TransAlt Hails Landmark Decision Holding City Liable for Unsafe Street Designs

Ruling from NY’s highest court has profound implications for Vision Zero effort and imminent City budget

Statement of Paul Steely White, Executive Director of Transportation Alternatives:

Transportation Alternatives hails a recent ruling from the New York State Court of Appeals, which upheld a decision by a jury finding New York City partly liable for a 2004 crash in which a 12-year-old child on a bicycle was severely injured by a speeding motorist in Brooklyn. The Court’s overwhelming 6-1 decision in Turturro v. City of New York from late December has powerful implications for street safety and New York City’s Vision Zero commitment to eliminate deaths and serious injuries in traffic.

The New York high court just ruled that the City can be held liable for failing to study and implement traffic calming measures, which the jury determined were a major factor contributing to the crash. In a 2004 incident, the driver was traveling at 54 mph on Gerritsen Avenue, which had a speed limit of 30 mph. Prior to the incident, the City had been advised by local residents, elected officials, and the Department of Transportation that speeding was common on the street, but that no sufficient speed study or traffic calming review was performed. The Court found the City liable for failing to adequately study and mitigate the road conditions that contributed to the speeding, stating that "an unjustifiable delay in implementing a remedial plan constitutes a breach of the municipality's duty to the public."

Experts testified during the trial that "it was known among traffic engineers that straight, wide roads” that lack pedestrian-friendly features “encourage speeding because drivers feel more comfortable on roadways with those characteristics." The Court distinguished these types of thoroughfares from streets that have traffic calming measures in place, which “cause drivers to be more cautious” and “are known to reduce the overall speed on roadways.” The Court took NYC to task, noting that “[e]ven the City’s expert agreed that the design characteristics of a roadway influence driver speed, and that people generally drive faster on wide, straight roadways, regardless of the posted speed limit.” The jury and the Court relied in part on this evidence for their decision. The ruling is a major development because it means the City can potentially be held liable for unsafe street designs.

As Mayor de Blasio and the New York City Council head into budget season, this decision underscores the need to make a greater investment in street safety redesigns, particularly on corridors and intersections that the City has already identified as inherently dangerous Vision Zero “priority” locations. Last year, the City paid out more than $100 million in torts related to traffic and pedestrian injuries. After this latest verdict, that number is sure to rise significantly -- unless the City quickly invests in fixing the most dangerous streets. In short, they can pay now, or pay more later.  

This ruling enshrines in New York law a bedrock tenet of Vision Zero in Sweden, where the world’s first Vision Zero initiatives inspired the efforts of the de Blasio administration to prevent all traffic fatalities and serious injuries in New York. According to Matts-Åke Belin of the Swedish Transport Administration, traffic engineers have the ultimate responsibility for the design, maintenance and use of roads, which includes the correction of known unsafe designs and a duty to prevent people from being killed or injured.

This ruling from New York’s highest court puts an end to the notion that traffic safety improvements should be subject to debate and contingent on unanimous local opinion. The scientific verdict has been in for several years: traffic calming works to save lives and prevent injuries. Now, the State’s highest court has mandated what street safety advocates have long known to be necessary: New York City must take immediate steps to implement commonsense traffic safety improvements as a matter of course.