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When We Treat Driving as a Fundamental Right, People Lose Their Lives

Vigil for Abigail Blumenstein and Joshua Lew. Video still: WCBS

When I moved to New York from Georgia 12 years ago, one of the first things I did was get a drivers license.

The New York State DMV gives new residents 30 days to exchange an out of state license. It could hardly have been easier. If your old license is valid -- or it expired less than 24 months prior -- and you've had it longer than six months, all you have to do to swap it for a New York license is take an eye test.

It didn't matter that, with little experience driving in urban settings, I was relocating to the densest city in the country. (Downtown Athens, where I lived, is one of the more walkable environments in the south, but it's no Manhattan.) With no instruction on how driving in NYC differs from driving elsewhere, it's no surprise that I unwittingly broke a city parking law on moving day.

Getting a New York license from scratch is only marginally more involved. When Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, went through the process in 2014, his required five-hour course actually took just 90 minutes. “It clearly left a lot to be desired,” White told Streetsblog. “Anyone can pass this 15-question quiz, and you take this class from a rinky-dink outfit, and you’re on the road.”

When my first New York license expired after five years, an eye test was all it took to get an eight-year renewal. As I age and my body deteriorates, as everyone's does, I expect a periodic eye exam and renewal fee will be my only interaction with the DMV. Since the eye test form can be submitted online, it's conceivable I will never have to set foot in a New York DMV office again.

Treating driving privileges as a fundamental right is how someone like Dorothy Bruns draws attention only after doing grave harm. Media outlets are reporting that Bruns, who killed Abigail Blumenstein and Joshua Lew and injured their mothers and another pedestrian in Park Slope Monday, has serious health issues, including multiple sclerosis, that could affect her ability to drive.

"In the months before Bruns climbed behind the wheel of her white Volvo, her appearance became so haggard that a neighbor worried about her taking the wheel," the Daily News reported. "Bruns was barely able to walk at times, and her MS could have increased her chances of seizures."

Bruns, 44, has a history of heart attacks and strokes, according to the News. NYPD and Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez are reportedly investigating her medical history. Her license was suspended in the meantime.

It takes considerable effort to lose a New York drivers license. For example, accumulating 11 or more license points within 18 months "may" trigger a license suspension, according to the DMV. When the suspension period is up (often after just a few weeks), all a driver has to do to get privileges reinstated is complete some paperwork and pay a fee.

Though the car she was driving was tagged eight times in less than two years for running red lights and speeding in school zones, Bruns had a "clean" driving record, in part because in New York, camera violations don't result in license points.

“If Bruns had racked up these charges through traditional, human-enforced speeding and red-light tickets, she could have accrued enough ‘points’ under the state’s penalty system to lose her license,” wrote Nicole Gelinas in City Journal. “Clearly, the New York system is seriously flawed.”

Officials and the media are questioning how someone who posed such an obvious and significant threat to public safety was allowed to drive. “She should have had her license and her car taken away from her long ago,” City Council Member Brad Lander, who represents the district where Monday’s crash occurred, told the Times. “Who are the people who are too dangerous to be driving, and how do we make sure that they’re not?”

Attorney Steve Vaccaro, who specializes in representing traffic violence victims, said on Twitter that cities like New York should have more stringent license requirements, because "urban driving is orders of magnitude more dangerous." As it stands, not even cab drivers are required to take a New York City road test.

The danger is that enthusiasm for developing and adopting reforms will wane as this story fades from the news cycle. Electeds will have to sustain the momentum in order to prevent the next horrific crash.

“I don’t want the cops to arrest my children’s killer,” said Doug Gordon, a.k.a. Brooklyn Spoke, at yesterday’s street safety rally in Park Slope. “I want my children to not be killed.”

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