Why Are There So Few Car Crash Prosecutions in Long Island?

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A new analysis found that only 15% of drivers involved are prosecuted in car crashes resulting in pedestrian or cyclist deaths in Long Island, New York.

A recent analysis by the publication Newsday found that in Long Island, “few drivers involved in crashes that kill pedestrians and bicyclists face criminal charges.” In an examination of car crashes that resulted in the deaths of involving pedestrians and cyclists in 2019 and 2020, Newsday found that there were 135 total pedestrian and cyclist fatalities, but only 20 prosecutions of the drivers involved, resulting in a prosecution rate of 15%. According to Newsday, that rate goes up to 30% when crashes involving “environmental conditions or pedestrian or bicyclist error” are excluded.”

County and defense attorneys suggested to Newsday that the low prosecution rate is the consequence of the “high bar” that prosecutors have to meet to demonstrate that drivers in such incidents are guilty of crimes. For instance, according to one prosecutor who spoke to Newsday, New York’s statutes for “Aggravated Vehicular Homicide and Assault” and “Vehicular Manslaughter and Assault” do not apply to drivers who are not under the influence of drugs or alcohol. While prosecutors can charge drivers with crimes like “criminally negligent homicide, manslaughter, and reckless driving,” the state’s courts require that prosecutors “prove increasingly high levels of culpability to win convictions,” such as that the driver engaged in two moving violations or other negligent acts. This is informally known as the “rule of two.”

Advocates for transportation safety, on the other hand, told Newsday that state lawmakers could make Long Island’s roadways safer by “changing traffic laws, prosecuting drivers more aggressively and redesigning streets.” One group, Transportation Alternatives, is currently lobbying state lawmakers to pass legislation ending the rule of two, among other things. A representative for Transportation Alternatives told Newsday that traffic violence should be solved by implementing safer street design, such as narrow roadways, protected bike lanes, pedestrian islands, and better-timed traffic signals.

The prosecution rates in Long Island are commensurate with prosecution rates across New York and the United States, one expert told Newsday. The counties with the most pedestrian and cyclist deaths across New York State in 2019 were, in descending order, Brooklyn, Queens, Nassau, and Suffolk, according to Newsday. In Suffolk County, there were 72 deaths in 2019 and 2020, with 13 drivers prosecuted. In Nassau County, there were 63 deaths and 7 prosecutions.

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Legal experts say that so few car crash deaths are prosecuted in New York because of the high bar of proof required in such cases.

The Newsday report also cites data from the Institute for Traffic Safety, which found that of the 135 car crash-related deaths in Long Island in 2019 and 2020, 114 were pedestrians and 21 were cyclists. The data suggests that “environmental conditions such as slippery pavement” were involved in 13% of the incidents; “pedestrian or cyclist error or confusion” was involved in 38%, and driver-related factors were involved in 49%. Driver errors include “distraction, failure to yield the right of way and speeding,” according to Newsday.

More information on pedestrian and cyclist deaths in Long Island, and proposals to reduce car crash fatalities, is available via Newsday.

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