Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
It happened last week in the Maspeth neighborhood of Queens.
There’s video this time, so you can see exactly what it looks like when a driver "loses control of his SUV" and has an "accident" that involves pedestrians on a sidewalk. It happened last week in the Maspeth neighborhood of Queens in New York City.
A surveillance camera captured a chillingly clear record of a 13-year-old girl’s life being changed forever by a driver who somehow maneuvered his car off the road and over the curb, striking her from behind as she walked to school with friends. Watch it if you must, but take my word for it, the footage is graphic and the images are hard to shake.
It starts out as a scene familiar to any New Yorker. One moment, three middle school-aged girls are walking along, chatting with each other. They pass a bodega that looks like a thousand other bodegas. Like so many New York sidewalks, this one is spotted with stubborn black stains from discarded chewing gum.
Then the SUV appears from behind them, roaring into the frame like a force of nature, knocking over a parking meter in a flash too quick to see. The driver is invisible behind the windshield. He takes out one of the girls in the blink of an eye. She disappears from view, save for one foot that remains in the frame. Her two friends are left behind, unscathed and stunned.
Amazingly, the eighth grader seen mowed down in the video is recovering well. Her pelvis is broken, but she spoke to the New York Post from the ICU of Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital, telling them "I feel really good."
Two other kids were seriously injured after being trapped under the vehicle, one reportedly suffering multiple spinal fractures and the other a broken pelvis. Bystanders lifted the three-ton Honda Pilot to free those girls. Another two kids suffered lesser injuries.
You might think, if you’re not from New York, that the guy who was behind the wheel would automatically be in big trouble for causing this kind of mayhem. But as I've written before, it isn’t like that here.
As attorney Steve Vaccaro explained to me this week, there is already a law on the books in New York that "presumes criminality" when someone rides a bicycle on the sidewalk in such a way as to endanger pedestrians (the charge in question is a misdemeanor). It’s up to the cyclist to prove that he or she had a good reason for ending up in that situation.
There’s no parallel law for drivers who end up on the sidewalk where they shouldn’t be.
After the Queens crash, the 40-year-old driver’s reported explanation, that he mistook the gas pedal for the brake, found quick acceptance in high places. According to the Daily News, this was the response of Elizabeth Crowley, the City Councilmember representing the part of Queens where the crash occurred: "He hit the gas instead of the brake," she said the day of the crash. "This had everything to do with being an accident."
Crowley did not respond to a request for further comment.
Meanwhile, the principal of I.S. 73, where all of the victims were students, sent out a letter after the crash warning students not to wear headphones while walking to school, even though there's no evidence that the kids who were hit were doing so (and from what I can see in the video, it would have made no difference if they had been). A representative of the union that represents the principal later spoke out on his behalf to the website DNAInfo, saying that he sent out the letter on advice from the Department of Education’s legal department. "[The principal] is terribly pained for those kids, and terribly pained if the letter caused offense…. This is not the letter he would have sent."
There is no suggestion in the letter that parents who drive their children to school, as the driver in the crash may have been doing, might want to exercise care when doing so.
The NYPD’s Crash Investigation Squad is reportedly still investigating, but so far no criminal charges are forthcoming. A spokesman for the Queens District Attorney’s office responded to a request for comment with this email: "The NYPD has yet to determine any criminality in the matter. If that should change, the district attorney's office will take appropriate action."
This crash came not long after another high-profile incident where a driver careened onto the sidewalk in Midtown Manhattan and struck someone – in that case Sian Green, a 23-year-old British woman on her first day of a New York "dream vacation." That dream ended in a nightmare when an apparently road-raging taxi driver mounted the curb, hitting her and severing one of her legs. Almost a month later, Green is out of the ICU, but the driver has still not been charged in the crash (nor has the bicycle messenger the cab driver blamed for his sudden increase in speed and loss of control).
Awareness of the threat that out-of-control drivers pose to pedestrians does seem to be increasing, even if only incrementally. The Daily News today ran an opinion piece by Alyssa Katz, editor of the New York World, about her own experience of being hit by a car. In it, Katz calls for politicians to step up and say that we won’t tolerate this kind of vehicular destruction in our city. "They must deliver concrete and credible public leadership on an issue that is central to the quality of life in their communities," writes Katz, who concludes, "candidates ought to use [their] high-visibility platform in their communities to share an urgent message: Speeding, U-turns and other reckless driving are more of a menace to New Yorkers than gun violence, and they as candidates are leading the charge to sanity."
Will anyone rise to Katz’s challenge? Mayoral front-runner Bill de Blasio endeared himself to advocates of safer streets with his "Vision Zero" plan to reduce traffic fatalities in New York to nil. But he has been publicly silent so far on the Queens case, and his campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
No one thinks the driver did what he did intentionally. He also responded appropriately by staying on the scene. But shouldn’t there be some legal fallout for someone who drives this way? Shouldn’t our elected officials, our chief of police, the purported leaders in our community, say that it is unacceptable for the city’s pedestrians to be regarded as inevitable incidental casualties so that people who drive can do so without fear of prosecution if they happen to "lose control"?
In New York City, more than 55 percent of households don’t even own a car, by far the greatest proportion in the United States. If we can’t put pedestrians first here, who will?