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6 Out of 22 Motorists Arrested Under Vision Zero Were Bus Drivers

By Jeff Mays | March 5, 2015 7:41am
 More than a quarter of the motorists charged under Mayor Bill de Blasio's Vision Zero "Right of Way" law  designed to reduce traffic fatalities are bus drivers for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
City Bus Drivers Charged in Pedestrian Crashes Heat Up Vision Zero Debate
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CITY HALL — More than a quarter of the motorists arrested under Mayor Bill de Blasio's Vision Zero "Right of Way" law are bus drivers for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, police said.

According to the NYPD, 22 people have been arrested for misdemeanor failure to yield under the law since it went into effect on Aug. 22, 2014. Six of those arrested, or 27 percent, have been bus drivers for the MTA, the agency confirmed.

The law states that a driver who fails to yield to a pedestrian or bicyclist who has the right of way and strikes them, causing injury, is subject to a $250 fine and 30 days in jail.

The percentage of bus drivers charged under the new law has created a potential political wedge in de Blasio's implementation of the traffic safety plan, which the mayor has already proclaimed as a success.

Police said they did not have further details about the cases and the MTA declined to release information about their drivers.

Pedestrian traffic fatalities under the first year of Vision Zero — which includes a lowering of the speed limit along with tougher penalties for drivers who hit pedestrians and bicyclists — dipped to 134, the lowest level since 1910 and down from 180 in 2013.

But the percentage of MTA drivers charged under the law has angered unions representing city bus drivers, one of the mayor's key constituencies, who feel they are unfairly being targeted.

"Nobody wants to go out here and kill somebody," said Mark Henry, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1056 in Rosedale, which represents some of the drivers.

One of the union's drivers was arrested following a Nov. 5 incident where a 60-year-old man was killed by an MTA bus while in a Flushing crosswalk at Union Street and Northern Boulevard.

"There are just accidents," said Henry who declined to discuss specific details of the case because it was still under investigation by the MTA.

"The mayor ran on this platform and it feels like bus operators are being used as political footballs," Henry added.

Following the arrest of MTA bus driver Francisco de Jesus, 58, on Feb. 13 for striking 15-year-old Jiahuan Xu on Union Avenue in Williamsburg and severely mangling her leg, Transport Workers Union Local 100 president John Samuelsen urged drivers to "not move your bus until all is clear.  If you do not make your schedule, so be it."

The current "Right of Way" law does include an exemption that it is not a violation of the law "if the failure to yield and/or physical injury was not caused by the driver’s failure to exercise due care."

Queens Councilman I. Daneek Miller, a former bus driver for 18 years, believes that the law is vague and has proposed a controversial amendment to exclude city bus drivers from the "Right of Way" provisions.

"This misinterpretation of this piece of legislation is what caused this problem," said Miller. "There is a difference in failing to yield and being negligent."

Miller said the MTA already has a thorough process in place to investigate pedestrian accidents and that drivers who hit pedestrians already face serious consequences such as the loss of their jobs and their licenses.

"We need commonsense legislation that does not vilify and criminalize our public employees that are just doing their job, said Miller."

Transit advocates such as Transportation Alternatives and their committee, Families For Safe Streets, have come out against the changes.

For Judy Kottick, 59, a psychotherapist who lives in Montclair, New Jersey, and who lost her 23-year-old daughter Ella Bandes when she was struck and killed by a MTA bus on Jan. 31, 2013, the proposal is "moving the city backwards."

The "Right of Way" law was not in effect when Bandes was crossing at the deadly Myrtle Avenue, Wyckoff Avenue and Palmetto Street intersection on the Bushwick and Ridgewood border.

Kottick said an MTA investigation determined that "pedestrian error" was at fault in the accident. Bandes was not in the crosswalk because of the convoluted nature of the intersection, Kottick said.

No charges were filed against the driver, prompting Kottick to join families of crash victims to successfully lobby for the "Right of Way" law.

Kottick believes that bus drivers don't set out to maim or kill pedestrians but they can nonetheless be negligent if they hit someone with the right of way.

"Being charged with a misdemeanor is nothing compared to losing your child or losing your leg," said Kottick. "They are painting drivers as a victim when my daughter is a victim."

Under questioning from state Sen. Martin Golden during Albany budget hearings last week, de Blasio said the "Right of Way" law worked well as is because of the "clear standard" of "when an individual fails to yield to pedestrians where they should."

MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said the state-controlled agency was "fully aligned" with de Blasio's Vision Zero plan.

"Bus accidents involving pedestrian and bicyclists are unacceptable," Ortiz said.

The agency has training in place to "monitor bus operator behavior to identify and address behaviors that indicate a potential or existing safety risk," he said.

New technology that would give pedestrians an audio warning when buses are turning as well as a collision avoidance system that would warn bus drivers about potential collisions are in the pilot phase, Ortiz said.