Just after noon yesterday, two mothers were walking their young children in the kid-friendly Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. At Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue, they crossed the intersection in the crosswalk—with the light—along with several other pedestrians, witnesses say (and video evidence confirms). Dorothy Bruns, a 44-year-old driver from Staten Island, appears to have sped up in her white Volvo at the red light, crashing into the crowd of pedestrians. The two children died at the scene; the four-year-old girl’s pregnant mother was taken to the hospital in critical condition. The second mother and a man suffered injuries as well.
It’s not yet clear why Bruns failed to see a crowd of people or why she lost control of her vehicle and plowed into the pedestrians. Police said that the crash didn’t appear to be a terrorist attack or an incident of deadly rage, both of which plague New York’s streets. The superintendent of Bruns’s apartment building told the New York Post that she had a history of seizures. If so, state law would have prohibited her from driving. Last year, a Bronx green-cab driver pled guilty to homicide after deciding to drive despite his potentially incapacitating medical condition; he killed two children on the Grand Concourse. And, of course, drivers fail to pay attention all the time, despite obvious cues: they become immersed in their cellphones, or, keeping an eye out for cars, somehow don’t see the people standing right in front of them.
What is clear, though, is that Bruns, or someone with regular access to her car, has a history of this kind of behavior. Over the past two years, according to the silive.com news site for Staten Island, where Bruns lives, her car has racked up eight infractions for potentially deadly driving in three boroughs, including Brooklyn. Bruns’s car has been caught on camera speeding through school zones four times and has been caught blowing through red lights—as she did in Monday’s crash—four times. And on yet another four occasions, Bruns’s vehicle was parked in an illegal manner that creates danger for pedestrians, bicyclists, and other drivers.
Why, then, was Bruns behind the wheel on Monday? One explanation is that she was caught speeding and running red lights on camera, not by a police officer—and under New York State’s camera-enforcement law, the Department of Motor Vehicles can’t cite automated enforcement in determining whether to revoke a person’s license. As the city notes, “unlike a traditional speeding ticket, the speed-camera violation is not made part of the operating record of the person receiving the violation . . . nor is it used for insurance purposes.” The same holds for red-light violations. If Bruns had racked up these charges through traditional, human-enforced speeding and red-light tickets, she could have accrued enough “points” under the state’s penalty system to lose her license.
Clearly, the New York system is seriously flawed. Driving with a suspended or revoked license is not a felony until a driver has done so 10 times or more. New York governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature should strengthen these penalties. A New Yorker caught just once with an illegal, loaded handgun faces a felony charge, with serious prison time. Why should drivers get so many opportunities to do harm?
New York is under no obligation to treat dangerous driving more leniently when it is captured by remote camera. Yes, the owner may have loaned his vehicle to someone else; in California, he must identify the driver. In New York, state lawmakers could update camera-enforcement provisions to require the owner of a car that has incurred a second red-light offense to disclose the real driver’s identity or face points on his or her license. California also levies a much higher fine for red-light running: $480, compared with New York’s paltry $50.
The disparity makes less sense as New York moves toward more automated enforcement. Police officers are expensive; cameras are not. Moreover, cameras don’t discriminate—a camera won’t let a driver with, say, a public-sector union sticker get away with bad behavior while stopping an out-of-state driver. Nor can cameras be accused of disparate treatment on the basis of race. The city wants more cameras from Albany, and Cuomo, at least, has been receptive to that request. His state budget would allow for new “block-the-box” cameras in Midtown Manhattan to prevent intersection gridlock. Box-blocking (when vehicles stop in intersections) is another potentially deadly behavior, as it forces pedestrians to walk into traffic and underneath truck drivers’ sight lines in order to cross the street.
Why does New York go so easy on dangerous drivers? While most lawmakers don’t identify or empathize with gun-toting gangbangers, they do seem to sympathize with deadly motorists. State Senator Marty Golden of Brooklyn, for example, has fought against New York City’s camera system. Driving in 2005, Golden hit and killed an elderly woman at a Brooklyn intersection. He was never charged and has consistently won reelection. Just 24 hours after Bruns killed two children, police told reporters the driver likely won’t face charges—a rather fast provisionary conclusion to an investigation that should involve cell-phone records, toxicology reports, medical records, and interviews with family and friends. Mayor Bill de Blasio, to his credit, has supported measures to reduce traffic deaths, from better intersection design to more camera enforcement, but his government motorcade has been caught speeding and—on the same troubled street where the two children lost their lives on Monday—parking illegally.
Changing the law is not that hard, but making lawmakers want to change the law is hard. It’s still too easy for bad drivers to get away with the “I didn’t see them” excuse—even after they’ve amply demonstrated that they don’t belong behind the wheel—because culturally, driving is still seen as a right, not a privilege. Don’t be surprised if Dorothy Bruns drives again.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images