The Perfect Crime

Tuesday, May 6th, 2014

If you want to kill someone and get away with it, hit them with your car — at least in New York City:

Dubner: Okay, let me be clear. I don’t actually want to kill anyone. And I don’t endorse the idea of wanting to kill anyone. But if I did, and I were looking for a way to do it and get away with it, how would I do it? I’d wait ‘til they were outside, walking down the street, maybe crossing at the light … and then I’d run them over in my car. Now, I’d have to make sure that no one knew I was trying to run them over. But they’d be dead and I, especially in New York City, would in all likelihood go scot-free.

Smith: There’s the case that happened with the little boy on the Upper West Side, Cooper Stock. He and his dad were crossing the street. And a driver was making a turn, and he just ran over the little boy, didn’t see him.

Dubner: Lisa Smith is a former prosecutor in the Brooklyn D.A.’s office; now she’s an assistant professor of clinical law at Brooklyn Law School.

Smith: So right now all that is is a summons to the driver for failing to yield. But it does not rise to the level of any kind of manslaughter or homicide charge. There was a study that showed that between 2008 and 2012 there were something like almost 1,300 fatal crashes in New York, and there were like 66 drivers arrested.

Dubner: Now, you might think that a place like New York, with so many pedestrians, would have particularly tough laws against running them over. But you’d be wrong. As Lisa Smith told us, only about 5 percent of the drivers who kill a pedestrian in New York are arrested.

Smith: Our neighbors have different vehicular laws than we do. Both Massachusetts and Connecticut have vehicular manslaughter statutes that punish traffic fatalities or serious injury that occurs because of simple negligence. New Jersey doesn’t have the same statute as Massachusetts or Connecticut, but even they have vehicular manslaughter statutes that encompass more behavior than what New York has, which is absolutely nothing other than drunk driving. So around the country in Iowa, Louisiana, Georgia, Nevada, Kansas, California, all over the country there are states with vehicular statutes that punish a failure to yield as a traffic fatality, that punish the driver.

Dubner: Smith says that New York has some of the narrowest standards for conviction in the country. It’s called the “rule of two” — you need two significant violations of traffic laws in order to bring a charge, including some incredibly reckless or criminally negligent act. Otherwise, it’s just … an accident.

Some interesting facts:

According to NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, only about 25 percent of the time is a driver’s “failure to yield” the official cause of a pedestrian fatality. In another 27 percent, the cause is unknown or unreported. Okay, so what about the pedestrians? Seventeen percent of the fatalities are the result of a pedestrian being “in [the] roadway improperly (standing, lying, working, playing).” Another 16 percent occur when the pedestrian is “not visible.” Nearly 15 percent come from the pedestrian “darting or running into [the] road,” and another 13 percent come from “improper crossing of roadway or intersection.” Now, again, keep in mind that this is according to data that usually comes from police reports – which, as Charlie Zegeer warned us, is bound to overweight the perspective of the driver who lived as opposed to the pedestrian who died. That said, here’s one other number that might get your attention: of the pedestrians killed in fatal crashes in the United States, 37 percent had been drinking, with a blood-alcohol concentration of .08 or higher. If you look at pedestrian fatalities among 25- to 34-year-olds, the drunk-walking number rises to 50 percent.

Pedestrian traffic fatalities have dropped from 16,000 per year, in the 1930s, to 4,000 per year. At Bellevue Hospital, in New York City, 25 percent of all trauma patients are pedestrians struck by motor vehicles, and another 10 percent are bicyclists struck by motor vehicles.

The interviewed doctor concludes, “From our data, I think all pedestrians should be wearing helmets. But who would really want to wear a bike helmet when they’re walking, when they’re going out for a date?”


  1. Tom in VA says:

    I’ve noticed that NYC pedestrians are better behaved than pedestrians in DC. I guess this accounts for it.

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