” she was not injured, according to the summons. The ticket was ultimately tossed because the officer who filled it out left part of it blank, failing to include the maximum monetary penalty the driver could face, according to OATH. 

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office said that the NYPD “will continue to train officers to ensure that the facts surrounding each incident are accurately presented to the court.”

“The NYPD has created a new Vision Zero unit to double down on our efforts to ensure our streets are safe for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers alike,” spokeswoman Laura Feyer said. “If a New Yorker receives a summons, they always have the opportunity to contest charges that have been filed against them at OATH, as due process requires. But we will never stop focusing our efforts on making the streets safer for all.”

Though many 19-190 summonses are still getting dismissed, the NYPD has increased its overall use of the law in the last few years, both criminally and civilly: The number of tickets doled out with failure to yield as the top charge rose nearly 15 percent in 2019 compared to the year before, according to city data.

Last year, police made 49 arrests under the law, compared to 33 in 2018 and 28 in 2017, NYC Open Data shows. Numbers retrieved through the city database, however, can be imprecise — they can change over time, and they also differ from the number of summonses and arrests reported in the mayor’s most recent Vision Zero report, as well as to arrest numbers previously provided by the NYPD.

So far this year as of Feb. 2, there have been six Failure to Yield arrests, compared to five during the same period the year before, an NYPD spokeswoman said.

Lawmakers are also pursuing other avenues to curb dangerous road behavior. On Tuesday, the City Council passed the “Reckless Driver Accountability Act,” a bill introduced by Councilman Brad Lander, which would require drivers who rack up a certain number of red light and speed camera violations in a year to take a safe driving course, or risk having their car impounded.