New and sweeping traffic laws are a start, advocates say

Lisa Belkin
Chief National Correspondent
Yahoo News

A slate of new traffic laws signed into law by the New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio yesterday represents the most sweeping change in memory to the streets of the city, pedestrian advocates say.

“It was a momentous day. The word 'historic' applies,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, which has long been advocating for all of the new measures, which include a reduced speed limit city wide, more serious penalties for failing to yield to a pedestrian, and a stricter policy toward taxi drivers who kill or injure pedestrians. “It’s a raft of legislation, the sum total of which is a change in the culture in New York.

The legislation is in keeping with the mayor’s support of Vision Zero – a Swedish combination of law and street design aimed at sharply reducing traffic deaths. Those who had been championing that cause well before this mayor was elected said they were still somewhat stunned that their message had been so clearly heard.

“The mayor has exceeded our expectations,” White said. “He came into office with a promise to tackle Vision Zero, to make it a policy of his, to put deed to the word that he would try to make New York City streets safer. What we didn’t expect was for him to make a big announcement of his commitment just weeks into his administration, to come up with a concrete plan shortly thereafter, and to pursue an ambitious legislative agenda.”

Among other things, de Blasio was able to get the state legislature on board, which approved a reduction in the city’s speed limit to 25 miles an hour. (That change will likely go into effect this fall, after the bill is signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.) The city’s police have also been given broader authority to criminally charge drivers when a pedestrian is killed or injured, by eliminating the requirement that an officer personally observe a violation in order to charge a driver with failure to yield. And the Taxi and Limousine Commission will now have to abide by stricter rules – reporting the number of crashes by TLC-licensed vehicles each quarter and revoking the licenses of drivers involved in those crashes if they are found to have broken any laws.

That last provision is called “Cooper’s Law,” named after 9-year-old Cooper Stock who was killed in January while crossing the corner of West End Avenue and 97h Street in Manhattan while holding his father’s hand. The driver was not charged, and his license was not suspended, although later the TLC announced they would not renew it. 

“It is an emotionally bittersweet moment,” said Stock’s mother, Dana Lerner, who has fought for the bill. “It feels like there has been a wonderful move in the right direction, but I don’t feel like I can sit back at all. There are new hurdles to overcome.”

Among those hurdles, advocates say, is enforcement of the new laws. Already this year the city police have sharply increased the number of speeding tickets issued, the website StreetsblogNYC reports. But most of that increase was on highways, rather than city streets. 

Arguments over technology and funding are looming, White warns, with the state authorizing only 140 speed cameras for all of New York City. “Clearly we will need more than that,” he said. 

In addition, he points out, a legislative fix is only half the point of Vision Zero. Also needed are a redesign of the most hazardous intersections, and this administration’s plans for such things as bike lanes, retimed traffic lights, and reconfigured turning lanes are not yet clear.

But that fight can wait a day or two while this week’s victory is savored, says Amy Cohen, one of many who found themselves a part of this campaign when a family member became a traffic death statistic.

“We are obviously very pleased the bill passed,” said Cohen, whose 12-year-old son Sammy was struck and killed by a van in Brooklyn late last year. Cohen founded Families for Safe Streets, a powerful force in support of Vision Zero. “It is our hope that reducing the default speed limit is a first step in changing the way people think about and interact on our streets.”