In 2014, the New York City “Right of Way Law” was enacted, creating Section 19-190 of the New York City Administrative Code, making it a traffic infraction for a driver to fail to yield the right of way to a pedestrian or cyclist, and a misdemeanor when it causes injury or death.
The creation of the Right of Way Law was motivated by the tragic case of Allison Liao, a 3-year-old girl who was killed by a driver making a left turn. The Queens District Attorney declined to prosecute the driver that killed Liao and the two traffic tickets that were issued to the driver were dismissed.
The elements of the Right of Way Law are simple: any driver who fails to yield to a pedestrian or bicyclist with the right of way is guilty of a traffic infraction.
The Right of Way Law recognizes that there are times when a driver doesn’t yield to a pedestrian or bicyclist but hasn’t violated the law, namely if the driver’s failure to yield was not caused by their failure to exercise due care.
Here is a hypothetical: Suppose a driver is making a turn and hits a pedestrian in a crosswalk who had the “Walk” sign. When a pedestrian has a “Walk” sign, drivers must yield to them. So, if the driver didn’t yield to the pedestrian, the driver violated the Right of Way Law. But if the accident wasn’t caused by the driver’s failure to exercise due care – say, if the driver’s brakes failed – the driver hasn’t violated the law. In other words, the driver is off the hook because the Right of Way Law recognizes there are situations where a driver didn’t yield, but not because they weren’t being careful.
The real question is: Who should decide if a driver has violated the Right of Way Law? We believe the answer is the same as it is with any violations of the law – judges and juries should decide.
The Right of Way Law was enacted because New Yorkers want safer streets. If District Attorneys refuse to prosecute cases, the law will effectively be gutted. New York County District Attorney Cy Vance once dropped a Right of Way Law case against a truck driver who killed a senior who was in a crosswalk with the “Walk” sign. Vance’s office reportedly decided the case couldn’t be brought because the truck driver wasn’t drunk or distracted and because the truck had a blind spot and the victim was short.
New Yorkers who walk and cycle don’t necessarily see it the same way Cy Vance did. If Section 19-190 is going to be given any chance to make our city safer, District Attorneys need to bring the cases and let them be decided by New Yorkers – exactly as the New York City Council intended.