The New York Times: Reckless Drivers Who Hit People Face Few Penalties in New York
By MICHAEL POWELL
September 10, 2012
Roxana Sorina Buta, dark-eyed and lithe, hurried home from work as a waitress on May 24, scurrying through rain and 1:30 a.m. darkness toward the subway. She got to Broadway and stepped into the crosswalk when the light turned green.
At the same time a New York City dump truck rumbled eastbound on 14th Street and turned south on Broadway. On the video taken in a Citibank on that corner, you can see the truck making a fast, seamless turn. If you look very closely, you will also see a shadow flicker in front of the truck’s right headlight.
That was Ms. Buta, and the truck hit her square.
Ms. Buta, 21, an aspiring actress, the only child of immigrants from Romania, was no more.
Even at that hour, in the rain, witnesses screamed and yelled, and within a minute a police car pulled up. But the driver, who worked for the city’s Transportation Department, never stopped his truck; nor did he respond to pleas in subsequent days to step forward. Police investigators found him anyway. But to this day no one has been charged, or even gotten a ticket.
It is as though Roxana were collateral damage, a human fender bender in the movement of huge trucks and vans and cars through the streets of New York.
“How can you go through a crosswalk and not see a 5-7 woman in front of you?” asks Stephanie Iscovitz, one of many friends who have made a cause of her death. “Someone took Roxy’s life as if with no consequences.”
Technically, this is not so. Technically, the police continue to investigate and the Manhattan district attorney examines a possible case. But Ms. Iscovitz is not far from the mark. In this city of walkers, where we take pride in hoofing it with such a manic intensity that researchers often find us moving faster than crosstown buses, striking a pedestrian — or a biker — and driving away carries few consequences.
The State Department of Motor Vehicles recorded about 3,000 serious nonfatal accidents last year in New York City. The city Police Department’s Accident Investigation Squad investigated only 63, or 2 percent of these nonfatal serious crashes, according to the state. Squad members chalk crosswalks, measure tire tracks, and analyze video. Their expertise is unquestioned. This unit, however, numbers just 20 or so.
They investigate only when a victim is “considered likely to die.” (State law, too, remains a problem; it is difficult to criminally charge reckless drivers. As the writers of the indispensable StreetsBlog.org note, “under New York State code ‘I didn’t see her’ is a credible defense.”
The City Council, of late, has examined this closely. There are proposals to double the size of the traffic investigation squad and to ensure that each precinct has officers expert in such matters.
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, characteristically, claims to see no problem. His department is state of the art; the streets get safer all the time; pedestrian fatalities have dropped 30 percent in the past decade.
An interagency task force, he wrote to Councilman Peter F. Vallone Jr. in July, would not be “beneficial or necessary.”
There is an “Alice in Wonderland” quality to this defense. Departmental procedure also prohibits officers from writing even a ticket unless they personally witnessed the accident. And few precincts appear equipped to handle investigations.
Just in the past year, officers examining the death of Clara Heyworth, a young woman who was killed crossing a street in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, used improperly calibrated breath-testing equipment; as a result, the district attorney had to toss out the results, which showed the driver had been drinking.
In October 2010, a car struck Michelle Matson on her bike. Her neck was broken, her left leg was shattered and skin was scraped off her hands and wrists. The driver, who appeared to have been intoxicated, was not charged.
I conducted my own anecdotal study. This Monday morning I stood by the lamppost on Broadway and 14th Street that has become a de facto altar for Ms. Buta. In 25 minutes I watched three trucks, including an 18-wheeler, narrowly miss pedestrians walking the intersection. I counted 17 cars, trucks and a “New York Waterway” bus running red lights.
Ms. Buta’s mother has returned to Romania for several months and has hired the lawyer Joseph Tacopina to sue on her daughter’s behalf. “She is quite insistent that this not get treated like ‘Hey, that’s life in the big city,’ ” he said.
Like Ms. Iscovitz, Andrea Kristinsdottir took acting classes with Ms. Ruta, a woman of boundless energy. “It was impossible for men to watch her enter a room and not fall in love with her,” Ms. Kristindottir says. “She had such empathy. It can’t be possible that we just forget about her in death.”