The Second Tragedy of Traffic Deaths

As many as 260 people are expected to die this year on New York City streets. But almost none of the drivers involved in those cases will be prosecuted -- adding to the nightmare for the families of the victims.

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  • Sofia Russo, at microphone, at a press conference after the death of her daughter, Ariel.

  • The Upper West Side intersection renamed for Ariel Russo after her death.

  • Dana Lerner, seated at left holding a photo of her son, at a press conference of families who have lost loved ones in pedestrian accidents.

  • Amy Tam-Liao and her husband, Hsi-Pei Liao, whose daughter Ally died in a traffic accident. They are pictured with their new baby.

  • Cooper Stock, the 9-year-old killed on the Upper West Side

The toll of tragedy

Ariel Russo

June 4, 2013

Four-year-old Ariel Russo was killed when a SUV driven by Franklin Reyes, a teenager with no license, hit her and her grandmother near West 97th St. and Amsterdam Ave.

Allison Liao

October 6th, 2013

Three-year-old Allison Lau was walking with her grandmother on Cherry Ave. at Main St. in Flushing, Queens, when she was hit and killed by an SUV.

Cooper Stock

January 10th, 2014

Nine-year-old Cooper Stock was hit and killed by a taxi as he was crossing the street with his father at the intersection of West End Ave. and 97th St.

Alex Shear

January 10th, 2014

The 73-year-old Americana antique collector Alex Shear was hit and killed by a tour bus near Broadway and West 96th St. while he was on his way to a restaurant for dinner.

Sau Ying Lee

October 14th, 2014

90-year-old Sau Ying Lee was crossing near Elizabeth St. and Canal St. when she was hit and killed by a passing vehicle.

Robert Perry

November 24th, 2014

Robert Perry, 57, was struck by a BMW at 6:50 p.m. as he crossed the Bowery between Rivington St. and Prince St., and was pronounced dead at the hospital shortly after.

Sofia Russo was 45 minutes late for her appointment with justice. But she didn't miss much. On Nov. 20, Judge Gregory Carro swiftly pushed off until January the sentencing of Franklin Reyes, the teenager who ran over and killed Russo's 4-year-old daughter, Ariel.

So, as she did on this day, Russo, a teacher, will find someone to cover for her class next month when she returns to court again, hoping to see Reyes punished for Ariel's death, now more than a year and a half ago, in June 2013.

Russo said in an interview that she finds cruel irony in the fact that she teaches history to boys the same age as Reyes, who was 17 when he ran over Ariel and her grandmother in a Nissan Frontier SUV in front of the little girl's preschool on the Upper West Side.

This is why she initially sympathized with Reyes. “The majority of my kids are 16 and 17, including a lot of troubled boys. This could have been one of my students,” she said.

But empathy has hardened into rage in the months since the accident. Although Reyes had tried to flee the scene, backing up so violently he pinned Ariel and her grandmother to a nearby restaurant's metal grating, he was treated leniently, charged as a minor and freed on bail. This despite the fact that the crash that killed Ariel was the result of another crime: Reyes was driving without a license, speeding up Amsterdam Avenue in an attempt to flee from cops who had seen him driving erratically and ordered him to pull over. The chase ended with the fatal crash on 97th Street.

Originally, by giving him bail and charging him as a minor, Judge Carro was giving Reyes a chance to avoid having a public criminal record. But on Sept. 3, Reyes was again stopped for driving recklessly, without a license. This time, in speeding away, Reyes dragged the cop 100 feet and then led police on another chase, hitting a car and almost injuring a parking attendant before he was arrested. This time, he was sent to Rikers Island, where he has been ever since, except for a visit to a city hospital for chest pains, after which he again ran away from the police and had to be chased down. (In the months before that arrest, Reyes was charged with petty larceny for stealing from an apartment building where his father was the super.)

On Nov. 20, the judge refused a request from Reyes' lawyers that he be freed on bail, angrily deriding his lawyer's claim that he had a psychological report showing Reyes could be trusted out on the streets.

Sofia Russo is 28, with dark curly long hair and glasses. She tends to tear up when talking about Ariel and wonders how “drivers can kill people and nothing happens.”

Dana Lerner is also waiting for justice. Her 9-year-old son, Cooper Stock, was killed by a cab driver a year ago. Like Ariel, who was holding tight to her grandmother when she was struck, Cooper was holding his father's hand as he crossed West End Avenue with the light.

But the office of District Attorney Cyrus Vance told Lerner that it would not bring criminal charges against the cab driver, Kofi Komiani. New York City operates under the so-called Rule of Two, which requires drivers to be found to flout two driving laws in order to be charged. It took months for Komiani to even be ticketed. “Enforcement is weak to non-existent,” said Lerner, who has since become a high-profile critic of the way fatal traffic accidents are handled in New York City. “The attitude is, accidents happen.”

In an interview, Lerner said she was particularly troubled that one of the cops at the scene kept telling her that Komiani was remorseful and using the word accident to describe the fatal crash that killed Cooper.

Amy Tam-Liao and her husband, Hsi-Pei Liao, were also troubled this month, after learning that the two tickets issued by the city's Department of Motor Vehicles to the driver who killed their three-year-old daughter, Ally, were dismissed. Ally was going to buy a watermelon in Flushing with her grandmother, who was also injured in the crash. The parents only found out about the ticket dismissal when they went to a deposition in a wrongful death civil case they have filed against the driver, Abu Zayedeha.

Even though Zayedeha was found to have elevated blood alcohol at the time of the crash, it was too low for him to be criminally charged, according to the lawyer for the Liaos, Steven Vaccaro. Zayedeha was ticketed for failing to use due care and failure to yield, which carry $250 penalties. Those were the charges dropped by a DMV judge.

“Knowing this driver was in the wrong, we don't understand how this could have happened,” said Hsi-Pei Liao, Ally's father.

The answer is this: If you want to kill someone in New York City and get away with it, the weapon of choice should be a vehicle. It's the perfect crime. Fewer than 7 percent of the drivers in fatal crashes that kill pedestrians are ticketed and only a tiny fraction, usually only those driving drunk, face any criminal charges.

As of May, the most recent statistics available for 2014, 54 pedestrians and cyclists have been killed by cars in New York City. There have been 5,669 injuries, making this year slightly better than last, with 168 fatalities and 16,000 injuries. (Since 2012, 23 children under 14 have been killed by cars in the city. In New York, motor vehicle-related injury is the leading cause of injury deaths for young children.)

While the number of pedestrian deaths in New York is comparable to other large cities, according to transportation experts, what's starkly different is the enforcement, or lack of it. Neighboring states like New Jersey and Connecticut treat drivers much more harshly when they kill someone. “The comparison is troubling,” said Brad Aaron, who has been compiling statistics on traffic deaths for years as a writer for Streetsblog.

Aaron says that New York City “has a culture of deference,” when it comes to drivers. In Streetsblog, Aaron points out that other states are far less permissive to drivers. In Alabama, to cause death while violating a traffic law is to commit homicide, regardless of intent. In many states, the severity of the charges in non-fatal crashes depends on the injuries of the victim.

Finally, the seeds of tougher attitudes are being planted in New York, at least at the top of the city's government. In June, Mayor de Blasio signed 11 bills under Vision Zero, the most ambitious of which reduced the city's speed limit to 25 m.p.h. (The odds of surviving being hit by a car are about 60 percent when the speed limit was 35; those odds increase to 80 percent under the new law). In June, the mayor also signed a law that creates a misdemeanor criminal penalty for drivers who kill pedestrians or motorists with the right of way.

But Lerner and the other parents say that as good as the mayor's efforts are, they aren't enough. Concerted action by the Police Department, the District Attorneys and the DMV is required to change a culture of lax enforcement, they said in many interviews since the summer.

While the Police Department's Thomas Chan, the new head of the NYPD Transportation Bureau, has pledged to train the entire 35,000-member force to use the new laws to be tougher on bad drivers who kill, the department's Collision Investigation Squad only has about 30 case investigators right now.

While some family members of those killed praised the police who handled their cases, others said the police sometimes blame the victims, not the drivers.

They also suspect that the police leak erroneous facts about the deaths. For example, when graphic artist Jean Chambers was killed by a driver over the summer, there were inaccurate early news reports that she was using her cellphone as she crossed West End Avenue (her phone records showed this was not true). After Ally Liao's death, there were erroneous reports that she had broken free from her grandmother. “Getting falsely blamed for not holding Ally's hand tight enough hurt my mother most of all,” says Hsi-Pei Liao.

Sometimes families have to sue to get the accident reports in the deaths of their relatives. Names of drivers are almost never made public, except in the rare case of criminal charges.

Police Commissioner William Bratton, while allowing room for improvement, said the number of tickets issued by the police to speeding or erratic drivers has gone up 15 percent since the Vision Zero laws were enacted. Increasing the number of speed cameras has helped. The number of summons for failure to yield has doubled.

Still, DMV Commissioner Barbara Fiala has faced intense criticism after Hsi-Pei Liao publicized on Twitter the dismissal of the tickets in Ally's death. (The commissioner has also been criticized for getting a speeding ticket herself, shortly after her son was arrested for drunk driving after hitting a cyclist and fleeing the scene.)

The most frequent complaint voiced by the families of dead pedestrians is the reluctance of the city's D.A.s, especially Manhattan's Cyrus Vance, to file criminal charges against drivers. “In the Cooper Stock case they could have at least suspended the driver's license of the cab driver,” said attorney Matthew Dawes, “they just don't have any cojones.”

This is surprising, because Vance made a campaign vow to abrogate the Rule of Two and to be more aggressive. But early in his tenure, his office had an embarrassing defeat in the case of the death of a 68-year-old woman who was killed by a driver while she was bicycling in Chelsea with her husband over the Fourth of July weekend in 2011.

Her name was Marilyn Dershowitz and she was the sister-in-law of famed law professor Alan Dershowitz. The driver, postal worker Ian Clement, had initially left the scene of the crash. He was acquitted by a jury in 2012.

Since then, there haven't been any high-profile prosecutions by Vance in traffic death cases. Michael Cheung recently met with the same Assistant D.A., Erin LaFarge, who handled the failed prosecution of the Dershowitz case. He says that in a meeting on Nov. 20, LaFarge went out of her way to defend the driver who killed his mother, Sau Ying Lee, in a Chinatown crosswalk in October. “She came up with all kinds of excuses to protect the criminal driver,” Cheung said in an email.

Vance, through a spokeswoman, Joan Vollero, disputed that account of LaFarge's conversation with Cheung. Vollero also denied that the difficulties with the Dershowitz case influenced how the office has handled subsequent cases. “The outcome of that case has no bearing on any other case,” she said in an email.

In an appearance at Fordham Law School earlier this month, Vance was pressed on why his office prosecutes so few motorists who kill pedestrians. Vance said that his “instinct is to work on behalf of victims,” but that “there are cases which are tragic but may not have the facts to support a criminal prosecution and conviction.” He vowed to commit more resources to pedestrian cases and is considering supporting a stiffer penalty for failure to yield, one of the most common infractions of motorists who hit pedestrians.

What's beginning to change, say many people tracking the issue, is the activism of victims' families. Transportation Alternatives and family members created an offshoot, Families for Safe Streets, which has begun to organize protests and become vocal about the failure to prosecute drivers. (A rally is planned for this Sunday, Dec. 7, at City Hall.) Dana Lerner, a member, recently published an op-ed on the subject in The New York Times. The Liaos spoke out on local television when the tickets of the driver who killed their daughter were dismissed.

The families' efforts have caught the attention of politicians. U.S. Representative Grace Ming and City Councilmember Margaret Chin have become active in the Liao case and Councilmember Helen Rosenthal says she has become passionate about creating safer streets because of multiple deaths, including Cooper Stock and Jean Chambers, in her district. “This needs to be treated as seriously as an epidemic,” she said in an interview in her office. “It needs the full attention of the best law enforcement and public health thinkers.”

I learned about the existence of Families for Safe Streets after I published a long account in the Times about my experience and those of three of my colleagues. All of us had been run over and seriously hurt. My encounter with a delivery truck in 2007 left me with a broken femur, pelvis and foot as well as a bad limp and traumatic stress syndrome. In the article, I mentioned the death of Cooper Stock.

The day after the article ran, I got a call from Dana Lerner. “I'm the mom of the boy you mentioned,” she said. She came to the newspaper the next day and told me about the changes she was pushing for in the traffic laws and city street designs. “Some days I feel I can't even get out of bed,” she said. “What keeps me going is trying to give meaning to Cooper's death and prevent others.”

Soon I was attending a fundraising reception for Families for Safe Streets. It was beyond odd to be at a cocktail party where the chatting quickly revealed that almost all the attendees had sustained a horrific family loss. Steve Hindy, the president of Brooklyn Brewery, told me about the death of his son, Sam, 27, who was hit by a car as he cycled home over the Manhattan Bridge.

The deaths of children have been a rallying point to change driving laws in New York City. In the 1920s, when driving became prevalent in the city, cars and trucks killed 7,000 children annually. In letters to the editors in those days, parents called the drivers murderers. There were mob attacks on motorists. A popular novel called “Manslaughter” became a rallying point for demanding tougher laws, as did a King Vidor movie, “The Crowd,” which showed the death of a small child in New York City pinned under the wheels of a truck. The first speed limits were enacted and other public safety laws soon followed.

That kind of public anger is missing now. Even some family members of victims prefer to call crashes accidents. “You can't criminalize accidents,” John Chambers, the husband of Jean Chambers, told me. “It's an act of God,” said Martin Levin, whose wife, Bonnie, was killed by a driver on a rainy day this summer on 31st Street and Seventh Avenue.

New laws have been passed under pressure from parents whose children have been injured or killed. In 2009, Elle Vandenberghe was hit in the crosswalk during her second week in pre-school. The driver who hit her was rushing to claim a parking spot on E. 82nd Street. Elle's Law was passed, under which drivers can lose their licenses for six months to a year for failing to yield and injuring pedestrians. (Elle lived, but needed multiple operations.)

After Haley Ng , 4, and Diego Martinez, 3, were killed by a delivery van in Chinatown in 2009, the driver, who backed up and struck the children, wasn't charged. Haley and Diego's Law increased the penalties for careless driving on a first offense.

Cooper's Law makes it easier to revoke the Taxi and Limousine Commission licenses of cabbies who hit pedestrians as a result of failure to yield.

Ariel's Law requires the time ambulances are dispatched to be measured from the first call for help. A delay in Ariel Russo's case may have contributed to her death.

“But these laws won't mean anything unless they are enforced,” said Dana Lerner.

The driver in my case was neither ticketed nor charged. I was hit and dragged down, run over by both the front and back tires of a heavy white food delivery truck. The driver lied in his deposition, claiming he saw me stand up in his rear view mirror as he drove away. (I would not be able to put any weight on my legs for three months). Other pedestrians stopped to help me and chased down the truck. I sued the truck company and won a settlement. By any measure, I was one of the lucky ones.

On Friday, the cab driver in the Cooper Stock death will appear in criminal court on his traffic ticket. It is unclear whether he will be fined or otherwise punished. D.A. Vance wanted him to be forced to appear in court, in part to blunt criticism of his office for not bringing criminal charges in the case.

Sofia Russo is still waiting for the sentencing of Franklin Reyes, the driver who killed her daughter and badly injured her mother, who is still, according to Sofia, “completely traumatized.”

Meanwhile, about 260 people are expected to be killed in New York City in traffic deaths this year, if the current trend continues, which is slightly lower than in 2013, the worst year for pedestrians in this city in seven years.

Jill Abramson is the former executive editor of The New York Times. In October, she announced plans for a digital journalism startup with Steven Brill.

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