Thomas Hawk / Flickr

If the city is serious about street safety, it must replace a terrible old precedent with a strong new one.

Earlier this year, a 9-year-old boy named Cooper Stock was struck and killed by a New York City taxi cab while crossing the street with his father. They were in the crosswalk and had the walk signal at the time; Cooper was holding his father's hand. It was a tragedy of the worst proportions—and became one degree still worse when it emerged that the driver wouldn't face any severe charges such as manslaughter or criminal negligence, but would receive only a traffic violation and a small fine.

Local officials have tried to turn the terrible incident into social progress by enacting Cooper's Law, which allows the city to revoke the license of a cab driver who hits pedestrians who have the right of way. (Unfathomable as it seems, such a law did not already exist.) But Cooper's mother, Dana Lerner, isn't sure much good will come of her family's misfortune. Writing in the New York Times this week, Lerner brought attention to the outrageous, unjust legal precedent that makes it hard to prosecute drivers like the one who hit her son:

A New York State case law precedent known as the "rule of two" stipulates that there must be two misdemeanors for a charge of criminal negligence to be brought against a driver who kills. …

This artificial and arbitrary threshold discourages law enforcement from properly investigating, charging, and prosecuting drivers who kill.

The "rule of two" operates on the presumption that drivers who are violating two traffic laws at the time of a fatal crash are being criminally negligent behind the wheel. So if you're going 20 miles per hour over the speed limit and zipping through red lights when you hit someone, you probably knew you were being irresponsible and risking a crash. On the flip side, drivers who merely hit a pedestrian or cyclist—even hopping the curb in the process—aren't necessarily being reckless enough to face criminal charges if that's the only thing they've done wrong.

Regardless of the fact that drivers do honestly lose control of a car sometimes, the list of problems with the "rule of two" is a long one. For starters, it should be reiterated that this is not an actual law but rather a legal precedent. (Dana Lerner writes that she wanted Cyrus Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, to use her son's case to challenge the "rule of two," but he refused.) Nor is the rule applied uniformly; Brad Aaron of Streetsblog has reported that many New York drivers who exceed the two-violation threshold still aren't charged. So the "rule of two" isn't just arbitrary, it's biased against the victim.

The most obvious shortcoming is also the most absurd and upsetting: The act of hitting the pedestrian or cyclist with right of way doesn't count as one of the two violations. You typically need two abuses over and above the collision itself to face criminal charges.

This last problem might finally have been addressed in the eyes of the law with the recent passage of legislation called "Intro 238." The new law makes drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians and cyclists with the right of way "guilty of a traffic infraction" by the very nature of the accident—in other words, no further negligence is needed. As attorney Steve Vaccaro explains, again at Streetsblog, the law "should mean … an end to the 'rule of two.' "

Of course, for a new precedent to emerge, the old one must be challenged, and it remains to be seen how courts and cops will interpret the change. While Mayor Bill De Blasio's Vision Zero campaign to end traffic fatalities is a good start to pedestrian safety, Lerner writes that New York doesn't just need more safety laws—it needs "to hold law enforcement accountable for using the laws we have." Unfortunately, she knows what she's talking about. Let's hope the city listens.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. How To

    Against Little Free Libraries

    Does that birdhouse filled with paperbacks on your block represent an adorable neighborhood amenity or the “corporatization of literary philanthropy”?

  2. a photo of a Metro PCS store in Washington, D.C.
    Equity

    What D.C.’s Go-Go Showdown Reveals About Gentrification

    A neighborhood debate over music swiftly became something bigger, and louder: a cry for self-determination from a community that is struggling to be heard.

  3. a rendering of the moon village with a view of Earth
    Design

    Designing the First Full-Time Human Habitat on the Moon

    SOM, in partnership with the ESA and MIT, wants to accommodate research and maybe even tourism on the moon.

  4. a photo of a man surveying a home garage.
    Transportation

    How Single-Family Garages Can Ease California's Housing Crisis

    Given the affordable housing crisis, California cities should encourage single-family homeowners to convert garages into apartments and accessory dwelling units.

  5. Maria Romano stands behind one of her three children, Jennifer, 10, as she gets something to eat in their Harlem apartment in New York Thursday, June 3, 2005
    Equity

    Why HUD Wants to Restrict Assistance for Immigrants

    A proposal by Ben Carson’s agency would eject immigrant families from public housing to make way for the "most vulnerable." Housing advocates aren't buying it.