Reckless Driving: The Price We Pay For Cities

Take your average, "I get safe driving checks from Allstate" driver, plop them and their America F**k Yeah car in the middle of Manhattan, and you will produce a "reckless" driver. There are too many pedestrians and cars and dogs and construction zones for anybody here to even approach a modicum of "safety" out on these streets. In the time it takes for Waze to tell you to turn right in 500 feet, the light has changed, there's a bus in the turn lane, and somebody like me slams your hood to reprimand you for blocking the box. In New York, you go NOW, or you don't go at all.

So when a respected and famous law professor writes an op-ed calling for vigorous enforcement of safe driving codes, all I can say is, "Yeah, but..." Let's not act like there is a huge difference between a reckless driver and a safe one in NYC. The operative distinction is between a driver who manages his recklessness versus the criminally insane. And whether you are one or the other depends on how late you are...

Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz wrote a passionate op-ed about the law's inability to deal with reckless driving. His sister-in-law was killed by a driver — one who was not charged with a homicide. He writes:

It is this combination — little concern about reckless drivers who haven't killed yet, and legal difficulties in prosecuting drivers who have — that has likely contributed to the epidemic of pedestrians deaths in New York, resulting in a sizable increase in 2013 from 2012. The law, and those who are supposed to enforce it, are not doing their job in deterring dangerous driving because reckless drivers have little to fear from persisting in their potentially lethal behavior. This breakdown reflects a larger moral conundrum: How should the law deal with conduct that causes lethal results in only a small percentage of cases?...

Clearly the law would buy more deterrent bang for the buck if it vigorously prosecuted every reckless driver, regardless of whether they happen to kill.

It's not a bad argument, at least until you start trying to define the line between the "reckless" driving he wants prosecuted, and the "aggressive" driving that becomes a survival instinct in the city. Driving in Manhattan is "long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror." Nobody is doing 90 mph down Park Avenue and careening into the MetLife building. Instead people are going from 0-20, while trying to make a left turn from the right lane because that's where the next fare is. Reckless? If you say so. But what enhanced threat of prosecution is going to stop the cab driver from trying to make money?

The other problem with a recklessness standard in New York City is that it's hard to figure out where the pedestrians stuck by motorists showed contributory negligence in the accident. Dershowitz is only talking about criminal penalties in his op-ed, but most people want to sue the driver who struck them. In New York, we have a tort system of "comparative negligence" where a court has to determine the percentage of fault with each party.

New York is full of "I'm walking here" pedestrians who act like their "right of way" is tantamount to the invincibility star from Super Mario Brothers. And Lord knows that I've been willing to tackle a damn cab to make him stop and pick me up. Is it reckless to plow down a pedestrian who is halfway out in the middle of the street trying to hail a cab? Maybe. But that's not as simple of a case as it sounds.

It's not satisfying to say that there's nothing we can do about preventing reckless driving behavior until somebody dies. But when you have eight million people living on a rock of glacier poop, some things are not preventable. One man's recklessness is another man's livelihood. Prosecuting people according to normal standards of "safety" without taking into account the unique New York circumstance doesn't feel like the right answer.

Reasonable people will disagree about what the proper NYC standards should be, but I think most people agree that they're different standards than what can be applied to the rest of the world. And at least we have standards — Storrow Drive in Boston is like the state-of-nature where the signage actively tries to trick you into driving into the Charles.

But that's part of living in a big city. If you want pedestrian safety, get on the subway... just don't stand too close to the platform. Some New Yorkers are crazy.