Public opinion in the past year has yo-yoed when it comes to police and traffic enforcement. Amid angry calls to reduce car stops, a bill passed by New York’s city council in March handed over NYPD vehicle-crash investigative functions to the city’s Department of Transportation. Last November’s more drastic plan from Brooklyn city council member Brad Lander and Queens city council candidate Tiffany Cabán sought to replace entirely NYPD traffic enforcement with DoT.
But reality is bearing down on those who dismissed the role of cops in curbing minor traffic offenses that lead to more deadly ones. A new report shows that citywide traffic fatalities rose 30.3 percent from fiscal year 2020 to 2021, while the NYPD issued 27.6 percent and 63.2 percent fewer speeding and failing-to-yield-to-pedestrian summonses, respectively.
Following a weekend of crashes earlier this month that killed six, including an infant, Gotham’s politicians and activists are calling for tougher laws and more enforcement. Demonstrators decried the more than 188 traffic-related deaths citywide so far this year, as well as the drivers with horrific records allowed to stay behind the wheel—like Tyrik Mott, 28, whose Honda reportedly had logged 160 speeding and traffic tickets when he allegedly killed three-month-old Apolline Mong-Guillemin on Saturday before attempting a carjacking to flee police.
These tragedies have renewed focus on de Blasio’s February 2020 Dangerous Vehicle Abatement Law, which went into effect earlier this year. It forces reckless drivers to attend a safe-driving class, potentially impounding their cars after repeat offenses. But the safe-driving classes weren’t set up until this week’s outcry, and the DoT opted only to require participants to self-report their new violations.
Reducing deadly crashes will require more police involvement—as the mayor is slowly acknowledging. With schools back in session, de Blasio is stepping up vehicle enforcement, focusing on drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians and cyclists, as well as on motorcycle safety. Democratic nominee for mayor and Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams also came out loudly for greater traffic policing and penalties.
But will this be enough to turn back the spike in dangerous driving?
A new Manhattan Institute report by NYPD deputy inspector John Hall paints a stark picture of the impact of removing police from enforcement—and of the connection between “minor” offenses and much deadlier activity. Hall notes that enforcement plummeted at the start of the pandemic, when the NYPD shifted resources in March 2020, and then again in May, following the summer’s protests. In April 2020, for instance, officers wrote 85.2 percent fewer tickets for moving violations than in April 2019. From March 12 to December 31, 2020, the NYPD wrote 52.9 percent fewer tickets than during the same months in 2019. Not surprisingly, during that period, fatal crashes spiked 16 percent, resulting in 31 more traffic deaths, than the previous year.
Traffic dynamics also changed significantly, according to Hall’s NYPD stats: vehicle miles traveled fell and motor vehicle speeds rose. After March 12, 2020, calls to 911 and 311 for drag racing spiked 226 percent, with 8,450 total complaints for the rest of the year.
Recent proposals seek to combat these trends with greater use of automated systems. New York city councilman Ben Kallos introduced a bill last month to acquire acoustic monitoring systems that snap photos of cars that emit illegal noise volumes and send the images to cops. And a proposed bill in the New York state legislature would expand school-zone speed cameras’ operating hours from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. on weekdays to around the clock.
But automated enforcement systems have their limits. As Hall points out, they can’t act on intelligence, go to car meetups, or prevent drag racing ahead of time. Sanctions delivered in the mail, weeks after infractions, don’t take dangerous motorists off the road. Motivated offenders, like the dirt bike and ATV cowboys who zoom down Big Apple streets, easily avoid these cameras by removing their plates or affixing fraudulent ones, rendering camera enforcement useless.
And the use of fake plates has skyrocketed. From March 12 to December 31, 2020, NYPD wrote 29,320 parking tickets to cars with fraudulent plates, compared with the 2,309 written in the same period of 2019. Since 2019, cars with fake plates were connected to 562 crashes and 710 moving violations and were tagged with almost 60,000 parking tickets. One fake New Jersey plate number showed up on 46 cars and was connected to 29 arrests.
More alarmingly, from January 1, 2019, to June 6, 2021, fake plates were connected to 1,504 arrests, including arrests for illegal guns, stolen cars, drunk driving, and leaving the scene of an accident. In the first quarter of 2021, officers made at least 48 gun arrests from cars identified with fake plates, and these plates have been seen on cars involved in at least 93 incidents of gun violence. The problem continues: in Queens earlier this month, the New York City Sheriff’s Office impounded 53 vehicles with bogus and counterfeit paper plates.
Hall’s analysis points to studies from across the country showing a correlation between robust police response and reductions in traffic casualties. We need to stop trusting repeat reckless offenders to self-report or the DoT to stop them. Serious traffic enforcement requires more cops.
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