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Aggressive Driving

Pols Offer New Law to Hold Reckless Drivers Accountable

As a politician, Manhattan DA Cy Vance has put forward a great bill to hold drivers accountable. As a prosecutor, he has failed to do so consistently. Photo: Adam Schultz

The days of "It was just an accident!" may soon be over.

A trio of pols want to give prosecutors the ability to criminally charge motorists who kill with high-level misdemeanors that come with real jail sentences — a move that would finally punish drivers for their recklessness or even carelessness.

On Tuesday, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, State Sens. Timothy Kennedy of Buffalo and Brad Hoylman of Manhattan announced a new bill, the Vehicular Violence Accountability Act, which would finally make it a crime to kill or seriously injure someone with a car, period —a push that comes amid 26 cyclists and 92 pedestrians killed in New York City this year with very little punishment doled out.

"We are experiencing an epidemic of vehicular violence," said Vance, adding that the bill "fixes laws that are fundamentally broken."

"The Vehicular Violence Accountability Act is our effort to make sure that on the criminal justice side, we are doing all that we can to support survivors and ensure that dangerous drivers face accountability," he added, flanked by activists with Families for Safe Streets, which has been leading the call for stronger punishment for drivers who kill.

Currently, the only effective criminal offense for negligent sober driving is the Right of Way Law, which is an unclassified misdemeanor that comes with at most 30 days in jail. But few tickets ever get written — and even more get tossed out

But the Vehicular Violence Accountability Act could have a real impact because prosecutors would no longer have to prove reckless intent — but would only need to prove “failure to exercise due care," a lower standard that's far easier to prove. Violating one of the 25 moving violations listed in the bill — such as speeding, driving on the sidewalk, failing to turn safely, or talking on the phone — would be enough to show that the driver's actions caused the death or serious injuries of another person.

Attorney Steve Vaccaro, who represents victims of crashes, said the lower burden of proof on prosecutors will go a long way. 

“These are ideas that have been put forward for years and the fact that we now have champions of these ideas in the form of DA Vance and these two senators is great," said Vaccaro. "It has practical significance — I think that there's a lot of merit in these legislative proposals." 

The Vehicular Violence Accountability Act would create four new criminally chargeable offenses stemming from the state's existing charge of "failure to exercise due care," including Serious Physical Injury by Vehicle, which is a class B misdemeanor punishable by up to three months in jail; and Death by Vehicle, which is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.

The other two other charges are Aggravated Serious Physical Injury by Vehicle, which is also a class A misdemeanor and Aggravated Death by Vehicle, which is a Class E felony punishable by up to four years in jail.

In order to be charged with the aggravated versions, drivers must also have committed one of the following four offenses: driving with a suspended license because of a prior traffic-related offense; driving more than 20 miles per hour over the speed limit; committed more than one specified traffic infraction; or either killed more than one person, or killed one person and seriously injured at least one other person.

Judges and prosecutors have gotten caught up in trying to prove that a driver was aware of his or her misconduct when driving a car into someone — a premeditation known in criminal law as mens rea. Taking out that piece burden of proof will make it easier to keep reckless drivers off the road, said Marco Conner of Transportation Alternatives. 

“There are a few offenses that have criminal sanctions that can be applied but routinely are not. It's a combination of DA's not being willing to push the envelope and go beyond what they have done in the past," said Conner. "This legislation helps us move beyond that and towards a place where operating a multi-ton car or truck is recognized for the tremendous responsibility that it is."

The bill, which currently has no Assembly sponsor, must snake its way through the normal legislative process in Albany. 

It also echoes a similar bill proposed by Manhattan Assembly Member Dan Quart — who is running for Manhattan DA against Vance. Quart wants to change the word “reckless” to the word “aggressive” within the state’s vehicular code, which would similarly take away judges' and prosectors' burden of having to prove intent. Instead, they just need to show a drivers' carelessness.

The bill is a result of a grand jury that Vance empaneled in April to study the spike in traffic deaths. 

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