With Opening at DMV, Cuomo Has Opportunity to Lead on Street Safety

With the retirement of Barbara Fiala, the top position at the Department of Motor Vehicles is vacant, giving Governor Andrew Cuomo an opportunity to appoint someone who will use the state’s oversight of driver education, training, and licensing to improve street safety and prevent traffic deaths.

Will Governor Cuomo reform the DMV during his second term? Photo: Diana Robinson/Flickr
Will Governor Cuomo reform the DMV during his second term? Photo: Diana Robinson/Flickr

Fiala, 70, is a Democrat who served as Broome County executive before Cuomo tapped her to head the DMV soon after he took office in 2011. Her last day was Tuesday, according to papers state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office provided to Gannett.

Fiala’s tenure at DMV had several low points on the street safety front.

Months after she arrived at the agency in 2011, Fiala proposed eliminating the eye exam as a requirement for renewing a license. The idea was that drivers would instead “self-certify.” That plan was scrapped under public pressure, including from the governor’s office.

Later, Fiala focused on improving online customer service and increasing organ donation rates, according to a profile that was recently removed from the department’s website. The bio also mentions the DMV commissioner’s role as chair of the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee, which distributes federal road safety funds across the state.

In October, Fiala was pulled over in Broome County and given a speeding ticket for driving 47 mph in a 30 mph zone. She mailed in the ticket and pleaded not guilty, according to Gannett. Days earlier, her son, Broome County legislator Anthony Fiala Jr., pleaded guilty to drunken driving after hitting and injuring a Binghamton bicyclist before leaving the scene.

The agency was in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons again in November, after a DMV administrative judge dismissed two minor summonses issued to Ahmad Abu-Zayedeha, the driver who killed 3-year-old Allison Liao as she held her grandmother’s hand in a Flushing crosswalk. Video evidence of the crash was not shown at the hearing, which lasted 47 seconds. It’s unclear if the judge even knew that Abu-Zayedeh had killed someone before he threw out the tickets.

After the Liao family learned that Abu-Zayedeha’s tickets had been dismissed, members of Families For Safe Streets met with a top transportation deputy from the governor’s office to talk about DMV reform. The families had expected to meet Fiala at the meeting, but she did not show.

In November, Transportation Alternatives called on Cuomo to replace Fiala with “a safety-minded reformer.” Now that she has retired, Cuomo has a chance to turn the state DMV into a national leader, with rigorous education and licensing requirements for motor vehicle operators to reduce the state’s traffic fatality rate.

Families For Safe Streets has recommended that DMV implement mandatory three-month license suspensions for serious offenses; assign higher points for violations where someone is seriously injured or killed; keep drivers from avoiding suspension by using adjournments to delay having points added to their license; create tougher licensing requirements for commercial drivers; notify crash victims of hearings; and adopt a “bill of rights” for crash victims.

“This rudderless agency has failed its mandated role of meting out consequences to reckless drivers,” said attorney Steve Vaccaro, who is representing the Liao family. “Whoever is selected to succeed Fiala, only an all-out transparency campaign is likely to lead the agency do take its licensure review role seriously.”

In the meantime, advocates are shining a light on the DMV’s existing system of hearings, which often fails to yield meaningful resultsAbu-Zayedeha, the driver who killed Allison Liao, is going back to the DMV for a second hearing on Tuesday. It begins at 9 a.m. at the DMV Springfield Gardens office, 168-35 Rockaway Boulevard. Later that day, there will be a vigil at 6:30 p.m. for Allison Liao at the intersection of Main Street and Cherry Avenue in Flushing, where she was killed.

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