Is It Right to Forgive the Deadly Driver?

Nine years ago next week my wife was hit by a cab driver. She was crossing at an intersection at the edge of downtown Athens, Georgia, on her way to meet me for some grocery shopping and, per usual for a Friday, an evening at our favorite watering hole. I was wrapping up editing duties for the following week’s edition of the paper where I worked when I got the call.

Forgiveness does not necessarily equate to absolution, but dismissing the value of justice does have a way of cheapening life.

“Hey, is this Brad?” said the stranger on the line. “Your wife got bumped by a taxi.” That was the word: bumped. I remember running from my office into the lobby of the building, yelling. The publisher and I ran to his old Volvo wagon and he drove me to the scene.

Jennifer was crossing with the light when the cab driver, attempting to turn right on red and looking for traffic coming from his left, rolled up onto her foot. When she pounded on the hood he backed up, running her over a second time. She was taken by ambulance to the emergency room, where we spent the rest of the day before she was sent home on crutches.

The driver was charged with failing to yield to a pedestrian and got a $75 ticket, but neither he nor his employer admitted fault. Rather than haggle over medical costs, we took the cab company’s insurer to civil court — or, more accurately, we took them and our own insurer to court, since cab companies in Georgia were (and still are, I imagine) required to carry the barest of coverage. Following a couple of hours of testimony from Jennifer, the cabbie, the witness who called me from his cell phone, and me, each side rested its case. After a brief period of deliberation, the jury had a question for the judge: Can we award more than the amount of the suit?

We won in court, but we never got the satisfaction of an admission of guilt, much less an apology. Instead our attorney said word around the cab company was that Jennifer made a habit of being hit by cars for money. Miraculously, her foot wasn’t crushed. She does, however, suffer numbness and pain in her foot and knee that persist to this day. I try not to think about what might have happened if she had taken one more step before the driver hit the gas. All things considered, we got lucky.

So it is with some squeamishness that I broach the issue of remorse exhibited by drivers who injure and kill, and forgiveness granted them by their victims. I am amazed, frankly, by a person like Maria Boffa, who this week approached her son’s shackled killer in court and wished him well. Joseph Boffa, a high school social studies teacher, was run down by a drunken Luis Guamal in Dyker Heights last March. Guamal, who pleaded guilty to aggravated vehicular homicide and was sentenced to eight to 24 years in prison, seemed to Ms. Boffa a lonely soul in need of comfort. “I did it for my son’s sake,” she said. “I felt he was really remorseful.”

I have read and written about far too many cases like this over the last few years: grieving relatives and friends suddenly left to grapple with an unfathomable and eternal absence, killers punished or not punished by rule of law. In most instances where the killer expresses contrition, I personally have a difficult time differentiating between remorse and self-pity. Is the perpetrator truly sorry for what he has done, for the untimely death of his victim and the pain and suffering of loved ones — or is he scared for himself, and sorry for his punishment? It might be easier if all killers were like Kayla Gerdes, the unlicensed and allegedly drugged van driver on Long Island who initially took solace in that her victim, at 69, had lived a long time before Gerdes ran her down in her own front yard.

I hate to say it, but something like anger rises in me when I hear victims say that punishing a deadly driver won’t bring their beloved back to life. Would the same be said had the killer been careless with a gun, or a knife, or a crane, rather than a motor vehicle? And what of future victims whose lives might be saved by keeping a killer off the road? Forgiveness is intensely personal, and it does not necessarily equate to absolution — no one is suggesting that Luis Guamal be pardoned for his crime — but dismissing the value of justice does have a way of cheapening life.

I was raised on southern car culture at a time when aftermarket tachometers were as common as ashtrays and drunk driving was either joked about or spoken of in hushed tones, often in the aftermath of the latest “accident.” As I have been been affected by the consequences of traffic violence, so have I wreaked havoc myself. Less than two weeks after getting my license — the insanity of putting 16-year-olds behind the wheel unsupervised is a topic for another day — I was the catalyst behind a highway collision that injured another driver. I wasn’t drunk, or high, nor was I at that moment behaving badly. I was simply a child with more responsibility than experience. I also escaped relatively unscathed. Sure, I received a ticket, and my insurance (which my parents paid) went up. But there I was, back behind the wheel in a matter of days. Though I was in fact sorry for what I had done, only years later, when I mostly ditched my car and walking became my primary mode, did I consistently begin driving, as my elders would say, like I had some damn sense.

There were mitigating factors — note how easy it is to assume the mantle of victimhood — including a terrifically dangerous intersection that no longer exists. Still, at minimum I should have lost my license until age 18. If the crash had been more serious, if someone had been killed, from this vantage point I think probation of some sort would have been in order, in addition to a lengthy suspension of driving privileges. Something, anything, that would have kept me off the road until I learned my lesson.

Reader Larry Littlefield wrote recently that Streetsblog’s Weekly Carnage column caused him to be “more concerned than ever that [he] might somehow run over someone while driving.” No kidding, Larry. I know of other readers who don’t drive at all for fear of hitting a pedestrian or cyclist. I see driving itself, with all its harmful externalities and potential for so much immediate damage, as an act of violence, and though I don’t drive all that often, I still do it. When I drive now, I do my best to drive like a pedestrian. Like I have some damn sense. The last thing on earth I ever want to be is forgiven.

  • “I see driving itself…as an act of violence.” I agree. The guilt begins as soon as you turn the key in the ignition.

  • ddartley

    Nothing you can do about individuals who want to forgive drivers. What we all need to keep pressing for is a criminal justice system that doesn’t forgive them.

    Ms. Boffa’s gesture was nice, but it’s easier for me to say that knowing that who she forgave had just been given 8-24.

  • Paul

    I occasionally take a Zip Car on a big errand or weekend trip. Driving in my urban neighborhood is soooo much different then when I’m on my bike or feet, and it’s really amazing how cautious and alert I am when I drive now, compared to when I was a daily driver. I see drivers every day speeding, barely stopping for stop signs in pedestrian areas, or stopping far past the crosswalk while people are in it, like they could care less if they hit anyone. We seriously need far better driver education. It’s almost like we encourage this type of driving behavior in the American culture.

  • Curly Suze

    Pardon please if this comment is inappropriate; I mostly lurk here and don’t live in Gotham.

    @Paul, we /do/ encourage this type of driving behavior in American culture, though the encouragement is in the class of “competitive [dis]advantages regarding certain classes of crimes” and not any outright encouragement to behave badly. It is merely an absence of penalty, and of social stigma, for killing or injuring or traumatizing other people or for damaging property.

    All too often there are news stories about people killed by vehicles where the only punishment meted out to the driver is in the form of a technicality regarding license or registration or insurance, like the recent death of Laurence Renard. This is sort of analogous to the difference between killing someone with a legally registered handgun, and getting away with saying “oops, I didn’t mean to stroke the trigger just then” vs killing someone with an unregistered handgun and then being punished for failing to register the weapon. In both Ms Renard’s case and this hypothetical one, the worse outcome by far is that a person is dead, not that a formality of paperwork wasn’t observed.

    Here in Massachusetts we have a law (don’t know which one specifically) that requires the shooter to be sent to jail if a person is shot. While it seems foolish to require that the driver of a vehicle be automatically jailed if a person or persons are struck by the driver’s vehicle, there seems to be plenty of leeway for extenuating circumstances. Consider any arbitrary group of automobile accidents in which pedestrians or bicyclists are killed or injured. Weed out the following causes that can be verified by the forensics crew – ie, where the cause will stand up in court – in which the drivers involved could not have avoided the accidents even if they tried to or wanted to:

    instances where mechanical failure rendered the motor vehicle impossible to control;

    instances where a pedestrian or bicyclist broke the laws, ignored traffic signals, used the crosswalk when the signals said not to, etc;

    acts-of-god such as meteorites punching through windshields and distracting the drivers, black ice that no-one expects to encounter in the middle of the summer, etc;

    .. and so on. The list of accidents would probably be substantially the same after this weeding-out process. That is to say, few accidents of this type come down to the driver actually being unable to avoid the accident due to circumstances beyond his or her control – most would be more a matter of him or her /choosing/ not to operate the vehicle carefully.

    In the case of Laurence Renard, can the driver of that truck prove in court that the condition of the truck’s windshield, or solar glare, or some other road obstruction prevented him from seeing the person in front of his heavy vehicle, or that the truck’s brakes failed right then, rendering the vehicle impossible to stop?

    In the case of Rebecca Twine-Wright, can the driver of that van prove in court that some mechanical failure of the van’s steering was to blame for running over Ms Twine-Wright on her own front lawn, or that she swerved to the side to avoid, say, a baby carriage in the middle of the road?

    What is left, when you remove the verifiable causes for why a driver would have been unable to avoid an accident even if s/he wanted to or tried to, is driver negligence that causes injury or death. At such, it is high time we began punishing driver negligence.

    /rant off

  • helenmoritz

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  • I found this article to be extremely profound and thought provoking until the last paragraph and then you totally lost me.

    Driving a car is no more violent than swinging a hammer. Both are tools that can be used appropriately or inappropriately. It’s the user that decides which it shall be. I could use a hammer with skill and love to help build a home, a bookcase or a picnic table…

    Or I could use it to bash someones skull in!

    Just because both tools have the potential to cause violence does not make the act of using said tool (car or hammer) inherently violent. Making such a blanket statement totally turned me off and I’m highly sympathetic to your viewpoint and the cause of sustainable transportation as a whole. Just imaging what others might be thinking.

  • angry kitty

    “When I drive now, I do my best to drive like a pedestrian. Like I have some damn sense.”

    Ya lost me on that one too. Pedestrians with their heads in the clouds are part of the problem.

  • Paul, I feel for you. I was struck by a truck door whose driver opened it abruptly into the bike lane without checking her rear or side view mirrors. She tried to deny it until a witness to the crash came forward. Then her insurer tried to negotiate a legally-assisted denial. My lawyer wasn’t buying any of it, but warned me that we needed to avoid going to trial because juries are statistically against adult bicyclists in more than 50% of bike-car collision cases to go to trial.

    After two surgeries and a year of physical therapy, we ultimately settled out of court for the cost of all my medical bills and some punitive damages (the injury permanently ended my musical performing and teaching career). My lawy’ers advice has never left me. I looked into it further, researching the statistical studies (she was happy to cite them for me). What I learned is that adult bicyclists are frowned upon by the car-driving general public as people who “won’t grow up” or who “shirk their societal responsibilities to pay insurance and buy into the economic system that is fueled by automotive travel”.

    Seriously.

    I have given up on overturning the car culture in my lfietime, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still dream of it.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Beth, your story reminds me of what happened to my brother in law, a recreational cyclist. He was riding at speed with the light in upstate New York when someone made a left turn right into him, throwing him through the windshield.

    He was out of work for some time, using all his sick days and vacation, eliminating his vacation for that year. His bike and glasses were destroyed. The medical bills were significant.

    But the medical bills were covered by his own health insurance. Since he didn’t lose pay, the driver’s insurance refused to pay for his lost vacation. And as for the bike and glasses, they took the purchase price and depreciated it down to almost nothing.

    Basically, the driver and her insurance company got a freebie.

  • Spiffy

    I personally could never forgive somebody for their gross negligence. I believe there are no accidents because every collision has a cause that could have been avoided by taking the proper care. It’s just that when the majority of people avoid taking care and end up on a jury they agree that a little absent-mindedness is OK since they could see it happening to themselves and would also want to be forgiven.

  • I’m a far different driver today, after several years of riding a bike, reading Streetsblog, doing livable-streets advocacy, etc., than I was before all that.

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