Investigation Lacking in Too Many New York City Car Accidents

Motor vehicle accidents are far too common on the streets of New York. And some of those accidents involve conduct by motorists that may be criminally culpable.

Yet city officials admit that few accidents lead to charges. The death last spring of a young actress hit by a city truck has recently highlighted the issue. After four months no one has been held responsible for her death. No one has even received a ticket.

The actress’ case is not alone. City investigators are severely short-staffed, so that even fatal accidents are under-investigated. Under the police department procedure currently in effect, police are not even permitted to issue tickets to drivers suspected of causing crashes unless they have personally witnessed a crash.

Meanwhile, the accident toll continues to mount. According to the State Department of Motor Vehicles, there were about 3,000 nonfatal but serious car accidents in New York City last year. The police department’s Accident Investigation Squad investigated only 2 percent of those accidents.

The number is so low because, in practice, the investigation unit only investigates accidents where the victim is viewed as being likely to die.

The city council is considering proposals to double the size of the unit. Another element of the proposal would make sure that each precinct has trained investigators assigned to it.

It shouldn’t take a fatality or near-fatality to have a proper investigation of a serious car accident. To be sure, the police department has limited resources. But protecting public safety is a basic role of the department. And it protects public safety, serious car accidents cannot be ignored. Police should be prepared to investigate thoroughly – and that includes pursuing criminal charges where that is appropriate.

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Source: New York Times, “Reckless Drivers Who Hit People Face Few Penalties in New York,” Michael Powell, Sept. 10, 2012

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