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The Regional Plan Association (RPA) is the nation’s oldest independent urban research and advocacy group.  One of the nation’s most distinguished of such groups, the RPA has been serving New York since the 1920s.  Last week the RPA posted an article by Alex Marshall suggesting the usage of what is called strict enforcement for drivers, when involved in accidents with pedestrians and cyclists.  The position of the RPA is not taken lightly, this group recommends to the greater New York-New Jersey-Connecticut metropolitan area and its recommendations carry great weight.

The article begins with several tragedies of cyclists and pedestrians killed by motor vehicles in New York.  “The drivers who killed these people didn’t face criminal charges, fines, or receive points on their licenses, according to news reports,” Marshall writes.  He goes on to explain that in New York drivers rarely suffer penalties when a pedestrian or cyclist is injured (or killed), “[…] because by policy New York City police only investigate accidents where someone dies or is on the verge of death.”

Over the past several years Mayor Bloomberg has added over 300 miles of bike lanes, which has lead to many more cyclists on the road.  Overall, statistics point to the roads being safer now than a decade ago, but the number of cyclist deaths has increased, not decreased.  The driver penalty status quo (or really lack thereof) in New York means that accidents and injuries deriving from automobile-bicycle or pedestrian-automobile incidents are not being prosecuted.  Marshall cites in initiative by Transportation Alternatives, a bicycle and pedestrian advocacy group, to get more resources for law enforcement to actively pursue these kinds of accidents.  The current organization which handles theses matters, the NYPD Accident Investigation Squad, has a staff of less than 20 – not sufficient to pursue these situations to the end.

Moving forward, the RPA looks to Western Europe, where a grouping of traffic laws, called strict liability has shown great success.  Strict liability, in general, finds the driver to always be at fault in an incident involving a cyclist or pedestrian; and a cyclist to always be at fault in an incident involving a pedestrian.  Marshall writes, “This at first might not seem fair, but it is when you consider that a contest between soft flesh and hard metal is not one of equals.”  These kinds of laws have been remarkably successful in Western Europe, in combination with separated cycle tracks and other infrastructure support.

Passing such a legal change would seek to motivate a change in human behavior powered by higher penalties.  With cyclists facing equivalent penalties for pedestrian incidents, it is postulated that less erratic cyclist behavior would follow;  higher penalties for drivers would engender more conscientious driving.  One of the commentators on the article mentions her worry that more drivers would flee the scene, if higher penalties were enacted.  This topic is not an easy paradigm shift.

As the number of bicycles upon the roads, particularly the urban roads, of America increases, cities find themselves in the center of these kinds of discussions – just what do we do with all of these bicycles?  How do we keep the riders safe?  How do we integrate so many forms of transit?

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