BY EMMA G. FITZSIMMONS MARCH 2, 2015
After Allison Liao, 3, was killed by a car in Queens, the man who was behind the wheel, Ahmad Abu-Zayedeh, was not charged. But last month, his driver’s license was revoked by the state, after a long campaign by the girl’s parents, Amy Tam-Liao and Hsi-Pei Liao.
The news was a relief to the Liaos, who were intent on finding a way to hold Mr. Abu-Zayedeh accountable for the 2013 crash, which killed their daughter as she crossed Main Street with her grandmother.
Then they learned that Mr. Abu-Zayedeh could reapply for his license in 30 days, and they found themselves once again feeling frustrated and powerless.
“No amount of time would be satisfactory to me,” Ms. Tam-Liao said in an interview. “We lost our child. To hear that it was 30 days was beyond upsetting.”
The Queens district attorney’s office said that it did not charge Mr. Abu-Zayedeh because its investigation with the police determined that the death was “not the result of criminality on the part of the driver.” A lawyer for Mr. Abu-Zayedeh, Frank Scahill, said the crash appeared to be a “horribly tragic accident.”
Most drivers in New York City do not face felony criminal charges in traffic fatalities, unless they were intoxicated or left the scene. The courts have interpreted state law as setting a high bar for criminally negligent homicide convictions in these cases, and prosecutors have generally heeded the courts’ direction.
In recent years, the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, has reversed some convictions, saying a driver’s actions must be not only negligent but also “morally blameworthy.”
A year after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his Vision Zero plan to eliminate traffic deaths, safety advocates are calling for increased prosecution of drivers who violate traffic laws, including a new one that makes failure to yield a misdemeanor, instead of a traffic violation, if a pedestrian is killed or injured. They are also asking the State Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend a driver’s license after serious offenses as a way of deterring dangerous driving.
The push, and the pushback, show some of the challenges facing the mayor as he seeks to bring the number of traffic fatalities — 248 last year — to zero by 2024.
Under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the city began to reimagine and remake the way people move about the city, including the proliferation of bike lanes and major street redesigns that allowed for large plazas. Now under Mr. de Blasio, the city is trying to make it safer to walk, bike and, yes, drive around the city.
But just as Mr. Bloomberg’s transportation agenda faced headwinds, Mr. de Blasio’s is too, not least over the effort to punish dangerous driving more severely. After a bus driver was charged this year, under the new failure-to-yield law for striking a pedestrian, the drivers’ union denounced the arrest, saying the city was trying to criminalize accidents.
Last month, a Brooklyn man, Julio Acevedo, was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and second-degree manslaughter for the 2013 deaths of a couple and their baby who were riding in a livery cab struck by Mr. Acevedo’s vehicle. But if the punishment was notably tough, Mr. Acevedo’s actions had been particularly callous. Not only was he was traveling at about twice the speed limit, prosecutors said, but he also looked inside the cab after the crash and then fled the scene and the area.
“It should not require such extreme behavior in order for drivers to be held accountable,” said Caroline Samponaro, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, the bicycle and pedestrian advocacy group.
Safety advocates aim to take a page from the campaign in the 1980s to stigmatize drunken driving, which was for generations viewed as socially acceptable, and to likewise bring attention to dangerous driving, said Brad Lander, a city councilman in Brooklyn.
“It became a very shameful thing when it really hadn’t been before, and there was real enforcement to go along with it, and as a result, many fewer people were killed,” Councilman Lander said.
He said drivers should be more thoughtful on the road, despite the city’s aggressive driving culture, which sometimes means “not driving like a New Yorker.”
After a 14-year-old boy in his district was killed by a car in November, Mr. Lander started a new effort with the Brooklyn district attorney, Kenneth P. Thompson, to focus on driver accountability. Their task force, which met with safety advocates and a victims group for the first time in January, is the first of its kind in the country, they said.
Mr. Thompson met with the family of the boy who was killed, Mohammad Naiem Uddin. He had been a freshman at Brooklyn Technical High School, and he was killed a few blocks from his family’s apartment in Kensington as he walked home from school. The driver, Lynn Reynolds, 78, was charged with a felony for leaving the scene of the crash and with failure to yield because Naiem was in a crosswalk with a walk signal.
In an interview, Mr. Thompson said he was moved to do more to prevent traffic fatalities after meeting the boy’s father, who was inconsolable.
“As prosecutors, we can make sure that we take these cases seriously,” Mr. Thompson said.
In recent years, Brooklyn has had the most pedestrian deaths of any borough — on average, about 46 each year, according to the city’s Transportation Department. In February, the department released safety action plans for each borough, including one for Brooklyn that identifies where there have been crashes, to be the focus of engineering and enforcement plans.
Mr. Thompson’s office has charged six drivers under the new failure-to-yield law since it went into effect in August, including Ms. Reynolds, said Lupe Todd, a spokeswoman for Mr. Thompson.
Proponents of Vision Zero say the punishment for the misdemeanor crime — a fine of up to $250 or 30 days in jail — is fair. Traffic violations for failure to yield, which are still issued if no one is injured, are handled by the Department of Motor Vehicles and carry lesser penalties.
The agency holds safety hearings to investigate traffic fatalities. At a hearing in January for the Liao case, the girl’s grandmother and two police officers testified before an administrative law judge. The judge, Sidney Fuchs, found that the pair were in the crosswalk and had the walk signal, and revoked Mr. Abu-Zayedeh’s license because he failed to yield or to use due care to avoid colliding with a pedestrian.
Mr. Abu-Zayedeh can reapply to get his license back, but his “entire driving history” will be reviewed before the department decides whether to approve or deny his application, said Jackie McGinnis, a spokeswoman for the Department of Motor Vehicles. All drivers who have a license revoked can apply to have it reinstated, she said, and the earliest they can begin that process is 30 days after the date of the revocation.
Victims’ families have different ideas of what justice looks like in these cases. For Rabia Sultana, Naiem’s older sister, the driver would remain off the streets so she cannot hurt anyone else.
The Brooklyn task force will consider restorative justice measures, in which drivers meet with the families of victims. Ms. Sultana said she would want to speak with Ms. Reynolds to better understand what happened in her brother’s final moments.
“Even if it’s not an apology,” she said, “she could sit down and tell us anything she can.”
FIND THE ORIGINAL: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/03/nyregion/safety-advocates-want-harsher-penalties-for-new-yorks-drivers.html