By SAM SPOKONY | After a state Senate staffer was nearly killed last month by an unidentified bicyclist who hit him and fled the scene, state Senator Brad Hoylman is calling for much stiffer criminal penalties for hit-and-run cyclists.
The Senate staffer, John Allen, 70, who lives on the Upper West Side, was walking across West 40th St. at Sixth Ave. on Mon., April 7, around 2 p.m., when he was mowed down by the speeding cyclist, according to police. The crash was so serious that the senior was left with a fractured skull, and briefly had to be placed in a medically induced coma after being rushed to Bellevue Hospital that day.
Allen is also a personal friend of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer. A former Upper West Side city councilmember, Brewer initially explained the incident to Hoylman — along with dozens of Chelsea residents — at an April 21 forum at the Hudson Guild community center on W. 26th St.
Brewer’s recounting of the hit-and-run crash came in response to a question from Chelsea seniors — residents of the nearby Penn South housing complex, who frequently raise concerns about cyclists who they claim blow through red lights or ride the wrong way in the Eighth and Ninth Aves. bike lanes around their development.
Speaking afterward, Brewer said that Allen has since made positive steps on the road to recovery, and is now back at home, doing outpatient rehabilitation. Yet, while police have since released a grainy image of the cyclist taken from video surveillance footage near the scene of the incident, he has yet to be caught or identified.
“I have worked with John, his family and police in trying to find the perpetrator,” said Brewer.
“We’ve looked at every video camera’s footage, and police have canvassed every delivery establishment in the area,” she continued. It’s believed that the perpetrator — who was carrying a plastic bag in the video surveillance images recovered by police — may have been a food deliveryman.
“This is a sad case, and we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Brewer said.
A police investigation into the incident is ongoing, according to a New York Police Department spokesperson.
Under current New York State law, if the cyclist who nearly killed Allen is eventually caught and arrested by police, he would be charged with a Class B misdemeanor, which carries a maximum sentence of three months in prison or one year of probation. And if Allen had died from his injuries, the cyclist would still only be charged with that same misdemeanor.
State Senator Hoylman — whose district includes the Midtown site of Allen’s injury, as well as Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen the West Village and the East Village — says he believes the current penalties are too light.
Instead, he thinks that hit-and-run cyclists should face the same criminal charges as drivers of motor vehicles who hit pedestrians and flee the scene.
If a car driver is caught after a hit-and-run in which the pedestrian suffers only minor injuries, that driver would be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, which carries up to one year in prison and a $1000 fine, according to state law.
In a case in which the pedestrian suffers serious injuries, such as Allen’s, a driver who fled the scene would be charged with a Class E felony, which carries up to four years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
And if the pedestrian is killed, the hit-and-run driver would be charged with a Class D felony, which carries up to seven years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Hoylman — who is, in fact, a frequent Citi Bike rider — said he will soon introduce legislation that would change state law to make hit-and-run cyclists liable for those much steeper criminal penalties.
“This bill, recognizing that the gravity of the injuries is the same regardless of whether the accident was caused by an automobile or a bicycle, would bring parity to instances where someone flees an accident scene after maiming or killing someone,” the state senator explained. He added that the bill is “largely informed” by the April 7 hit-and-run that left John Allen in a coma.
Hoylman’s office stated that the bill will be introduced within the next several weeks.
And in advance of that introduction, Transportation Alternatives, the city’s top cycling advocacy group, is already voicing support for Hoylman’s effort — albeit somewhat guardedly.
“We support the intent of his initiative, because we support anything that brings justice to injured pedestrians,” said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives. “Regardless of how a pedestrian is injured, and regardless of the type of vehicle, if someone leaves the scene of an accident, they should be held accountable.”
But another prominent cycling advocate, Steve Vaccaro, who last year founded the pro-bike political action committee StreetsPAC, wasn’t so quick to throw any measure of support behind the planned bill.
“I would want to see some empirical evidence regarding [the reasoning for the legislation] before leapfrogging over education and other measures and going straight to strengthening criminal penalties,” said Vaccaro. He added that he would still need to be convinced about why the existing penalties are perceived as inadequate.
Although there appears to be very little concrete data at this point regarding hit-and-run cycling incidents, when it comes to statistics on the number of pedestrian fatalities caused by bikes versus cars, the picture is lopsided.
Between 2000 and 2013 in New York City, 2,291 pedestrians were killed from being struck by motor vehicles, according to city Department of Transportation statistics. During that same period, only eight pedestrians were killed after being struck by a cyclist, according to the same data.
Meanwhile, White did stress that he will want to take a “closer look” at Hoylman’s legislation once it’s introduced, to make sure it can actually achieve the aims of “getting justice” for pedestrians.
He further stated that, regarding the issue of hit-and-run cyclists, Transportation Alternatives is currently more focused on urging the N.Y.P.D. to utilize its Collision Investigation Squad to review bike crashes and collect forensic evidence at the sites of those incidents.
Currently, the Collision Investigation Squad is only used for motor vehicle crashes.
White said that, over all, he believes that evidence-collecting strategy will have a “more immediate” impact on this issue than Hoylman’s bill would. However, Hoylman did mention that he also supports urging the police to deploy the Collision Investigation Squad to review bike crashes.
Police did not respond to request for comment on that particular issue.
And with regard to Hoylman’s planned bill for increased criminal penalties for hit-and-run cyclists, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office — which would be implementing those penalties within the borough — declined to comment.
“I think the bill is a step in the right direction, because it makes it clear that it’s not about us versus them, bikes versus cars,” said Will Rogers, a W. 16th St. resident. Along with being an avid Citi Bike rider, Rogers is also a board member of CHEKPEDS, which advocates for safer streets throughout Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen.
“It’s important to make the same set of rules for bikes and cars, because it shows that we should all abide by the same laws on the road,” he said.
But another Chelsea resident, Eleanor Horowitz, who lives on W. 22nd St. and who has been riding her bike “since the ’50s,” wasn’t convinced by Hoylman’s plans.
“How’s increasing the penalties going to have an effect when you can’t identify the [perpetrators]?” she asked. “We need to have licensing, especially for the commercial cyclists, and they need to be registered, so they can actually be identified.”
Currently, D.O.T. requires businesses — generally, restaurants that deliver — to provide their cyclists with a bright vest that displays the business name and a unique three-digit ID number on the back.
However, those ID numbers are managed by the individual businesses, and not registered with the city.
D.O.T. enforces the commercial cycling requirements through its Commercial Bike Unit, which currently has a staff of six inspectors covering the entire city. That unit has issued more than 3,300 summonses to rule-breaking businesses over the past year, a D.O.T. spokesperson said.
“It’s led to a big improvement in terms of getting them to behave,” said Horowitz, of the rules for commercial cyclists. “But I really think that we still need licensing.”
At the April 21 forum at Hudson Guild — moments after he’d heard from Brewer about the incident that nearly killed John Allen — Hoylman also brought up the idea of licensing.
“I hope this isn’t headed toward licensing of all cyclists, or other laws that will restrict the rights of cyclists,” he said then, “but if things don’t get better [in terms of pedestrian safety], then everything should be on the table.”