Victims’ Families Demand Changes From DMV at Vigil for Allison Liao

Nearly 100 people attended a vigil last night for Allison Liao and demanded reforms from the state DMV. Photo: Anna Zivarts/Flickr
Nearly 100 people attended a vigil last night in Flushing for Allison Liao, where they demanded reforms from the DMV, including tougher penalties for reckless drivers. Photo: Anna Zivarts/Flickr

Undeterred by the cold, nearly 100 people gathered at the corner of Main Street and Cherry Avenue in Flushing last night to remember 3-year-old Allison Liao, killed by a driver in October 2013. State DMV administrative judges had already dismissed the two tickets issued to the driver, 44-year-old Ahmad Abu-Zayedeh, before putting off a judgment at a special safety hearing yesterday. Allison’s parents, Amy Tam and Hsi-Pei Liao, joined other traffic violence victims and their supporters last night to demand policy changes from the DMV.

“A big problem with not having consequences for reckless drivers is that they don’t think they did anything wrong. So these drivers continue to drive the way they did, possibly hurting or killing somebody else,” Tam said. She added that Abu-Zayedeh has refused to watch video of the crash and continues to blame Allison’s death on her grandmother, who was holding her hand in the crosswalk before the crash. “The DMV could play a major role in helping New York City get to Vision Zero, but so far our experience has been bad.”

The five reforms proposed by Families for Safe Streets are:

  • A mandatory three-month license suspension for serious offenses while driving.
  • Changes to the DMV point system so that higher point values apply to violations where someone is seriously injured or killed, and drivers cannot use adjournments to push points outside the 18-month window and avoid suspension.
  • A mandatory license suspension of at least three months for commercial drivers who accrue 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, as well as quarterly reporting of aggregate safety hearing outcomes and other statistics.
  • DMV adoption of the equivalent of the Federal Crime Victim’s Bill of Rights for the families of crash victims.

Families for Safe Streets met in November with Karen Rae, who serves as Governor Andrew Cuomo’s deputy transportation secretary, and DMV Executive Deputy Commissioner J. David Sampson to discuss the reforms. The families haven’t heard anything from state officials since then, despite reaching out to Jim Malatras, Cuomo’s director of state operations.

“They promised to get back to us before our hearing, and they knew when the hearing was,” Tam said. “We’re still seeking out another meeting, and we still want to work to correct these wrongs with the DMV.”

“The DMV is failing families. It is not doing its job of protecting New York from dangerous drivers,” said Amy Cohen, who helped found Families For Safe Streets after her son Sammy was killed just two days after Liao died in October 2013. “We need to know about these hearings. People need to come and see what’s happening so we can raise awareness. We sadly have 150 people in our group that was formed almost exactly a year ago. In our group, maybe two or three have had safety hearings, including the one held today.”

Council Member Peter Koo speaks at last night's vigil, with Council Member Mark Weprin in the foreground. Photo: Anna Zivarts/Flickr
Council Member Peter Koo speaks at last night’s vigil, with Council Member Mark Weprin in the foreground. Photo: Anna Zivarts/Flickr

Although DMV policy is to hold safety hearings for drivers in all fatal cases within one year of the crash, it’s common for the DMV to delay and sometimes never hold these hearings. Attorney Steve Vaccaro, who represents the Liao family, said he received notice from the DMV yesterday that it has only now scheduled a safety hearing on January 27 for the truck driver who killed Mathieu Lefevre at an East Williamsburg intersection in October 2011.

Even in cases that do receive safety hearings, Vaccaro said the consequences can be minimal. The administrative judge in the Liao case did not make a decision at yesterday’s hearing. “It’s hard to tell if the judge has already made a decision or not,” Vaccaro said. “I would very disappointed if there isn’t some sanction applied. I’m fearful that the sanction will be something like a 90 to 180 day suspension. I don’t think that’s adequate.”

The families have legislators on their side as they fight for tougher penalties for reckless drivers from DMV. State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky joined City Council members Peter Koo, Rory Lancman, and Mark Weprin at last night’s vigil. “We’re taking a look at the five points that Families For Safe Streets has been advocating,” Stavisky said. “I think they can be done administratively, but if necessary we’ll take a look at changing the statute.”

Stavisky said she planned to send a letter about the reforms to the Cuomo administration and will ask the governor’s nominee to replace Barbara Fiala as DMV commissioner about implementing the reforms during confirmation hearings.

Some steps, like holding the driver who killed Allison Liao accountable, don’t need any action by elected officials, though. “[The judge] has all this evidence — the video, grandma’s account, the detectives — how could he not make a decision?” Tam asked. “What more does he need?”

“It was the first time I was in the same room as the driver, so that was difficult. At first I was not sure how I would feel, but then I was just really angry,” Tam said. “It was a hearing just for the driver, so I couldn’t make a statement. But I wanted to let him know how much he hurt our family. I was so upset when I couldn’t make a statement. I was just so upset.”

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