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Robert Morgenthau

DA Candidates Pledge Tougher Stance on Vehicular Crime

4:56 PM EDT on June 3, 2009

cardozo.jpg(l-r): Richard Aborn, Cyrus Vance, Jr., Richard Socarides, Jonathan Oberman. Photo: Brad Aaron

Drivers who kill and maim pedestrians and cyclists should be subject to thorough investigation and, when warranted, vigorous prosecution, candidates for Manhattan District Attorney said today.

Cyrus Vance, Jr. and Richard Aborn addressed a small crowd of advocates, citizens and reporters at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law near Union Square this morning. Leslie Crocker Snyder did not attend as planned, but sent senior staffer Richard Socarides (who arrived by bike) in her stead. All three candidates are Democrats, and all have worked for retiring DA Robert Morgenthau. (Republican Greg Camp recently joined the race.)

Though the event was billed as a "debate" on traffic justice, differences in the candidates' stated positions were subtle. Socarides was not as free to delve into specifics on policy, putting himself and Snyder at an obvious disadvantage, but both Vance and Aborn promised, if elected, to treat deaths and injuries inflicted by motor vehicle as seriously as those caused by other means.

Streetsblog Editor-in-Chief Aaron Naparstek set the tone of the discussion, citing the deaths of cyclist Rasha Shamoon and pedestrian preschoolers James Rice, Diego Martinez and Hayley Ng in opening remarks. None of the drivers involved in those fatalities, as Streetsblog readers know, were charged with a crime, and all were allowed to continue driving immediately afterward. As Cardozo Professor Jonathan Oberman, who moderated today's forum, would later point out, just 29 drivers in New York State have been indicted for criminally negligent homicide in the last 15 years. And while approximately 150 pedestrians are struck dead annually in New York City, Aaron noted, with some 15,000 injured, the day-to-day lives of an untold number of city residents are compromised by fear, decreased mobility, and other quality-of-life incursions imposed by dangerous drivers.

Before dangerous drivers become killer drivers, Vance said, police and prosecutors should intervene by, for example, charging urban speeders with reckless driving. Serious enforcement, he said, begins with curbing "potentially tragic" behavior. Aborn agreed, adding that he would actively push for state laws to apply graduated penalties to repeat offenses. Treating misdemeanors in this manner, Aborn said, would also act as a deterrent, making the motoring public more aware of its responsibilities.

Aborn stressed the value of education -- not only of the public, but also of juries and prosecutors. Aborn said he believes that the "rule of two," a commonly applied standard that requires drivers involved in a crash to be suspected of at least two simultaneous infractions before criminal charges may be brought, is "ready to be tested" in court. (Though he added that, in most instances, finding multiple violations should not be a problem in the first place.) Aborn said prosecutors should not be "afraid" to try to prove criminal negligence, nor should they "overstate" the burden of proof to juries. Both Vance and Socarides agreed that the "totality of circumstances" -- a broader standard -- should be considered in all cases.

Aborn also took issue with the term "accident" to define all traffic collisions. A former president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Aborn said he would take the same approach to crashes as that organization does to gun-related injuries and deaths. Leaving a loaded gun unattended is no longer considered a blameless "accident," Aborn said, and drivers should be held to a similar standard of care.

During the audience Q&A session, the two candidates and Socarides were quizzed by Charles Komanoff (on hand with freshly-printed copies of "Killed By Automobile") on the use of event data recorders. The motor vehicle equivalent of a commercial airliner's "black box," the recorders are now commonly installed in passenger vehicles, though their use in crash investigations is almost unheard of. Vance said he would consider such information "critical," and would issue subpoenas, if needed, to acquire it. Equating auto collisions with airline crashes, Aborn said recorded vehicle data should be seized in "every single incident," not just to determine blame, but to understand causality with the aim of preventing future deaths and injuries.

Christine Berthet of the Clinton/Hell's Kitchen Coalition for Pedestrian Safety (CHEKPEDS) asked if, as district attorney, the candidates would direct NYPD to treat crash sites as crime scenes, with vehicles impounded and drivers detained for questioning. (Berthet referred to a hit-and-run in Hell's Kitchen wherein the driver, though identified, was not returned to the scene, nor was the vehicle held as evidence.) While the candidates and Socarides agreed that vehicles should be impounded and witnesses and drivers thoroughly interviewed, they were circumspect on the issue of detention. Even in cases of death, Aborn said, criminality is not a given, and detaining a driver amounts to an arrest. However, he said, as DA he would assign an on-call prosecutor vested with the power to determine if further investigation is warranted. Both Aborn and Vance said vehicular crimes prosecutors should receive specialized training.

Finally, Mary Beth Kelly, widow of cyclist Dr. Carl Nacht -- killed in 2006 by an unrepentant NYPD tow truck driver whose license was suspended for three months -- asked who among the candidates would be willing as district attorney to wage a "full court press" for traffic justice, from prosecuting first offenders and fighting for changes in red light camera legislation and other laws to pushing for physical street improvements. Though New York enjoys relatively low crime rates, Kelly said, the city is "still scary" for pedestrians and cyclists.

Noting that annual vehicle-related fatalities now rival the number of murders committed in Manhattan, Aborn pledged to take the battle to Albany, where legislators, he said, need to be "educated." For his part, Vance promised to work with city agencies, the City Council, and public advocates on street design and other issues.

As for Albany, Vance said, "A full court press is required."

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