“Pedestrians are not our concern in Traffic Court.”

Almost a year ago I received a citation for failure to stop at a red signal while cycling. Today was my day in court. While I was undeniably guilty of the violation, I plead NOT GUILTY because I felt that there were extenuating circumstances (more below) and, well, there’s always a chance the officer won’t show up and the violation will be voided.

Little did I know the civics lesson that would unfold. And little did I know just how infuriated I’d become with the current situation regarding the safety of pedestrians and cyclists in NYC. And while this is playing out in many cities, I can only speak for my situation; and I plan to speak about this a lot more in the future.

Current NYC mayor Bill de Blasio has a program called Vision Zero with the goal of reducing pedestrian and cyclist deaths to zero. Yet the policing and systems in our fair city are at complete odds with this mission. Here’s the culmination of the problem:

“Pedestrians are not our concern in Traffic Court.”

These words came from the traffic court judge. On the record. I find this appalling.

I guess I should back up a little and describe how we got the point of this quote…

I was riding a Citi Bike up 8th Avenue between Penn Station and the Farley Post Office at the time of the initial incident. There’s lots of construction in that area and sidewalk, bike lane, and traffic signals are often rerouted and moved temporarily. On the day of my violation, the traffic signal at the mid-block crosswalk had been relocated and was not easily seen from the temporary bike lane. This was not my main defense, but is an important point. Further, due to the temporary lane shifts, and due to pedestrian behavior, people are constantly walking in the bike lane.

On the day in question, I was returning to the Citi Bike dock on this block and was forced to both dodge and yield to many pedestrians in the bike lane. At the crosswalk, I didn’t see the traffic signal and there were (finally) no pedestrians in my path, so I proceeded. Three NYPD officers were on foot nearby ticketing cyclists for failing to stop at this signal. It was a “ticketing blitz” and that location was very likely selected due to all the distractions that would lead a cyclist to run the light.

I made the argument in court that my putting the safety of pedestrians first and the temporary location of the signal lead to me missing the signal. As I noted earlier, I didn’t think this would fly, but I wanted to give it a go. But what when the judge responded by saying, “Pedestrians are not our concern in Traffic Court,” I was floored. I was speechless. I was found guilty and fined $150.

A Little Perspective

My traffic court appointment was for 8:30 AM and after some administrative ridiculousness (bureaucracy at its best) I was seated in a small courtroom awaiting proceedings to begin. My issuing officer had yet to arrive, so the judge began with the docket of another officer. The judge went through her proceedings in a very rote, mechanical manner and this was of immediate concern to me.

After many motorist proceedings before me, I learned the following:

  • Pedestrian safety was of no concern to this judge
  • The judge ruled Guilty or Not Guilty solely on letter of the law (rather than spirit)
  • It was noted that the officer has the burden of proof, but “proof” was really a matter of interpretation based on how the judge decided to rule
  • Once a Guilty ruling is issued, the judge has enormous leeway regarding the amount of the fine
  • All the rules around previous violations and points are entirely moot in the courtroom

I need to give a few examples, because these made me terribly angry, and I kind of hope that you react the same way.

Motorist #1 – Made a right turn from the left lane, cited for Illegal Turn and Failure to Yield to Pedestrians. Motorist has four previous violations (all “previous violations” refer to a two-year window), six points and is a livery driver. Found Guilty of Illegal Turn, but judge waived the Failure to Yield since he was “polite and professional” – and he was fined $65.

Motorist #2 – Also two violations – Failure to Yield to Pedestrians and Not Wearing Seatbelt. I didn’t catch the number of points, but since his license would be suspended if he was guilty of the Failure to Yield, the judge waived that violation because “as a livery driver, you need your license.” He then argued that he had his seatbelt on and the judge challenged him. Response, “Well, I bent over to pick something up, so I unbuckled for a moment.” Mind you, his vehicle was in motion – what the hell did he need to pick up?!? This was unimportant, but he was Guilty of the seatbelt violation and fined $95.

Motorist #3 (The Worst One Yet!) – Single violation for Illegal Turn when, like the first motorist, he turned right from the left lane. Further, there were signs on that street making a right turn illegal during certain hours (including when he was cited.) His defense? “I was just following my GPS.” (OMG!) This motorist had nine previous moving violations and has 14 points on his license. He was found guilty and asked by the judge, “Why shouldn’t I suspend your license at this time?” His response? As a taxi driver, he needs his license to make a living. The judge agreed and fined him, wait for it… $75!

My Violation – Failure to Stop at Red Signal which was caused by a poorly placed signal and pedestrians in my lane. I’m told “Pedestrians are not our concern in Traffic Court” and fined $150 – more than any of the dozen or so motorists before me for which none were fined $100 or more.

What Does All This Mean?

It means that Vision Zero is dead in the water. It means that pedestrians and cyclists are left to protect themselves because motorists with tons of metal and combustion engines may run us down at any moment. It means that I’m clearly more dangerous on my bike based on the size of the fine than any motorists. And, worst of all, it means that if you drive for a living, you are held to a lower standard rather than a higher one. Isn’t that completely backwards?

Part of me wishes I paid the initial fine and didn’t see the disgusting underbelly of traffic court. Ignorance is bliss, right? But now part of me wants to push the message “Crash Not Accident” even more than I did before. Motorists operate a potential killing machine everyday and pedestrians do not – nor do they have any protection. For that reason alone, they need to be held to a higher standard.

Isn’t this a First World Problem?

Seemingly, yes – but indulge me for a moment. I don’t really care that I was found guilty or had to pay a fine; as noted several times, I WAS GUILTY. But this isn’t about my violation, it’s about the continued injustice to those that are in the most danger. Isn’t it completely absurd to hear that pedestrians are not the concern of traffic court? Isn’t it appalling that a driver can keep his license, even if he endangers others, because driving is his livelihood? Where’s the protection for society over the individual? And shouldn’t someone who drives for a living be held to a much higher standard?

I’m not really sure what to do, but I can tell you that I’m mad as hell. And in the current environment of our country where the militarization of our police is making it easier for them to kill minorities unjustly, this feels like another (very small) piece of the institutionalized bias in our government. It’s really scary.

2 Responses to ““Pedestrians are not our concern in Traffic Court.””

  • Norman Acunis says:

    How typical!

  • Kevin Brown says:

    “If you drive for a living, you are held to a lower standard rather than a higher one. Isn’t that completely backwards?”
    Yes, completely backwards. It’s like the magistrates are afraid of imposing punishment that would actually WORK. They don’t want to be responsible for adversely affecting anyone’s ability to make a living. But the thing is, it’s not their responsibility to keep livery drivers in business, and it’s not their job to be so “compassionate.” It’s complete dereliction for them to be lenient toward would-be professional drivers. It’s the scofflaws who are responsible for the consequences of their own behavior. If they lose their ability to make a living, it’s their own fault. It’s not by misfortune or accident that they break such laws, it’s by their confidence that it won’t matter if they do.
    Yes, “Vision Zero” is indeed the absence of vision – the complete blindness to the backwardness you describe.

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