Today, Transportation Alternatives, Clara Heyworth’s widowed husband, Jacob Stevens, and concerned New Yorkers rallied on the steps of City Hall calling on Mayor Bloomberg and the New York City Police Department to reform their traffic crash investigation policies. Clara Heyworth was struck and killed while walking on July 10, 2011 by a driver, Anthony Webb, who is suspected of having been speeding and drunk. Webb only held a learner’s permit, and may have been driving in violation of restrictions on his license. The NYPD delayed critical aspects of the investigation until at least four days after Heyworth’s death, which led the destruction of evidence which may have led to Webb’s conviction. The NYPD only investigates approximately ten percent of the approximately 3,000 traffic crashes that result in serious injury, despite the fact that state law requires that all serious injury crashes be investigated.
“Clara’s death is a tragedy, and the NYPD’s failure to investigate the crash which killed her is an injustice,” said Paul Steely White, Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives. “Even more outrageous is the persistent failure on the part of the NYPD to investigate crashes like this. Without thorough investigations, there can’t be closure for the victim’s families and dangerous drivers will have free reign to wreak havoc on our streets. We’re here today calling on Mayor Bloomberg to convene a Task Force to overhaul traffic enforcement procedures and bring justice to crash victims and their families.”
Jacob Stevens and his attorney, Steve Vaccaro, announced a groundbreaking lawsuit against the NYPD for their failure to investigate Heyworth’s case. The lawsuit alleges that NYPD policy, known as the “Dead or Likely to Die” rule, violates state law, and harms victim’s families who seek justice and closure.
“I want to know why there was no real investigation and why no one has been held responsible for the lack of that investigation,” said Stevens. “If someone dies, suddenly and violently, we have a right to know what happened. There needs to be a professional and timely investigation, as there is after a shooting. The NYPD made a conscious decision not to investigate the scene of Clara’s death. And we know that this wasn’t an isolated incident—it fits a pattern.”
The NYPD’s Accident Investigation Squad (AIS) has 19 trained investigators that handled 304 cases in 2011. These officers are only called to the scene of a crash when a victim is dead or likely to die. They take photographs of the crash scene, record witness statements, and perform other thorough investigative work. Only these 19 officers are allowed to determine from crash scene evidence whether a motorist violated the law and should be issued a summons. All crashes which do not involve an actual or likely fatality receive cursory treatment in a one-page report. In those cases, even when the injuries are very severe, evidence of possible criminal conduct other than drunk driving is not collected. State law requires the police to provide thorough investigations of the type AIS performs whenever a person is seriously injured in traffic, and not only those who are dead or dying.
The “Dead or Likely to Die” rule has resulted in other failures, including:
- On October 23, 2010, Michelle Matson was struck by a hit-and-run driver on Brooklyn’s Franklin Avenue. She spent a month in the hospital with a fractured skull, shattered left leg and broken cervical vertebrae. There was no serious criminal investigation, and as a result the hit-and-run driver, who was identified, was never charged.
- On September 4, 2010, Stefanos Tsigrimanis was struck by a driver on Brooklyn’s Grand Avenue, and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Doctors attempted emergency brain surgery to save his life, but were not successful. Somehow, despite the emergency brain surgery and the traumatic brain injury, Tsigrimanis was not designated as “likely to die.” The NYPD eventually provided an investigation, over forty days after the crash occurred.
“People who suffer injuries due to the criminal actions of others deserve justice,” said Council Member Peter Vallone Jr., who chairs the Council’s Public Safety Committee. “We cannot let people who break the law off the hook just because their actions did not cause an immediate or likely fatality. The police investigate all potentially criminal incidents, not only murders, so why should traffic accidents be any different. We must err on the side of caution and sensibility and dispatch the Accident Investigation Squad to the scene of any accident which results in injury and was caused by a reckless driver.”
“The New York State vehicle and traffic law requires an investigation any time there is serious physical injury, regardless of whether or not those injuries result in death or are likely to result in death,” said Council Member James Vacca, Chair of the Transportation Committee. “People who have been seriously injured or killed by motorists in our city have a right to understand what caused these life-altering and even life-ending, crashes. And the real truth is that better traffic enforcement can—and should—prevent these accidents before they happen in the first place. The NYPD must make that a top priority, as data shows more New Yorkers were killed by traffic in the last decade than murdered by guns.”
“Being hit by a car is the number one cause of injury death for children ages one to twelve in our city, but the NYPD still fails to take these crashes seriously,” said Council Member Brad Lander, who's introduced a bill supporting the traffic enforcement Task Force in the City Council. “We need more than a handful of officers investigating the tragedies caused by reckless driving. We owe it to New Yorkers like Clara Heyworth.”
Transportation Alternatives has joined with elected officials to call for a Task Force to assess the current state affairs of the City’s traffic safety enforcement and crash investigation efforts—the agencies involved, their budgets, funding sources, mandates, successes and setbacks—and identify the most effective ways to save lives, ensure justice, and drive the number of people killed and seriously injured in traffic down to zero. The Task Force would prioritize safety on our streets and help ensure that New Yorkers get the enforcement and investigations they deserve.
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