'Accident' Or 'Collision': Why Don't Drivers Get Jailed For Killing Pedestrians?

June 27, 2013

New York City is a tough nut to crack. Over 8,000,000 people inhabit its five boroughs, which means that living there is expensive, doing business there is risky, and staying sane amid all the hubbub is nothing less than miraculous.

New York is also dangerous -- physically dangerous. True, the murder rate is a mere shadow of what it used to be in the 1970s and 1980s, but trouble still lurks around every corner. That's in part because the city is brimming with pedestrians.

Over the past year or so, New York has seen a curious spike in traffic fatalities, many involving folks on foot or on bicycles. The addition of bike lanes on city streets and new initiatives like Citi Bike could be fueling the rise in deaths.

Compounding the problem is that the New York City Police Department hasn't made investigating traffic fatalities a top priority. Speaking to the New York Times, retired Chicago-area traffic officer Roy E. Lucke says that's to be expected. When detectives in most big cities hear about a traffic-related death, he says that the response the response is often, "Tell me how they're less dead". Rough translation: it was an accident, it wasn't a criminal act, and we have other stuff to investigate that can improve the lives of the living.

Now, things may be changing.  

For starters, New York's Accident Investigation Squad has been renamed the Collision Investigation Squad. That's important because the word "accident" implies that traffic incidents have no  criminal component, when in fact, they often do. When collisions involve hit-and-run drivers, for example, that automatically adds a criminal charge.

Also, the Squad now immediately visits the scene of any collision in which an injured person's condition is deemed critical. That change follows the high-profile case of Clara Heyworth, a pedestrian who was hit by a vehicle and died the next day; the Squad didn't begin its investigation until much later, after the integrity of the collision scene had been compromised and much of the evidence lost to the elements or destroyed.

But despite those advances, plenty of problems still stand between cops and criminal convictions. Not only do the police often have to track down suspects who've driven off (leaving behind little evidence, if any), but even if the vehicle remains at the scene, police have to establish probable cause to search its "black box" data recorder.

And if they pass that hurdle, they may still come up empty-handed because the device that the Squad uses to extract black-box data can only access about 40% of today's recording devices. That's frequently because automakers have added extra layers of security to prevent such data from getting out. While that's good news for privacy advocates, it's also good news for suspected criminals. 

Bottom line: As cities become more crowded due to increased urbanization, pedestrian fatalities will be a growing problem. As America's most populous urban center, it's good to see New York taking a lead on this issue, but police there have a long way to go.


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