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District Attorneys Can Start Enforcing Hayley and Diego’s Law Today

10:17 AM EDT on October 14, 2010

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Hayley and Diego's Law takes effect today, giving law enforcement a new tool to use against dangerous drivers. With this law, district attorneys throughout New York state can bring the charge of "careless driving" against motorists who irresponsibly injure pedestrians and cyclists.

In 2008 alone, traffic crashes killed 344 pedestrians and cyclists in New York state, and injured 20,739 more, according to the DMV. Even so, legal action stronger than handing out a traffic ticket is rarely taken, even in cases where one party is clearly at fault, like when a driver left his van idling unattended last year and the vehicle killed preschoolers Hayley Ng and Diego Martinez.

Before today, there was no middle ground between handing out moving violations and aggressive charges like criminally negligent homicide, which prosecutors say can be difficult prove. Hayley and Diego's law creates a new option for law enforcement: charging motorists with the new crime of careless driving. Drivers who injure a pedestrian or cyclist "while failing to exercise due care" would be required to take drivers' ed, and could be sentenced to fines of up to $750, jail time of up to 15 days, and a license suspension of up to six months.

Transportation Alternatives' Noah Budnick said that T.A. has been in close contact with district attorneys and that most are ready to use the new law where appropriate. "Because this law came out of conversations we had with them about their previous inability to prosecute a lot of dangerous drivers," said Budnick, "they are unfortunately intimately familiar with the use of the law."

A spokesperson for Manhattan DA Cy Vance said that while the office doesn't speak about hypothetical cases, "the stronger the tools we have, the more we can do with them." Vance supported the law while it was working its way through the legislature.

Joseph McCormack, the chief of the Vehicular Crimes Bureau at the Bronx District Attorney's office, laid out exactly why Hayley and Diego's Law could be useful when it was signed into law. He told Streetsblog that in one recent horrific crash, which killed a person waiting at a bus stop and injured six more, a 2008 precedent meant he wouldn't have been able to convict the motorist for criminal negligence. If Hayley and Diego's law had been in effect, however, he said he would at least have been able to apply that law.

For Hayley and Diego's Law to make pedestrians and cyclists safer, it's essential that district attorneys and other law enforcement officials embrace it. The deterrent effect on dangerous driving will only take hold if the law is prosecuted consistently and visibly. In Oregon, where a similar law was first passed, spreading awareness of the law has been a challenge.

Budnick suggested that in New York, DAs would be able to successfully and quickly publicize Hayley and Diego's Law to motorists. "The DAs are not afraid of press and they know how to use that as a bully pulpit," he said.

The enactment of Hayley and Diego's Law should help make drivers more careful behind the wheel, but other changes remain necessary to hold reckless drivers accountable. Advances in evidence collection from crash scenes, like the use of "black box" data recorders in cars, could help law enforcement determine driver culpability and apply firmer charges more often. The auto safety bill pending in Congress could mandate the inclusion of black boxes in new cars.

At the state level, Budnick said that T.A. is now beginning to look closely at suspended licenses. "People with suspended licenses, who aren't supposed to be driving, drive all the time," he said. "There needs to be some strengthening and housekeeping applied to the suspended license laws in New York."

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