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Cracking Down on Careless Drivers

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It has been nearly a year-and-a-half since two preschool students in Chinatown were killed after an unoccupied van, left in reverse, jumped a sidewalk on East Broadway and plowed into a class returning from a trip to the Chatham Square Library. But for the family of those children – 4-year-old Hayley Ng and 3-year-old Diego Martinez – the emotions are still raw. That much was obvious yesterday during a news conference on the steps of City Hall.

State Senator Daniel Squadron, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, City Councilmember Margaret Chin and Transportation Alternatives organized the event to pressure Governor Paterson to sign “Hayley and Diego’s Law.”  Introduced by Squadron and State Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, the legislation would increase penalties against careless drivers.

(L-R) Margaret Chin, Wana Wu, May Ng.
(L-R) Margaret Chin, Wana Wu, May Ng.

During the news conference, May Ng and Wana Wu, the victims’ mothers, were brought to tears, recalling the terrible events of January 21st, 2009.  The driver was not charged with any crime, a fact that outraged the families of the toddlers, as well as safe streets advocates. Yesterday Councilmember Chin said, “the law was shamefully lax, meaning these families couldn’t even hold the driver accountable.”  While acknowledging that nothing will bring Hayley and Diego back, Squadron said the bill means careless drivers would face consequences.

Right now, state law does makes it very difficult for prosecutors to file criminal charges against careless drivers unless they can establish “intent.” The proposed law increases penalties for careless drivers – a $750 fine, 15 days in jail or a driver training course for a first offense. A second offense would trigger a misdemeanor charge and would lead to the possible suspension/revocation of a driver’s license. Transportation Alternatives sees the bill as a deterrent.

The legislation passed both chambers last month, and is on its way to Paterson’s desk. There has been no indication how he feels about the bill one way or the other. Yesterday’s news conference was intended to give it a little extra push in Albany. Transportation Alternatives is asking people to call Paterson’s office, urging the governor to sign the legislation into law. The phone number is 518-474-8390.

Diego Martinez (left), Hayley Ng.

Last year, shortly after the tragedy, Squadron and Stringer released a list of demands, dealing with pedestrian safety and other traffic issues in Chinatown. In light of recent incidents in Chinatown and the Lower East Side, they’re worth reviewing:

  • Better coordination with community-based planning efforts and priorities. The City must do a better job of working with Community Boards and other community organizations, drawing on the invaluable input that only neighborhood residents and businesses can provide.
  • The City must respect and acknowledge community priorities such as the re-opening of Park Row, and work with local stakeholders, in order to build consensus behind comprehensive traffic management plans.
  • The City should provide planning and community organizing resources to organizations such as the Chinatown Working Group, which has brought together many of Chinatown’s diverse stakeholders, in order to allow them to undertake a community-based process for meeting Chinatown’s traffic concerns and related planning issues, with cultural and linguistic sensitivity to the area’s unique character.
  • A comprehensive study of neighborhood traffic and pedestrian patterns that “connects the dots” between local accident “hot spots” and traffic flow at major arteries such as East Broadway, the Bowery, Canal and Allen Streets.  The study must draw heavily on community input, document the traffic patterns of greatest public safety concern, and use detailed modeling to demonstrate the impacts of potential traffic engineering solutions.
  • Reconfigured sidewalk space that privileges and protects Chinatown’s residents, workers, shoppers, and bicyclists, and is sensitive to the unique character of Chinatown’s sidewalks. Chinatown is a “street-level” neighborhood that depends on the liveliness of its sidewalks.  The City must work to expand sidewalks to increase pedestrian space, make the area more hospitable to pedestrians and bicyclists, and keep the sidewalks clear of street furniture, garbage, and other obstacles that infringe on public safety.
  • Comprehensive coordination of trucks, buses and other high-intensity vehicular uses. Chinatown’s cultural prominence, and its location between the East River Bridges and the Holland Tunnel, has made it a center of commercial traffic and regional travel.  The City must respond to these conditions by enforcing truck route zones and effectively managing bus layovers, as Manhattan Community Board 3 has consistently recommended.  Commercial trucks must not be allowed to traverse local streets that were not built to withstand their impact, and buses must not be allowed to create unsafe traffic conditions.  The City should also explore strategic management of commercial deliveries, in order to allow small businesses to thrive without causing dangerous conditions for pedestrians.
  • Increased traffic calming measures, such as curb extensions, speed tables and leading pedestrian intervals.  While the City has implemented some traffic calming efforts on Chinatown’s main roadways, traffic calming measures need to be instituted more quickly and more extensively, with specific attention to areas near schools and senior centers.
  • Comprehensive parking strategies that create the necessary space for businesses to receive deliveries without requiring double-parking or inviting vehicles to park on the sidewalk.
  • Coordination of major City-initiated projects, such as the upcoming Brooklyn Bridge renovation, which will have significant traffic impacts on this neighborhood.
  • Modern, flexible traffic reduction techniques like congestion pricing and variable market-rate street parking that will encourage public transit use and keep traffic flowing calmly and safely through Chinatown.
  • Effective and sensible enforcement of traffic laws.  Illegal and dangerous driving should not be tolerated in any neighborhood, but the need for enforcement in Chinatown is particularly acute because of its narrow streets, heavy commercial activity, and immediate proximity to major bridges, highways and thoroughfares.  While the City must respect and meet business’ need to receive deliveries, NYPD and DOT should collaborate on an enforcement strategy that creates an atmosphere of “zero tolerance” for dangerous driving patterns that have become commonplace throughout Chinatown.  Local elected officials must also commit to providing NYPD and DOT with sufficient resources to address the situation with the number of officers and staff that the community deserves.
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