Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero initiative is a salve to the heartrending stories of tragedy on the streets of the City. After all, any time someone gets hurt, there must be a criminal to pay. Well, maybe not “any time,” as the New York Times explains:
The new law, which makes failure to yield a misdemeanor instead of a violation, has led to several arrests since it took effect last August. One was of a bus driver who struck a 15-year-old girl in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, last month, pinning her and severely injuring her leg.
The bus drivers’ union, taking the wrong message from the arrests, has angrily defended its members and thrown its support behind a misguided City Council bill that would exempt bus drivers from the law. It says drivers are being scapegoated as criminals and unfairly pressured to be both safe and on time — which is hard to do on streets choked with pedestrians jaywalking and flouting red lights.
Much as I lack a deep love for public sector unions, the bus drivers’ union has a really good point here. And if they had a union, so would the cab drivers. And the uber drivers, if there were any. And every driver, for that matter.
The union president, John Samuelsen, sent out a message urging members to defend themselves from charges of recklessness — by driving with meticulous caution when pedestrians are in a crosswalk, even if it messes up their schedules. “Do not move your bus until all is clear,” he wrote.
Unlike occasional drivers, bus drivers are a perpetual target. Most New Yorkers despise buses, as they ignore traffic laws constantly, blow through red lights, block the box, sit in crosswalks all the time. But then, they do so because the purpose of buses is to get somewhere, and get there on time.
If buses waited for the streets to be clear, they would never get anywhere. For those of you who haven’t enjoyed New York City streets, crosswalks are never really clear. There are always people trying to cross, with the light and against it, and if a bus waited until there was no one at potential risk, it would sit there all day.
But you may well wonder, “what’s the big deal?” After all, the change in law merely takes the traffic infraction of failure to yield and elevates it to a misdemeanor. It’s not like anybody will go to prison for it, right?
Well, not exactly. First, a misdemeanor is a crime, and crimes affect ones ability to get a licensure and jobs. Second, by elevating failure to yield to a misdemeanor, it similarly elevates the back end of tragedy, an accident that causes harm, from negligence to a felony, whether criminally negligent or reckless. If someone dies, it’s a homicide.
This reverses all doctrinal theories of law, where the end result dictates the conclusion that a crime has been committed, rather than the conduct up front. The bus driver who edges into an intersection with as much caution as one can muster given how streets in New York City work will suffer the potential of a felony conviction and punishment should someone get hurt or killed as a result.
This isn’t to suggest that the streets of New York should be the wild west, where carelessness reigns and drivers can do as they please with pedestrians taking their life into their hands when crossing the street.
This is, however, to suggest that the extreme desire to eliminate anyone getting hurt on the streets won’t be achieved by creating crimes out of negligence, or worse still, when some radical bicyclist decides to test out the blind side of a bus to see if he can beat it at its own game.
Hard as it may be to believe, the outcome does not dictate that a crime was committed. Sure, drivers are, and should be, required to yield to pedestrians. It’s not a fair fight, and no one should die for crossing a street in Manhattan. But when the occurrence of harm, as a matter of definition, dictates that a crime has been committed (since hitting a pedestrian means, by definition, that the driver failed to yield to the person he hit), then crime has lost all meaning.
People sometimes get struck by vehicles on the street, and whether that’s a crime or just a terrible tragedy needs to be determined based on culpable conduct, not merely outcome. The New York Times simultaneously acknowledges this and condemns it:
But an essential part of a lasting solution is a stricter web of laws, with real deterrence and punishment for those who recklessly or negligently cause injury and death.
Does the New York Times really believe that we should punish people because of an accident? Apparently so, as does de Blasio. Welcome to New York, where it’s no longer human to err. It’s a crime.