DAs Insist They Don’t Call Car Crashes “Accidents,” Except When They Do

Queens DA Richard Brown, Manhattan DA Cy Vance, and Bronx DA Robert Johnson.
Queens DA Richard Brown, Manhattan DA Cy Vance, and Bronx DA Robert Johnson.

Among the demands Families For Safe Streets is making of district attorneys, one of the simpler changes is to stop using the word “accident” to describe traffic collisions. In exchanges this week, the offices of three district attorneys said in no uncertain terms that they already refrain from using the word “accident” in this manner. But that’s not actually the case.

Even former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly eventually came to the conclusion that the words we use to describe traffic violence matter. He directed NYPD in 2013 to adopt the word “collision” instead of “accident,” because “the term ‘accident’ has sometimes given the inaccurate impression or connotation that there is no fault or liability associated with a specific event.” An “accident” is unavoidable, absolving people of responsibility, but a “crash” or “collision” has causes and can be traced to people’s actions.

In statements, DAs seem to understand this and claim to have dropped the word “accident” years ago. But in practice, they continue to call it an “accident” whenever a driver kills someone without receiving any criminal charge — which means the vast majority of the time.

“Prosecutors citywide have always called these cases ‘crashes,'” said Terry Raskyn, a spokesperson for Bronx DA Robert Johnson. She credited pressure from DAs in getting both NYPD and the DMV to stop using “accidents” as an official term in 2013. “We’ve spent 20 years objecting at trial to the defense attorneys characterizing them as accidents,” she said.

Yet in an accompanying statement explaining why he does not pursue charges against more drivers, Johnson said: “The legislature and the courts have outlined the rules for separating crimes from accidents. We go to great lengths to gather all available evidence in such cases, and then evaluate that evidence based on the state of the law. We make every effort to do as much as the law allows.”

Johnson isn’t the only district attorney so quick to discard the more neutral terminology. “Since DA Vance took office in 2010, this office has used the following terminology: crashes, collisions, and strikes,” said Vance spokesperson Joan Vollero. “We do not use the word ‘accident.'”

But when former Police Commissioner Howard Safir struck a woman before driving off in 2010, Vance’s office described it as an “accident” before deciding not to pursue charges. When asked about vehicular violence in November, Vance himself said “a prosecution is not necessarily a following event after a tragic accident.” And just yesterday, Vance fell back on the word “accident” three times to explain why he rarely prosecutes reckless drivers.

The story is similar in Queens. “The District Attorney’s Office has been using the term ‘collision’ rather than ‘accident’ for quite some time,” said Kevin Ryan, a spokesperson for Queens DA Richard Brown. “[Assistant district attorneys] are instructed to use the term ‘collision’ in their reports whenever they are called to a crash site and are describing the incidents, not just in cases that result in criminal charges.”

Not everyone got the memo. In a 2013 letter to Council Member Peter Koo about the crash that killed Allison Liao, who was struck by a turning driver while she held her grandmother’s hand in a Flushing crosswalk, Queens Assistant District Attorney Charles A. Testagrossa explained away the DA’s inaction by saying Allison’s death was a mere accident. “This Office takes very seriously it’s [sic] responsibility to investigate and prosecute drivers whose criminal conduct results in death or serious injury on the roadways of Queens County,” Testagrossa wrote. “There are occasions as in this matter, however, when accidents occur which are not the result of criminality.”

What New York City’s district attorneys actually seem to think is that they are the ultimate arbiters of what constitutes an “accident.” If they don’t file charges — that is almost always the case when the driver is sober and stays at the scene — then any fatal crash is just an accident to them.

  • Mark Walker

    And so vehicular killings and maimings are reduced to the same terminology an indulgent pet owner employs when his dog poops on the rug.

  • Alex

    Today I read a news report about two young children (4 and 3) who died in a fire when their mother left them home alone so she could go to the hair dresser. She was rightfully charged with negligent homicide. But what is the difference between this and the actions of drivers whose carelessness results in death? The mother had no intent but her actions were both incredibly careless and illegal. And yet Cy Vance can’t bring himself to charge a cabbie who ADMITTED he had road rage before severing the foot of a woman on the sidewalk?

  • dporpentine

    “There, but for the grace of God, poop I” or some such logic.

  • Reader

    Vance should simply claim that he didn’t speak at the Crain’s New York Breakfast yesterday. That would make as much sense as claiming his office doesn’t use the word “accident.”

  • SteveVaccaro

    Love this: “We’ve spent 20 years objecting at trial to the defense attorneys characterizing them as accidents.”

    This happens in civil practice as well. Defense attorneys go nuts when our firm’s lawyers use the term “crash.” They claim that it is prejudicial to the driver, and that the only neutral term is “accident.” (They also object when I refer to the driver as a “malefactor,” but that, I get.)

    Words do matter.

  • Joe R.

    The larger question is why on Earth is this guy still driving a cab? I might understand a reluctance to press charges given the high burden of proof required of the state to convict but revoking this guy’s hack license forever seems like a no brainer. He had a history of violations before this. Combining that with incident you mentioned should be adequate justification to keep this guy from ever driving a cab again. Actually, better yet never driving again, period.

    Seriously, whether or not charges are pressed, it shouldn’t be too much to ask for the state to permanently revoke the licenses of drivers who kill or injure by their actions.

  • Alex

    Agreed. This is yet another case where the system failed at just about every level.

    I’ll note that while Section 19-190 did not exist when that crash occurred, both the NYPD and the city DAs have been very reluctant to use it since it was introduced, even when it clearly applies. There have been numerous cases of people being seriously injured or killed when they had the right of way yet they are STILL not charging the drivers in most cases. It’s really horrifying.

  • Alex

    What do the judges say?

  • armyvet05

    Let’s repeat this over and over when a person is injured or killed: failure to yield is criminal, failure to yield is criminal, failure to yield is criminal, failure to yield is criminal, failure to yield is criminal…….

    Maybe it will start to stick.

  • armyvet05

    Honestly- it seems that the difference is that the prosecutors are not women with children who leave the kids alone because they are unable to afford or unable to find a babysitter. They are, however, drivers.

  • SteveVaccaro

    They allow it. By the time you get to trial, the defense counsel generally has given up and stopped objecting.

  • Lindsay

    And the police have “accident reports” with “accident numbers.” Hospitals and insurance companies require the “date of accident.”

    Pretty sure a hit & run is a criminal action, not an accident. Thanks though!

  • JST

    The highway informational signs still use the word “accident.” Whoever puts the text on those hasn’t received the message either.

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