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Half-a-BILLION Wasted in Reckless Driving by City Workers

Better get Maaco — or, more accurately, some driver’s ed.

The City of New York has spent more than $550 million since 2013 in payouts to the victims of road recklessness caused by employees of just five key agencies crashing their city-owned vehicles, Streetsblog has learned.

The grand total over those six-plus years is $557,994,577 in claim settlements against the Departments of Sanitation, Police, Fire, Transportation and Parks — an astonishingly high figure. It’s roughly the equivalent of the entire annual budget for the Department for the Aging, with enough left over to run the entire Queens Public Library system, the busiest in the world.

On an annual basis, the city has paid out an average of roughly $84.5 million to settle vehicle crashes — a sum is equal to the annual budgets for the Department of Veterans’ Services, the Department of Emergency Management, the Landmarks Preservation Commission and all of the 59 community boards — with enough money left over to run the Manhattan and Queens borough presidents’ offices.

It’s not only costly, it’s flushing money down the toilet.

“Traffic violence by public employees is a line item New York City cannot afford,” said Council Member Brad Lander (who is running for comptroller — a position that has to sign off on these settlements). “The claims the city pays out each year for crashes caused by city vehicles costs tens of millions of dollars we could be spending on our schools or parks — and it can never repair the damage done to victims and their families.”

Now, at the end of the day, $84 million a year may not sound like a big deal, given that the city taxpayers spend roughly $1 billion per year to settle all claims against the city, including police brutality, civil rights violations, discrimination settlements, slip-and-fall cases, medical errors and other claims.

But $84 million from just five agencies is still a lot of money — roughly 8.5 percent of the city’s annual payouts for all claims.

The city spent the most money settling suits involving crashes with a city vehicle. Source: Comptroller's office.
The city spent the most money settling suits involving crashes with a city vehicle. Source: Comptroller’s office.

The broad brush strokes of the crash crisis has been laid out annually by Comptroller Scott Stringer and his predecessors. From those reports, we know that motor vehicle crashes are the single biggest segment of settlements in personal injury cases against the city. As the chart to the left shows, 19 percent of all of those personal injury settlements stemmed from crashes, ahead of police wrongdoing (18 percent) or civil rights violations (17 percent).

It’s also well documented that city workers across all the agencies get into about 6,000 crashes per year in their city-owned vehicles, according to the Mayor’s Management Report. Streetsblog crunched the numbers and found that the number of collisions the city deemed preventable went up last year from 3,347 to 3,357 — and injuries were also up, from 763 to 827, an increase of more than 8 percent.

There are roughly 30,000 vehicles in the city fleet. Lander said that those tens of thousands of cars don’t have to be a problem — if their drivers could simply stop being so reckless.

“Under Vision Zero, city agency fleets should be a leading example, not a special threat,” he said. “We must establish accountability for reckless driving. We have the data to tell us which cars are being driven recklessly on a regular basis and putting neighbors at risk. The accounting is clear: it’s time to change their behavior or get them off the road.”

Council Member Danny Dromm, who chairs the Finance Committee, said the amount of money wasted because of crashes is so appalling that he’ll bring it up during the budget debate next spring — when his committee has broad oversight over all agencies.

“It’s horrible that the city is spending so much because these crashes are 100 percent preventable,” said Dromm. “When we get into the budget hearings, I can ask all the agencies for an explanation of what’s causing these crashes and what they intend to do about them.”

Four of the five agencies in this story have workers with the worst safety records. The city calculates the safety record by ranking the number of collisions per 100,000 miles of travel. Based on that, here are the agencies ranked from worst crash rate to best:

    1. FDNY (10.1 collisions per 100,000 miles)
    2. Sanitation (7.6)
    3. Parks (4.7)
    4. NYPD (4.4)

The Department of Transportation came in seventh with a rate of 2.7.

The comptroller’s annual report on total settlements is broken down by agency and by type, but not by agency by type — meaning that it’s been unclear how much each agency has paid out as a result of recklessness or carelessness behind the wheel of a city-owned vehicle.

Until now. Here’s what our freedom of information law request revealed:


NYPD Settlements by Year

The Police Department not only leads in overall settlements (thanks to brutality and other claims that are specific to police work), but also leads with tens of millions in motor vehicle crash settlements every year. It also has the biggest fleet, with roughly 9.400 vehicles.

Since 2013, NYPD crashes have cost the city $228 million in settlements (that figure, like all figures in this story, does not count repair costs to the city fleet).

The average payout is $51,000 per settlement over that period.

Payouts and the number of claims have ranged over time, but the agency is on pace to spend far more this year than it did last year — and is on pace to come close to its record-breaking year of $44 million in 2017.

Calendar year 2017 was particularly expensive, thanks to $9.25 million in settlements that carried over from 2013 crashes — including $2 million to an Oklahoma woman who entirely lost her memory after she was slammed by a traffic enforcement officer. Her tale later became national news because she ended up re-falling in love with the husband she didn’t remember. And they lived happily ever after.

The 2017 settlements also include a $3.5-million payout to a teenager on a dirt bike who was paralyzed after he was struck by a patrol car — in what may have been an intentional act by the NYPD officer, his lawyer argued before the settlement. Surveillance video later proved the lawyer correct.


DSNY Settlements by Year

The Department of Sanitation is the next most expensive agency, having laid out $204 million over the last six and a half years. It has the second-largest fleet, at 4,787 vehicles.

The last three full years have been bad ones for the agency, with rising payouts even as the number of claims has started to drop.

Calendar year 2017 was the worst recent year on record, with nearly $46 million spent to settle 616 claims, an average of $74,635 per claim. That year was particularly bad because of several massive personal injury claims from previous years that finally got paid out, including $6 million to settle one 2011 crash, $4 million on another and $2.1 million on a third; $2 million stemming from a 2013 crash; $3 million from a 2012 claim; and $2.75 million for a 2009 crash that didn’t even involve a serious injury.

The difference between some of the large settlements and the smaller ones appear to be simply how aggressively a victim pursues the case.

Over the six-plus-year period, however, claims have averaged $37,248 each.

Fire Department

FDNY Settlements by Year

Given all the rushing to emergencies and the high crash rate, the FDNY has a surprisingly low number of payouts, though it still finishes third in our five-agency survey. It has a fleet of 1,871 vehicles.

Since 2013, Fire Department crash settlements have cost city taxpayers $84.5 million, with an average payout of $28,163.

The settlements are fairly consistent year to year, except for an anomaly in 2015, thanks to two settlements totaling $4.25 million stemming from crashes four years earlier.


Parks Settlements by Year

The Parks Department is known for maintaining leafy spaces where New Yorkers can relax or toss a ball — but crashes by agency employees have cost taxpayers $29.5 million since 2013. It has a fleet of 2,534 vehicles.

That’s a lot of green. But that’s what happens when your employees have even worse crash rates than the NYPD.

The number of payouts have been fairly consistent over the years. Settlements seemed to have gotten under control after the most expensive recent year — spending nearly $7 million to settle crashes in 2014 — but they were back up in that stratosphere by 2017. The agency is on pace for one another costly year this year.


DOT Settlements by Year

The DOT has transportation in its name, but safety appears to be increasingly a part of its game.

Since 2013, the agency has cost city taxpayers$11.1 million in crash settlements — but the number of settlements and the average payout for each them has been mostly dropping year after year after year (including the current calendar year). The agency has a fleet of 3,393 vehicles.

Perhaps that’s the least that could be expected from the agency in charge of the mayor’s Vision Zero program, but the numbers are still impressive — dropping from an average payout of close to $40,000 in 2013 to less than $3,000 today.

“This is exactly the kind of thing I’ll ask about — why their workers appear to be doing a better job and how can other agencies do the same,” Dromm said.

None of the agencies in this story returned a request for comment from Streetsblog.

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