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Benefits of Right-of-Way Traffic Law Still Uncertain

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Has the new right of way law in New York City made a difference? The law that went into effect last August has been used 31 times since then, according to a story in a Daily News article last week. It is one of the few ways that sober drivers who injure or kill while committing traffic violations can be held accountable.

pedestrianscarcrosswalk.jpgFailure to yield the right of way is responsible for around 20 percent of crashes each month involving pedestrians or bicyclists, according to the Daily News analysis covering police data from July 2012 through April 2015.

However, NYPD policy means that only Collision Investigation Squad (CIS) investigators can make an arrest -- and first responders only call CIS when someone dies, is likely to die or is critically injured. Being taken to the hospital is not enough, and when precinct-level detectives handle traffic accidents, they hardly ever arrest anyone.

Of the 31 people charged under the right-of-way law, one person has had her driver's license indefinitely suspended and three more paid fines. The remainder of the cases are pending. Two-thirds of the cases were in Brooklyn and Queens, with the rest in Manhattan in the Bronx. There were none in Staten Island.

When the CIS investigates a right-of-way case, officers must prove that the injured person had the right of way and the driver was negligent and failed to use due care. Being careless is not sufficient reason to be charged with a felony when the driver was sober.

Part of the issue, according to former City Controller John Liu, is that the CIS and the Collision Technician Group are woefully understaffed. The CIS currently has 31 officers, and the Collision Technician Group has 15 members. Liu once estimated that the CIS would need 227 investigators.

Although the number of charges under the new law seems small, police point to increased enforcement, and have written 159 percent more tickets this year compared to last. The NYPD also reports that it is developing protocols and training for precinct officers so that they will be in a position to charge drivers under the right-of-way law and will not have to call in the CIS.

Even though the new law does not appear to have very sharp teeth, at least as it is now implemented, there has been pushback. The bus drivers' union has said that is it being unfairly targeted. They have been told to not turn until all pedestrian are on the sidewalk, something they say is impossible given the need to stay on schedule. In response, a City Council member has introduced a bill to exempt bus drivers. And in response to the proposed law, families of those killed by busses have begun to campaign against the proposal.

Can the right-of-way law become a tool that can help prevent fatalities and serious injuries? It remains to be seen.