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.

  • Kevin Love

    Driving is a privilege, not a right. This privilege should be removed from drivers who have demonstrated driving behavior that is dangerous to the public.

    Mandatory 3-month drivers licence suspensions for drivers who commit dangerous driving offences is a good idea. So is temporarily suspending driver’s licences pending trial for those accused of serious offences.

    The DMV has a responsibility to keep dangerous drivers off the roads. Let us hope that their next leader takes this responsibility seriously.

    Most importantly, to avoid the serious conflicts of interest enumerated in the article, the next DMV leader should be living car-free.

  • Adrian

    All of which is great, but completely pointless if there is almost no penalty for driving without a license, as appears to be the case currently. That needs to be fixed concurrently.

  • Kevin Love

    Meanwhile, in the rest of the world…

    Or not too far away, just across the New York/Ontario border, driving with a suspended licence is good for up to 6 months in jail and the car will be immediately seized, towed away and impounded for up to 45 days. It makes no difference if the driver owns the car or if it is rented or borrowed. To get the car back, the car owner has to pay towing and storage fees.

    And fines range from $5,000 to $50,000 for the driver.

    See:

    http://www.mto.gov.on.ca/english/safety/vip/responsibility.shtml

  • JK

    What else besides hearings should NYS DMV be doing? What are the best practices from the best DMVs? When it comes to safety, this is an agency that has lost its way, and is doing litttle to improve road safety advocacy, safety education and safety messaging.

  • wklis

    Might be helpful if the public transit was better in those neighbourhoods where it is currently automobile-oriented. Some places are so far from any kind of public transit, they end up catching a ride, or do so illegally.

  • Anon resident

    Cuomo is notorious for putting washed up elected officials who should resigned from public service and making them Commissioners. aka…former Assembly Member Peter Rivera at the Dept. of Labor. Also, follow the $$ that’s where we will find our next DMV Commissioner.

  • ahwr

    A hard sell in rural areas where cars == mobility. Are cities in NYS allowed to have penalties for driving without a license, or can they only be passed at the state level? If it has to be at the state level I’d think you’d have a better chance of passing something like that in NY if you limit it to cities with a population of one million or more.

  • DMV Insider

    Do you seriously think it was Fiala’s idea to do vision self certification? That scheme came straight out of the Governor’s office, to try to push more license renewals to the web. It was only the uproar from upstate county clerks that caused DMV to back down, and those reasons are largely financial. County clerks run most of the DMV offices upstate, and their revenue depends largely on in-person service. The web is a threat to their revenue stream.

    DMV, like all State agencies, does NOTHING without approval from the Governor’s office. NYS “Adventure Licenses” and “Adventure Plates,” emergency responder license plates, and veterans designation on driver licenses are but a few of the ideas rammed down DMV’s throat by Cuomo. If Fiala said no to any of these she would have lost her job a long time ago.

  • DMV Insider

    Oh, and just so you know, Fiala was nothing more than a figurehead anyway. The real power lies with executive deputy J. David Sampson, a Cuomo carryover from the AG’s office.

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