On the trail of ‘ghost bikes,’ families and friends of cyclists killed on the streets of New York rally for more police action

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N.Y.C. Street Memorial's Leah Todd outside the 90th precinct. (Aaron Short)
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Aaron Short

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"Ghost bikes," like many of the city’s ad hoc memorials, are inconspicuous but seem to pop up everywhere once you've noticed your first.

Since 2005, volunteers with the New York City Street Memorial Project have spray-painted donated bicycles a matte white and locked them to poles or signposts near the sites where cyclists have died in crashes.

On March 18, these memorials marked the route of about 200 cyclists and pedestrians as they marched through the five boroughs, stopping at memorials erected in the last year, before congregating in Williamsburg to set up a new a ghost bike at the 90th Precinct on Union Avenue.

Cobble Hill resident Paco Abraham was among the participants; he survived a collision in East New York that broke his ribs and lacerated his spleen three years ago to the day of the memorial procession.

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The incident is still fresh in his memory.

“It was a hit-and-run,” said Abraham. “The car took a left without realizing I was going straight at Sutter Avenue and Montauk. I was in Brookdale Hospital for a week. I was the only non-gunshot or knife victim in the hospital that first night. It was a mess.”

At the march, he said he felt solidarity with his fellow riders.

“When the groups converge, you don’t see a pack of five, 10, or 15 riders, you’re in a pack of hundreds,” said Abraham. “A hundred cyclists who are your friends because you have this connection.”

The reason they were congregating in front of a police station has a lot to do with the way fatal traffic accidents are treated when they involve a cyclist and an automobile, especially when alcohol and drugs are determined not to be a factor.

The NYPD’s Highway Patrol, which consists of about 250 to 400 officers, is primarily responsible for enforcing vehicular safety on the city’s expressways and escorting dignitaries and parades.

Nineteen of those officers are in its Accident Investigation Squad, which investigates fatalities and life-threatening injuries from traffic crashes citywide.

And those detectives are spread pretty thin.

Last year alone, 134 pedestrians and 21 cyclists died in traffic accidents, according to the New York City Department of Transportation. An average of 18,846 cyclists per day pedaled through the city last year.

And from 2001 and 2010, 1,745 pedestrians and cyclists were killed in traffic, and 142,485 pedestrians and cyclists were injured.

Police precinct commanders track the locations of these crashes and analyze trends that develop over time in reports made every eight weeks to NYPD Transportation Bureau Chief James Tuller.

If a pattern of crashes at an intersection suggests that the engineering of the street may be to blame, the police will lean on city engineers to redesign the street.

“We request things that the Department of Transportation can do such as putting traffic signs up and no turn signs, then they come back and say, we’ve done things and can you do more enforcement,” said 94th Precinct Deputy Director Terence Hurson.

But cracking down on speeding drivers is a difficult job.

That’s one reason why police are four times as likely to issue tickets to cars with tinted windows as they are for breaking the speed limit.

And when it comes to accidents between cars and bicycles, some officers say it can be difficult to determine who has the right of way and how aware the driver and rider are of their surroundings.

“When we can, we do arrest people, but the law really restricts who we can arrest,” said one high-ranking officer. “If there’s an intent to hurt somebody it’s assault, but is it reckless? That’s a tough question. If the driver has an oversight in a fraction of a second with a lot of things moving around him, that can be an accident.”

For the marchers on March 18, part of the agenda is changing that. It's also why two women who lost children in fatal accidents on the streets of New York appeared before the City Council in February to urge that steps be taken to ensure the NYPD investigates traffic crashes more completely.

Erika Lefevre, a French Canadian professor from Alberta, had little in common with Samira Shamoon, an Iraqi Catholic retired homemaker from Massapequa, but both of their adult children died in fatal collisions with vehicles while pedaling at night.

Both gave testimony to councilmembers and a panel of high-ranking police officers about the circumstances of their child’s death and how cops cleared the driver of criminality despite evidence that suggested otherwise.

“I want disclosure, I want to get the truth, that’s why I came to New York once again,” Lefevre told a gaggle of reporters outside before the hearing. “I do not believe drivers who cause deaths should be able to walk away without consequences.”

"Despite the NYPD's bungling, there is ample evidence of the driver's recklessness for the D.A. to consider," she said. "The driver turned without signaling, he ran over our son with his front driver's wide wheel, he dragged a body and a bicycle many yards while barreling up Meserole Street against the flow of traffic.

"The driver should be charged with knowledge that a collision occurred. We hope the Brooklyn D.A. will agree. Laws are created to protect. They serve no purpose if they are not enforced.

"We and the families of the other hundreds of people who die in New York City traffic each year deserve competent and unbiased investigation by the police. Or put another way: courtesy, professionalism, and respect."

Shamoon appeared to have found some solace after a jury found that the driver who killed her daughter acted negligently.

Her daughter, Rasha, 31, was riding eastbound toward the Williamsburg Bridge on Delancey Street on Aug. 5, 2008 at 1:28 a.m., when an SUV struck her near the Bowery. Her family took her off life support a week later.

Police reported she ran a red light at the intersection and did not charge the driver.

But Shamoon’s family pursued the case in civil court, and about a week before the council hearing, a jury found that the driver was almost entirely responsible for the crash—revealing that highway investigators did not take enough evidence from the scene, including interviews with witnesses.

Lefevre encountered a similar ordeal with investigators, and her suit against the NYPD is pending.

Her son, Mathieu, 30, was riding on Morgan Avenue on Oct. 19 at midnight, when a truck took a right turn onto Meserole Street and ran him over.

The driver, who left the scene and parked his trailer three blocks away, told police he did not know he hit Lefevre, and cops did not charge him with a crime.

Just over two months later, highway investigators finished their report, concluding that both Lefevre and the driver were at fault in the accident.

But police documents that Lefevre’s mother gradually obtained through an application of the Freedom of Information Act raised questions for her about the investigation.

One report indicated that investigators did not collect blood samples from the crash scene or Lefevre’s bike helmet. Another had the truck traveling in the wrong direction. And one diagram from the file indicated the truck’s front bumper struck and dragged Lefevre while making the right turn, which did not match an earlier description of the accident.

Lefevre lambasted police in her testimony for both botching the investigation and for refusing to hand over evidence showing the full extent of the crash while telling the press the driver was blameless.

“The driver should be charged with knowledge that a collision occurred,” Lefevre said in her testimony. “We hope the Brooklyn D.A. will agree. Laws are created to protect. They serve no purpose if they are not enforced.”

What happens in the split second after a fatal accident can be the difference between winning and losing a case for a growing number of personal injury lawyers specializing in bicycle rights. Steve Vaccaro, an attorney at Rankin & Taylor, one of the city’s most aggressively pro-bicycle law firms, has argued that the definition of recklessness should be reevaluated.

“I’ve had cyclists come to me with charges of criminal mischief because they rapped on a person’s vehicles while the driver was backing into a bike lane,” Vaccaro told Capital in an interview. “If a driver drives into you and kills or injures you, that’s criminal negligence. There are different classifications. Killing someone is more serious than criminal mischief. The NYPD makes excuses.

"There’s an understanding for a driver who is unaware of his surroundings and people around him. But the cyclist who is rapping on a person’s vehicle can be charged with criminal mischief. The difference is that a cyclist knows he’s touching a car and a driver doesn’t know he’s hitting or running over a cyclist. And it’s not just the police. It’s judges who have that perspective. And that affects what charges district attorneys brings.

Cycling attorneys have been working with Transportation Alternatives to push its safe cycling agenda, Vision Zero, which aims to reduce serious injuries and fatalities on the road.

The city has adopted many of its measures—its most conspicuous and hotly debated safety feature has been doubling the number of new bike lanes since 2006.

And cops have blitzed cyclists for a bevy of traffic-law violations in recent months, though many cycling advocates say the ticketing measures verged on overkill.

Meanwhile, last year, there were about 30,000 traffic accidents and police investigated 334 of them, according to police statistics.

New legislation and the Lefevre lawsuit are aimed to change that.

Councilman Steve Levin of Greenpoint is preparing a bill designed to increase the number of accident specialists to five per precinct and co-sponsored a bill in support of state legislation that would increase the number of red-light cameras in the city, a measure police leadership may welcome.

And late last month, Councilman Brad Lander of Park Slope and the group Transportation Alternatives joined the Lefevre lawsuit, in an effort to compel the NYPD to release its crash reports to the families of victims—which they believe will make police more directly accountable for thoroughly investigating future accidents.

Vaccaro said the suit has already affected how police release information to the public.

“I’ve already seen it,” he said. “The main fight has been how the NYPD handles these cases and discloses information. For years, police would arrive at a case quickly, find no criminality and issue no charges—they haven’t said that lately. The NYPD has refused a FOIL because of an ‘ongoing criminal investigation’ but they’re not selectively leaking information about crashes with ‘blame the victim’ denials.”