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Is Failure to Yield a Criminal Offense?


Under Mayor Bill de Blassio’s plan to eliminate traffic fatalities, known as Vision Zero, the failure of motor vehicle drivers to yield to pedestrians is now a criminal offense in New York City. However, prosecuting drivers who kill or injure pedestrians may become more controversial than many safety advocates anticipated.

For example, a bus driver charged under the law after his turning bus killed a pedestrian has not yet been tried because of advocacy from his union. The Brooklyn district attorney has charged only six drivers under the law since it went into effect in August 2014, including the bus driver whose case is now in limbo. However, even with criminalization of this traffic violation, family members of those killed have said that the penalty for killing a pedestrian is not enough.

One family, who three-year-old daughter was killed in Brooklyn last year, mounted a campaign to suspend the license of the driver who had not been charged with a criminal offense. When they finally succeeded, they rejoiced that their child had received a small measure of justice, only to find that the driver could reapply for his license within 30 days. Authorities say that the man did not face criminal charges because the death was an “accident.” This is typical of the view that both NYC law and its enforcers, the NYPD, have held about traffic deaths – they are accidents. Only if the driver was drunk or fled the scene did they face criminal prosecution.

Drivers traditionally faced criminal charges only after the most horrific accidents. An example: A Brooklyn man was convicted last month of criminally negligent homicide and second-degree manslaughter. The accident killed a young couple and their unborn baby – they were on their way to the hospital. However, the circumstances were so egregious that prosecutors had no option but to seek a criminal conviction. Not only was the driver travelling at twice the posted speed limit, but he looked in the livery cab carrying the couple and then fled on foot, according to witnesses.

Safety advocates say that for the situation to improve, a culture shift must occur in order for drivers to be held accountable for after their negligence causes injury or death. Time will tell whether the law criminalizing failure to yield will continue to be enforced.