Families for Safe Streets Meets With Cuomo Rep to Talk DMV Reforms

In a meeting with representatives from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration Tuesday, members of Families for Safe Streets called for reforms to New York State Department of Motor Vehicles protocols, with the goal of discouraging reckless driving and obtaining some measure of justice for crash victims and their families.

New York State DMV Commissioner Barbara Fiala did not attend a Tuesday meeting with family members of traffic violence victims. Photo: NYS DMV
New York State DMV Commissioner Barbara Fiala did not attend a Tuesday meeting with family members of traffic violence victims. Photo: NYS DMV

Karen Rae, Cuomo’s deputy transportation secretary, met with relatives of crash victims at the governor’s Manhattan office. The meeting was arranged by Congresswoman Grace Meng [PDF], and was prompted by news that the DMV voided both traffic tickets issued by NYPD to the driver who killed 3-year-old Allison Liao in Queens in 2013.

A recording obtained by WNYC reveals that the administrative judge rushed through the hearing and declared the driver, 44-year-old Ahmad Abu-Zayedeh, “not guilty” in a matter of seconds. The video that captured the collision was never screened.

Allison’s parents, Amy Tam and Hsi-Pei Liao, attended yesterday’s meeting. Also present were Amy Cohen, mother of Sammy Cohen Eckstein; Kevin Sami, whose father was killed in a crash; and attorney Steve Vaccaro. J. David Sampson, the agency’s executive deputy commissioner, represented the DMV. DMV Commissioner Barbara Fiala was expected to attend but was not there.

Officials and advocates discussed the January DMV “safety hearing” scheduled for Abu-Zayedeh, as well as last January’s hearing for the driver who killed Brooklyn pedestrian Clara Heyworth, when a DMV administrative judge relied mainly on the motorist’s own testimony to determine whether or not he would be allowed to drive legally again.

Families for Safe Streets presented the following recommendations to DMV:

  • A mandatory three-month license suspension for serious offenses while driving, including (a) hit and run; (b) aggravated unlicensed operation; (c) failure to use due care (VTL 1146); and (d) striking someone with the right of way (per NYC Administrative Code Section 19-190).
  • Reform the DMV point system so that higher point values apply to violations where someone is seriously injured or killed; prevent drivers from using adjournments to push points outside the 18-month window and avoid suspension.
  • Greater accountability for commercial drivers, enforced by a mandatory three-month or longer license suspension upon accrual of six or more penalty points.
  • Mandatory, prompt and publicly-noticed safety hearings at which victims, their families, and NYPD crash investigators can attend, present evidence and make statements; quarterly reporting of aggregate safety hearing outcomes and other statistics.
  • DMV’s adoption of the equivalent of the Federal Crime Victim’s Bill of Rights for victims’ families at traffic ticket hearings related to fatal crashes.

“The recent dismissal of tickets against the driver who killed 3-year-old Allison Liao, described by NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg as ‘shocking,’ is unfortunately not unusual,” said Families for Safe Streets in a statement. “Traffic tickets against other killer drivers also have been dismissed, despite videotape and other clear evidence. DMV typically waits years before holding safety hearings for reckless drivers. The DMV must make traffic safety a higher priority, apply meaningful penalties when reckless drivers kill, and get them off the road.”

“These changes are essential so that no other families suffer as we do every day,” the statement said.

Advocates told Rae and Sampson they want a response within a month.

  • The driver who killed Allison Liao can still be sued in civil court, yes?

  • Eric McClure

    Yes. That is happening.

  • Eric McClure

    Shame on you, Barbara Fiala. The New York State Department of Motor Vehicles needs a complete and total overhaul, starting at the top.

  • qrt145

    How about taking the driver’s license away on the spot until the safety hearing is held, at which point the term of the suspension is decided? I suggest a mandatory three-year minimum.

  • ddartley

    A concern of mine (if speculated): even if the Administrative Law Judge HAD, in that eyeblink of a hearing, seen the video, the proceedings in that court are so mechanized, rote, and built into the judges’ muscle memory, that all the difference the video might have made would be a moment of cognitive dissonance in his mind before just thinking, “oh, um, that’s odd, how bad a crash that is, but, uh, this is all I do in traffic cases is stamp papers, so I guess that’s all I can do here…”

    I’m indulging in something I always try to avoid–speculating on what went through someone else’s head–but having been in a similar once myself, I really wonder if my conjecture above is worth the consideration of advocates working on this.

  • G

    Thank you Amy Tam, Hsi-Pei Liao, Amy Cohen, and Families for Safe Streets for your tireless and invaluable advocacy to protect all NYC street users and prevent immense loss of life. It must be unbelievably difficult, frustrating, and heartbreaking to constantly have to revisit the pain and loss of your loved ones. May there be meaningful reform in your efforts’ wake.

  • LN

    I would add to the demands – A review of the crash safety records, especially fatal crashes by drivers working for companies holding NY State [and NY City] contracts.

    Eventually, safety record as a mitigating factor to the awarding of such contracts. A lot of companies holding state and city contracts are operating the most deadly vehicles on NYC Streets.

  • How much is the judge being paid to do absolutely nothing?

  • Andres Dee

    But an acquittal from the state surely must be helpful to the motorist.

  • red_greenlight1

    Yes and no.

  • Robert Wright

    One problem with all this is that when drivers are caught driving without licenses that seems to be treated as leniently as every other driving offense. So taking away a driver’s license doesn’t seem a very effective punishment.

  • walks bikes drives

    I suggest a mandatory permanent suspension of license that is shared with every DMV in the US when you kill a pedestrian and are at fault. I would be a hundred percent accepting of that if, while I was driving, I did that to someone.

  • Hilda

    Thank you to Families for Safe Streets for the constant courage and hard work to hold reckless driver accountable. This is an amazing step forward, and it would not even be in the news without your efforts, and without your losses.

    I am not alone when I say I am ready to stand behind you in the fight to reform the DMV, from the top down.

  • KeNYC2030

    According to the latest issue of TA’s Reclaim, the DMV dismisses half of all traffic summonses, and violators can defer their hearing almost indefinitely, to the point that any license points that would have been assessed have already expired. Add to that the fact that the DMV’s education and testing of drivers is a joke, particularly for drivers in a dense urban area like NYC. TA’s Noah Budnick may be understating things when he says “it’s Bizarro World over there.” This agency desperately needs a safety-minded reformer, not a political appointee, running it.

  • Sine Metu

    How does a civil suit remove a dangerous and obviously incompetent driver from the streets? Perhaps he won’t be able to afford to drive a luxury car after they win such a slam dunk case?

    We need these people held criminally responsible for very obvious reasons. I get why cops and bureaucrats don’t want the extra work involved with enforcing public safety on our streets but frankly I’m absolutely fed up with this display of indifference and laziness by the people that we specifically pay to protect us.

  • CG

    New York City drivers are the most aggressive drivers that I have ever seen in any state, city or country. There needs to be punishment when lives are lost or damaged. Also, there should be an agency who rides around in the back of cabs to rate cab drivers and car service drivers. They set the tone of the city and can be some of the most aggressive drivers out there. We need police to enforce traffic laws, something every other state does but for some weird reason, NYC never does and then the courts to back them up.

  • neroden

    Private criminal prosecutions, such as they have in the UK, seem like the only hope.

    Unfortunately to do that in the US you have to get the attention of a grand jury, and the grand juries have been taken over by the prosecutors in a piece of stunning scam artistry.

    I thought maybe something would happen when a police officer assaulted a JUDGE. A judge has the right to empanel a grand jury on his own authority, and that grand jury has the right to prosecute — the DAs and police don’t even come into the picture. But the judge who was assaulted did not do that, so no progress was made.

  • Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Goldstein

    No discussion about reforming the rules of “clean and convincing evidence” in the Traffic Violations Bureau? This article totally misses the point, as do most people.

    The question here is should videos which are not admissible be used when the office who did not witness the accident fails to provide accurate and relevant testimony?

  • Menachem Goldstein

    Who is missing the point? This isn’t an opinion article, it’s a report of a meeting between the group and state reps.

    Videos are admissible in all courts. Why not in at the DMV?

  • Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Goldstein

    You can ask why the DMV courts are different than the rest of our courts here in the USA.

  • Menachem Goldstein

    I don’t think video is inadmissible. All kinds of evidence are admissible in these proceedings, including videos (in fact, you can hear the judge asking for video in recording of the Liao case).

    The real issue I think is the DMV leadership’s indifferent attitude to traffic violations. Their attitude is really just a reflection of the public’s indifference to traffic violence. Being it’s an administrative court, and that the judgement sums are very small, the state doesn’t feel a sense of urgency to invest in making the proceedings as fair and balanced as other courts. They see it as the lowest on the totem pole of justice.

    But considering that thousands of people are hospitalized every day in this country because of reckless driving, these proceedings should not be treated as a joke. The attitude is that if no one got hurt, then what’s the fuss? The purpose of traffic summonses is to cause behavior modification that prevents these tragedies in the first place, instead of waiting till after the damage is done, then arresting and prosecuting the driver when it’s already too late.

    Funny anecdotal tale: When I was in yeshiva, I went with another bochur to fight our traffic tickets (we had to. We were student, we had no money, and drove like maniacs). When my friend’s case was heard, the cop read his notes, then the judge (without asking the cop any questions) turned to my friend and asked, “What do you plea?”.
    “Not guilty”.
    “Dismissed!”.
    That was it. The judge dismissed the ticket for absolutely no reason. No wonder cops are reluctant to ticket dangerous drivers. I would be pissed if I were trying to protect the public from a completely irresponsible driver only to face him in court later and watch him do a victory dance.

  • Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Goldstein

    Menachem, you are missing the point of what I am saying wholesale. DMV proceedings are not regular criminal court proceedings and your reference to the Judge in the Liao case is therefore irrelevant. You have obviously never seen the inside of a TVB Trial.

  • Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Goldstein

    You don’t know anything about NYS or NYC traffic law.

  • Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Goldstein

    Driving without a license is not the same thing as driving with a suspended license.

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