Jan. 9, 2006-- On Sunday, more than 100 cyclists converged to memorialize the deaths last year of scores of cyclists in New York City.
Each of the five boroughs provided the final moment for the 21 traffic victims, including Keith Alexander, Andre Anderson, Chaim Goldberg, Miguel Molina, and Elizabeth Padilla who fell in Brooklyn, Angel Quizphi in Queens, Jerome Allen in Staten Island, Brandie Bailey, Andrew Morgan, and Jen Shao in Manhattan, and Eulene Bryant and Juan Rodriguez in the Bronx.
A moment of silence.
But those who ride may want to scream instead, mostly because the city is no safer for cyclists today than it was the day before these cyclists died.
I grew up in New York since the age of two. I rode the subways and buses, attended public school, and was mugged several times before I turned 19. But I never thought I would feel like a stranger in my own city.
There’s a reason for this. Later in life, I became a cyclist. A cyclist is like Mr. Smith the main character in Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, who grew up on Mars and when he traveled to earth, found that he was a stranger.
When I started riding a bike, I soon learned that my way of thinking made me a stranger in my own city. Thus started my own type of pulp fiction.
“Get off the street you fucking idiot,” people screamed as they passed me in their cars, pushing me into parked cars, or the gutter. Once a car full of kids passing me threw a cup of orange soda into my face. Another time a motorist traveling at 40 mph, without signaling or slowing turned in front of me, and hit me head on. As I lay on the ground shaking uncontrollably in pain, wondering if my neck, spine, ribs and legs were broken, the driver screamed with indignant righteousness, “She dented my car!”
But the biggest disgrace is how despite the legal right to be on the road, car drivers think their cars are more important than the rights of cyclists, and often more important than cyclists’ lives.
One of the reasons for this is that the law allows it. Through a combination of legal precedence and how New York State judges interpret traffic law, the “Rule of Two” prevails, a loose legal interpretation that requires a motorist break two laws to a heinous degree before they are found guilty of a crime in a car accident. Killing someone with a 3-ton hunk of steel is somehow not illegal, unless they are found, without a doubt, to have broken two traffic laws in the process.
Specifically if a driver with road rage decides to hit and kill you, they usually won’t even get a ticket. Nor will they be taken in for questioning unless they were traveling 75 miles per hour in a 20 mph zone and they ran a red light and a cop witnessed the whole thing. Usually it helps if they were stone drunk too—a couple of beers or smoking dope usually doesn’t count because cops often evade their duty to apply breathalyzers, or administer drug tests.
But if you touch a motorist’s car after they try to run you off the road, they perceive—and often the law agrees, that they are justified in striking back. Ask any cop whom they would defend—the cyclist with a story that they were run off the road—or the driver who said the cyclist dented their car. Of course in the event that you are run off the road and killed after slapping a car, the driver can say it was “an accident.” They’ll be at home eating dinner a couple of hours later.
Last week on ebikes, the email exchange run by Danny Lieberman, there were scores of stories about cyclists beaten, threatened or harrassed by motorists for touching the drivers' precious cars. One man was beaten so severely, he sustained a broken jaw. Another man said he could not enjoy the rest of his day after being threatened by a car-conscious lunatic. Another recounted that the cop told him he “shouldn’t have” touched a man’s car after the motorist ran him off the road, and refused to take action against the motorist for his dangerous act.
This misguided thinking was evident among our lawmakers when a severely weakened version of the Pena-Herrera law, Vasean’s Law, was passed by the New York State legislature in April 2005. When first proposed by Governor Pataki, the Pena-Herrara DWI Omnibus bill included provisions for toughening the stance against all bad drivers, not just previous serious repeat offenders and drivers who were drunk when they killed someone.
When appealing for the Pena-Herrera bill, Staten Island District Attorney Daniel M. Donovan said, “There is too great a disparity between the low level of the legal violation and the ultimate loss incurred--that of a human life.”
But his words and the words of many others, including Chauncey G. Parker,
Director of Criminal Justice for New York State, went unheeded by the state legislature who seem to think that getting tough on drivers who kill is, well, so unfair.
Passed under Senate Majority Leader Joseph L. Bruno, Vasean’s Law only made it slightly easier for district attorneys to prosecute dangerous drivers by linking DWI driving and criminal negligence, and upgrading the penalty for leaving the scene after seriously injuring or killing someone from a class E to a class D felony—if the driver was also drunk.
But the legislature refused to add consecutive sentences for drunk drivers who kill more than one person in an accident, and refused to pass many other aspects of Governor Pataki’s proposed bill and Deadly Driver provisions. These provisions would have offered at least the ability for DA’s to prosecute killers who were repeat offenders, or showed evidence of road rage.
What makes this defeat much worse is that New York State law protecting personal property is more stringent than the law governing the loss of human life by motor vehicle. The least serious form of robbery, a class D crime carries a sentence of up to 15 years in prison when you are found guilty of stealing from someone. Here is an excerpt from the website of criminal lawyers Shalley and Murray, describing a hypothetical robbery and its consequences:
“Schoolyard bullies often commit acts that the laws of New York might well describe as violent felonies for which they could be treated as adults by the criminal justice system. The school bully who pushes another student to the ground and then takes his milk money (or notebook, or hat, etc.) has quite likely committed at least Robbery in the Third Degree. If one of the bully's friends kept a lookout while he did it, they both may be guilty in New York of Robbery in the Second Degree and both may face 15 years in prison as adults (even if they are only 16 years old)."
You may well ask youself, if someone kills you with their car, why is the penalty less than the penalty for robbing someone? And why is it okay to bully someone with your car, but it’s not okay to slap someone’s car if you are being bullied? Has the city suddenly become inhabited by people from outer space?
Maybe it has—people from outside New York City and from New Jersey to be exact. Less than 40 percent of Manhattan residents actually own cars, so the majority of people driving here are not from here. They are the strangers in our city. Yet they, and their representatives, are determining who lives and dies by their actions.
The New York City Council hasn’t been tough enough on the state legislature. The council passed Resolution 338 in January 2005 asking the state for stiffer penalties for drivers that kill, but the resolution went no further than the outlines of VaSean’s Law.
But other New York players have shown a tougher stance.Former Brooklyn Assistant District Attorney Maureen McCormick has asked the legislature every year to change the loopholes and traffic laws and to reclassify accidents as “incidents”, where deaths by auto are investigated before a person is declared innocent of a crime. McCormick has been repeatedly turned down by our state lawmakers.
I wonder when the law will change. Until then, I too will be a stranger in my own city, a person without a safe place to ride, an unbeliever in the goodness of New York---State---kind.
EMAIL Senator Bruno telling him why you think 2006 is the year to get tougher on motorists who kill, injure, threaten or harass cyclists. You can use the letter below if you like. Dear Senator Bruno:
Last year you and the NY State legislature failed to pass the full Pena-Hererra DWI Omnibus bill and Deadly Driver provisions that provided for stiffer criminal penalties against dangerous drivers.
By doing so, you and your fellow legislators failed to protect the people of New York from the many dangerous, callous, and repeat offenders of NYS and NYC traffic laws. You have once again encouraged drivers with road rage, drivers without licenses, drivers who smoke dope and drink alcohol before they get behind the wheel to kill, maim, and threaten innocent cyclists and pedestrians.
Twenty-one cyclists were killed last year in New York City, with little or no repercussions for the drivers who killed them.
Until you and your fellow legislators change the law asking that all incidents be investigated fully before drivers are released and providing stiff criminal penalties for dangerous driving without the need for Rule of Two precedents, New Yorkers will never be safe on our streets and our roads. Their blood will be on your hands.
--See Readers' Say, as you and your colleagues weigh in on the above article, and provide their own takes of the media's coverage of the memorial event. Updated daily.
--To view the Governor’s press release on the final Pena-Herrera DWI Omnibus bill, the bill that was NOT passed by the NY State legislature:
An excerpt: “In addition to the Pena-Herrera DWI Omnibus Bill, the Governor created a Deadly Drivers Package which would: permit consecutive sentences when a drunken driver injures or kills multiple victims; eliminate the need to prove criminal negligence when a driver injures or kills while (1) his/her license was suspended or revoked, (2) violating the Vehicle & Traffic Law and had a history of VTL violations, (3) fleeing the police; create a felony Aggravated DWI when driver has a blood alcohol content of .20 or more; raise the offense level of crimes in which a driver kills or seriously injures another to reflect the seriousness of the crime; and fingerprint drivers who are charged with driving without a license or with a suspended license.”
--Pena-Herrera DWI Omnibus proposed bill (not passed by the legislature)
--“Stranger in my own land” bumper stickers and buttons
--You can also read my 2002 Masters of Journalism entitled “Deadly Streets: A Course for Survival,” which describes in detail how the Rule of Two operates in New York City and was published at Columbia University.
Other articles on the Memorial Ride:
Ghost Riders: 21 Cyclists Killed Last Year in NYC , photo gallery
Remembering the fallen
Ghost Riders: 21 Cyclists Killed Last Year in NYC
By Sarah Ferguson | January 09, 2006