OPINION: The Manhattan DA Must Put Muscle Into Traffic Safety

The office must establish a 'Vehicular Crimes Task Force' to investigate every death or serious injury, argues candidate Diana Florence, a former ADA.

This should happen, well, never. File photo: Gersh Kuntzman
This should happen, well, never. File photo: Gersh Kuntzman

This is the third part of our new feature: “What will the next Manhattan DA do about reckless drivers.” Earlier features included an op-ed by candidate Liz Crotty, which advocates for decriminalizing reckless driving, and a counterpoint op-ed by challenger Assembly Member Dan Quart calling for stiffer penalties for drivers who injure, maim and kill. Today’s feature is by Diana Florence, a third candidate in the June 22, 2021 primary to replace outgoing DA Cyrus Vance Jr.

Stoked by the global pandemic, New York City is experiencing an alternative-transportation boom: Weekday bike trips are up by 30 percent and weekend bike trips are up 50 percent. This uptick is a silver lining of this awful period, attracting thousands of new bike riders and bringing transportation relief to millions of New Yorkers. But the reality is that cycling and walking in this city comes with an inherent danger — namely cars.

Diana Florence
Diana Florence

Just before the end of 2020, 35 of the 45 recorded hit-and-run crashes with critical injuries are unsolved, and 234 people have been killed in car-related crashes citywide — making it the deadliest year since Mayor de Blasio announced Vision Zero in 2014. But this is not a new danger — and, for me, it’s personal. Two decades ago, my family felt this tragedy firsthand when a cable van hit my 91-year-old grandfather while he was crossing the street in the crosswalk. After surviving the Spanish flu and multiple cancers, my grandfather was killed by a driver making a left turn at sunset.

If I am elected Manhattan district attorney, I will protect all New Yorkers who move in and around this city by criminally investigating every traffic incident that results in a death or serious injury. I will create a “Vehicular Crimes Task Force,” modeled on the successful Construction Fraud Task Force that l created and led, which investigated every construction-worker death and serious injury. The unit I propose will be adequately staffed with multiple attorneys and investigators.

Every time a person dies or is critically injured as a result of vehicular contact, an assistant district attorney will be alerted in real time and will immediately conduct a thorough criminal inquiry. The investigation will be led by an experienced prosecutor who aims to uncover what happened and whether criminal charges are warranted. The office will notify the victim and the family, keep them informed throughout the process, and ensure that their role is meaningful, not an afterthought. As I did in the Construction Fraud Task Force, if there are loopholes in current laws that prevent justice, we will partner with legislators to close them. The Vehicular Crimes Task Force will ensure that once and for all, traffic fatalities and injuries will be treated with the gravity they deserve.

New Yorkers deserve to be able to move through our city safely and equitably — and that starts with a district attorney who enables people to be safe at home, at work, and on the streets. Keeping people safe on the streets means enforcing laws that keep people safe from reckless drivers while ensuring that our street enforcement is not overly punitive to people of color, especially those who make a living delivering food.

Besides the millions of New Yorkers who use our streets to commute and move around, thousands of delivery workers support our local economy and enable our quality of life. These workers — mostly immigrant men of color — rely on personal e-bikes to reach lobbies and stoops across the city quickly for their customers. But these hard-working, low-wage delivery workers are targeted and ticketed for doing their essential jobs. Fully 86.4 percent of tickets issued for cycling on the sidewalk were given to cyclists of color. In 2018 alone, the police issued 1,154 civil summonses for e-bike usage, and seized 1,215 e-bikes from delivery workers, robbing them of the ability to feed their families even as they feed sushi and taco orders to New Yorkers. In this economic crisis, big food-delivery app companies, such as DoorDash, Grubhub, and Uber, are making this worse by skimming the meager tips these workers are making.

Many delivery workers do not just have their tips and e-bikes stolen, but also their lives. Ernesto Guzman was the 15th food delivery cyclist to die this year. Yet, like in the vast majority of traffic fatalities, neither the police nor the current district attorney investigated his vehicular death. We need to move past the default view that traffic fatalities are merely accidents, undeserving of law-enforcement scrutiny.

Electing a safe-streets district attorney can push our city toward our transit goals of equity and greater mobility. In turn, together we can create a fairer and more street-safe city.

Diana Florence (@DianaJFlorence) is running for Manhattan district attorney. She spent many years in that office as a prosecutor, first focusing on domestic-violence cases, then complex frauds and corruption in the Special Prosecutions Bureau and Labor Racketeering Unit, and later becoming the head of the first-of-its-kind Construction Fraud Task Force.

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