Thursday, October 15, 2009

Law Would Help Prevent Theft of Unattended Vehicles

Crowley Pushes Bill in Light of MV Tragedy

By Conor Greene

While motorists often don’t think twice about leaving their vehicle running while they run inside a store for a quick errand, doing so can have deadly consequences, as in incidents in Chinatown and Middle Village earlier this year that killed four people.

The City Council is currently considering a bill that would increase the fine for leaving a running vehicle unattended from $5 to $250. A hearing on the law, sponsored by Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village), was held in City Hall during last Thursday’s Transportation Committee meeting. The committee will likely vote on the bill at its next meeting and the full Council is expected to consider it by the end of the month.

Crowley is pushing the new legislation in the wake of several tragedies that resulted after drivers left their running vehicles unattended. In January, two children were killed and 11 others injured in Chinatown after a van slipped into reverse and drove onto a sidewalk after the driver had exited the vehicle.

Several weeks later, 18-year- old Robert Ogle, for whom the law is named, was killed along with 20-year-old Alex Paul of Brooklyn by a drunken driver who struck them while speeding along Eliot Avenue before fleeing the scene. The driver, Kenneth Guyear, had stolen the unattended vehicle just minutes earlier from outside a deli after the owner of the car went inside to buy cigarettes. He was arrested several minutes after the incident.

Robert Ogle’s parents, Brendan and Mei, attended last Thursday’s committee hearing in support of the law. Brendan Ogle testified on its behalf along with Robert Holden, president of the Juniper Park Civic Association, which represents 1,600 families in the area. Also voicing support for the new law were Councilmembers John Liu (D-Flushing), who is chairman of the Transportation Committee, and Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park).

“I’m here on behalf of Councilmember Crowley’s bill,” said Ogle. “I know too well that an unattended and running car can become a deadly weapon. It is necessary to increase the awareness and penalties for people who are careless with their personal property because money talks... This is necessary legislation that will avoid big problems for a lot of people because of someone else’s carelessness.”

In addition to the increased fines, a campaign to increase the public’s awareness over the dangers of leaving running vehicles unattended would be a centerpiece of the new law. Crowley noted that ten percent of all car thefts within the 104th Precinct are of unattended running vehicles.

“Sadly, the death of the two young men may have been avoided if a man had not left his car running while shopping in a store,” said Crowley. “Leaving your car running and unattended seems like a minor, careless mistake but all New Yorkers must understand that it is irresponsible, dangerous and potentially deadly... As a mother and a neighbor, I admire [the Ogle’s] strength and courage to be here with us to help prevent this from ever happening again.”

Holden said the death of Ogle represented a “tremendous loss” for the community and compared leaving a car unattended and running to “leaving a loaded gun laying around for anyone to take.” Despite the dangers, “too often the city overlooks these small crimes with fatal consequences.” He said the bill “is important to ensure these mistakes,” which he chalked up to “laziness and carelessness” do not happen again.

Susan Petito of the NYPD’s intergovernmental affairs unit weighed in on several aspects of the bill that might require wording changes. She said the NYPD supports the bill’s intention, but suggested that the law also include incidents where a driver turn off the engine but leave the key in the ignition of an unattended vehicle “so that the separate public safety interest in preventing vehicle theft continues to be addressed.” Not making this change could “unintentionally weaken the law,” she noted.

In addition, the NYPD has concerns as to how the new law would apply to bus drivers, including charter and passenger lines. “There may be particular situations in which a bus driver leaves the bus in order to help passengers or unload luggage, and it is unclear whether a driver in that circumstance would be leaving the bus unattended,” said Petito.

Ulrich, who represents the portion of Queens directly south of Crowley’s district, said the tragedy in Middle Village personally affected him because he knows the Ogle family. “What happened in Middle Village could happen anywhere in this city,” he said, adding that he strongly supports the new law.

Liu said that it appears the NYPD and Bloomberg administration is in favor of the bill overall, but would like some minor changes. “These are wording changes that can be reconciled quickly over the next couple of weeks and this bill will pass,” he said. “It crushes me to think that lives can be taken because of some- one’s careless mistake. The thought of those little kids being crushed against a wall because somebody was idiotic enough to leave the ve- hicle in reverse. That can’t happen in this city.”


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