Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
A package of legislation passed late last week, including "Cooper's Law," shows the city is finally getting serious about reducing traffic fatalities.
When a law is given the name of a child, you know there’s a terrible tragedy behind it. These legislative and regulatory efforts – Megan’s Law, the Ryan White Care Act, Rory’s Regulations, to name just a few – are an attempt to give meaning to the senseless death of a young person. They can exert a powerful moral force.
Now New York City has Cooper’s Law, named after 9-year-old Cooper Stock, who was killed by a taxi driver making a left turn into the Upper West Side crosswalk where he was walking with his hand in his father’s. The two were crossing with the light when the driver hit them.
“If there was a Cooper’s Law — a law named after him — that would be something that would be extraordinary and bring us some solace,” the boy’s mother, Dana Lerner, told the New York Post.
Cooper’s Law now exists, and it gives the city the power to suspend or revoke the license of a cabdriver who kills or maims a pedestrian with the right of way on a New York street. This may not sound like a radical idea, but as things stood before the council voted to pass the measure last week, taxi drivers who killed or grievously injured pedestrians faced relatively minor penalties and often could head back out on the streets again with little consequence.
The yellow-cab driver who killed Cooper got a $300 summons for failure to yield. As Brad Aaron notes on Streetsblog, some cabbies involved in fatal crashes don’t even get that. The driver who jumped a Midtown curb after a hostile interaction with a person on a bicycle, severing the leg of Sian Green, a tourist visiting from Ireland, was only summonsed for filling out paperwork related to the crash incorrectly.
Cooper’s Law is just one part of a significant package of street-safety legislation passed last week by the New York City Council, under the auspices of the ongoing Vision Zero effort. The idea behind Vision Zero, being promoted by Mayor Bill de Blasio, is to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2024 through a comprehensive approach to street design, enforcement, and education. It was inspired by Swedish policies dating to the 1990s. De Blasio is expected to sign the package of bills into law.
One of the 11 measures passed by New York’s council would make it a misdemeanor for any motorist to hit a pedestrian or bicyclist who has the right of way (and yes, that means that it previously was not automatically a criminal offense). Another would prohibit “stunt behavior,” including wheelies, revving, and donuts. Additional bills call for the introduction of more “slow zones”; mandated studies of the safety of arterial routes; and a requirement that the city must fix broken traffic signals within 24 hours of reports that they are broken.
The council also passed six resolutions about matters over which the state legislature in Albany has ultimate control. The resolutions call for stiffer penalties for reckless driving; allowing the city to set a default speed limit of 25 miles per hour on local streets (it’s currently 30 miles per hour); tougher consequences for driving on the sidewalk; and allowing the city to control its own red light and speed camera programs.
“In over a decade that I’ve worked with the city council, I’ve never seen them take action on such a hefty package of traffic safety laws,” says Noah Budnick, deputy director of the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. “It shows that it’s front and center on the council’s mind. And that’s because of conversations with their constituents about daily life in this city.”
The package of legislation passed with hardly any opposition. The fight with Albany to allow the city to limit speed and especially to implement camera enforcement, however, is likely to be tough. And much depends, as Streetsblog notes, on the willingness of the NYPD to ticket reckless drivers.
But the overwhelming support for the measures is one more sign that Vision Zero is steadily becoming integrated into the city’s overall policy. “What’s different now is the overwhelming support of New Yorkers for these measures, especially for the speed limit,” says Budnick. “There’s a growing awareness. We’re no longer living in a time when it’s oh, you can’t do anything about it.”
If Albany plays along and the city’s approach starts to pay off, it could serve as a model for cities around the country. And that would be quite a legacy for Cooper Stock to leave.