The NYPD’s New Approach to Traffic Crashes



New York’s top cop has ordered his department to get serious about traffic crashes.
Image Courtesy Andrew Hinderaker

New York’s Finest just got a bit better at busting the city’s most dangerous drivers.

After years of Transportation Alternatives’ advocacy, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly admitted in a letter to the City Council that the NYPD’s crash investigation practices were insufficient. Now, big changes are underway.

The department’s specialized traffic crash unit, once called the “Accident Investigation Squad,” has been renamed the “Collision Investigation Squad,” signaling a burgeoning understanding in the NYPD that not all traffic crashes, particularly ones caused by excessive speeding, drunk driving and other flagrantly dangerous behaviors, are mere accidents.

The investigation squad has also grown in size, and the NYPD Patrol Guide has undergone significant revisions that make clear any crash resulting in “critical injuries” should receive the sort of attention and investigation that was previously reserved for victims deemed “dead or likely to die.”

These changes are a direct result of years of T.A. pressure. In 2009, Transportation Alternatives undertook a first-of-its-kind research project delving into the underbelly of the NYPD. Over six months, researchers interviewed criminal justice professors, district attorneys, beat cops and policing experts. The end result, a report titled, Executive Order: A Mayoral Strategy for Traffic Safety, laid out exactly how the NYPD enforced traffic violations and investigated the crashes that killed and injured tens of thousands of New Yorkers every year. More importantly, it established why the NYPD’s tactics were dangerously ineffective and made a handful of recommendations, many of which are now official department policy.

A City Council hearing followed closely on the heels of that landmark report, then a package of reform-minded legislative proposals. These received more and more attention as the shortcomings of the City’s approach to traffic crashes proved increasingly absurd with every high-profile collision. Lawsuits, rallies, deep-dive investigative news stories and op-eds came next. Finally, there was the right blend of momentum and outrage to make real change.

Prior to this policy shift, New Yorkers who were severely injured in traffic crashes wouldn’t even receive the assistance of an understaffed Accident Investigation Squad. A citywide policy of declining to investigate incidents where no one was “dead or likely to die” left victims with grievous injuries (there are examples of lost limbs, spinal damage and comas) and little more than a cursory report—the sort used to show what happened in a fender bender—to take to court, seek recompense or explain what happened in their life-altering crash.

“This is a significant step toward a safer and more humane city,” T.A.’s Executive Director Paul Steely White told Reclaim. “An accident is when a meteor falls through your house and hits you in the head,” he said. “Collisions can be prevented.”