When it comes to accidents involving vehicles striking pedestrians, things are very different now than they were 20 years ago. Back then, if a person was hit with a car, it was presumed to be an accident unless a witness or other evidence suggested otherwise. There were fewer security cameras and no traffic cameras. This made it hard to tell the difference between an honest accident and reckless behavior.
Fast forward to today, things are different. Cameras are everywhere. There are lots of opportunities for police to see how the vehicle was driving prior to the impact. We can also often see what the pedestrian was doing and ascertain his or her role in the accident.
The law has also changed, especially in New York City. These days if you hit a pedestrian, you will be detained. Police will then take the time to reconstruct the accident. If it’s determined that you neglected the pedestrian, you’re probably going to get arrested.
Whether you are the driver or the pedestrian in this scenario, there are several important things you need to know.
Pedestrians Have the Right of Way
Pedestrians always have the right of way. It doesn’t matter if they are in the crosswalk or not. It doesn’t matter if they are crossing against the light or not. A driver is expected to be mindful of his or her surroundings at all times.
Does that mean a driver who hits a pedestrian is automatically wrong? Not always. Sometimes an accident is an accident. If a child runs into the street after a ball and the driver can’t stop in time, that may not be negligence—a tragedy, yes, but not necessarily negligence. Still, officers will conduct a thorough investigation to find out if the accident was malicious, negligent, or otherwise.
NYC’s Vision Zero program, which began in 2014, changed the way NYPD approaches things. Now officers must err on the side of suspecting negligence pending the final investigation. And it’s clear that word has gotten out that drivers can’t just carelessly hit pedestrians, but I don’t know how much it made a difference in terms of reducing accidents.
Call 9-1-1 Every Time
If you hit someone, you have to stop and report it to the police. A lot of people want to skip this step, especially if the vehicle was going slowly and no one seems to be hurt. But this is a bad idea. You want to be fully compliant with the law; the decision not to call could be construed as a hit-and-run, and that can lead to more trouble. More importantly, you want your side of the story documented in a police report.
Likewise, 10 out of 10 times if you are hit by a vehicle, you need to get checked out by an EMT or other medical professional. Most of the time when vehicles strike a pedestrian, the need for an ambulance is not in dispute. But it can’t be stressed enough that even if you feel OK after being struck by a vehicle, you should go to the hospital and make sure. You may not notice the injury for hours or even days due to shock or other factors.
There are only two scenarios in which a person hits a pedestrian and keeps going: either you didn’t realize it or you got scared/were in shock.
If you didn’t realize you hit someone—let’s say you just clip something—you could think you hit a pothole. However, if you are driving you should be aware of what is going on around you. When you take the road test it states you should be aware of what is happening in your peripherals. But the fact is most drivers of passenger vehicles will notice a difference between hitting a pothole and hitting a living thing. The impact and sound are just too different. Even running over a squirrel or bird doesn’t feel the same as a simple bump in the road.
The exception may be truck drivers. Some of these large rigs can be so big you don’t even feel the impact at all. That said, if a camera catches you striking someone, you could still be charged. Truck drivers have an obligation to be mindful of their surroundings. I recall an incident where a NYC bus unknowingly hit a pedestrian. The driver had to be flagged down to stop and was subsequently arrested.
It’s also worth keeping in mind that police have ways of determining if a person was aware of whether or not they hit someone. If police can track down the vehicle (and they almost always can), the most telling evidence is how the person reacts when told they hit someone. Police are trained to identify an authentic reaction to that news and a dishonest reaction. In many ways, it’s a common-sense kind of thing.
If you know that you hit someone but you’ve fled in panic, your legal defenses have become pretty thin. As I mentioned in another article, the best thing you can do is to return to the scene as soon as you’ve calmed down. If it’s far too late for that--hours or days have passed--then you will need the advice of an attorney.
Lawsuits and Liability
At the end of the day, most people who hit pedestrians are not charged with a crime. However, that doesn’t mean the driver won’t be hit with a lawsuit. For drivers in New York State, you should always get good insurance coverage for exactly that reason. If you get into an accident and someone suffers an extreme injury, the insurance will not pay out more than your coverage amount, which for most people is $50,000. You are liable for the rest.
The opposite of that is a pedestrian who is struck by a vehicle should strongly consider suing. The injuries from an accident like this can linger for the rest of your life, even if they seem minor at first. That said, keep in mind how your own actions may have contributed to the accident. Pedestrians have the right of way legally, but from a liability standpoint, if you were texting or jogging with your headphones in, that can affect how much of an award you get from a lawsuit.