Good afternoon and thanks for being here today. With me on stage are, New York State Senator Tim Kennedy, of Buffalo, who is Chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, New York State Senator Brad Hoylman, of Manhattan, who is Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and an extraordinary partner to our office, Marco Conner of Transportation Alternatives, which is our City’s leading advocacy group working toward better walking, cycling, and public transit for all New Yorkers, and, Amy Cohen and Devan Sipher of Families for Safe Streets, which represents victims and families whose loved ones have been killed or severely injured by aggressive or reckless driving and dangerous conditions on City streets, NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan, and Director Elizabeth Glazer of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.
We’re here today at a moment in time when, overall, our City and State have never been safer. But at this moment when other types of crime are dropping to historic lows across New York, we are experiencing an epidemic of vehicular violence that has killed 28 of our Manhattan neighbors year-to-date, and injured thousands more. A New Yorker today is more likely to be killed by a car than with a knife or a gun.
We’ve lost seniors. We’ve lost toddlers. And we’ve lost the feeling that we used to have when overall crime is low: we’ve lost the feeling that our own children will safely get where they are going in this City, without being maimed or killed.
As a parent, I feel it.
And as a prosecutor, I see it. I see it just about every week in reports from our Vehicular Crimes Unit. I see pedestrians and cyclists – our neighbors – under constant threat of vehicular violence from habitually reckless drivers who should not be on the road.
As District Attorney I also know that we cannot arrest and prosecute our way out of an epidemic. I know that there is no single solution to curb this crisis, and that criminal prosecution of dangerous drivers is just one part of any plan to reduce and end vehicular violence.
Six months ago, we set out to look at that single component on which a District Attorney has particular expertise – criminal law and procedure. And to aid in our review we decided to use the most powerful, citizen-led, investigative tool that District Attorneys have, by empaneling a New York State grand jury.
Our grand jury heard from families of victims killed by drivers, from street safety experts, from advocates like Marco and Amy, and from other government agencies. And I’d like to thank those brave loved ones who shared their stories with the grand jurors, as well as our partner agencies who testified, like the NYPD’s Collision Investigation Squad and the City Sheriff’s Office.
Our grand jurors closely reviewed a series of fact patterns from collisions in Manhattan, and reviewed videos of crashes that resulted in death or serious injury.
They learned about a 12-year-old boy whose soccer ball bounced into the street. One driver signaled for the boy to get his ball, and another rushed through the yellow light and mowed him down. The boy died.
They learned about a 9-year-old boy who held his father’s hand in the crosswalk in front of their apartment, as a taxi took a left-hand turn without slowing down and plowed into them. That boy died as well.
They learned about a 22-year-old woman who was returning home from dinner. As she crossed the street, a taxi traveling uptown hit her and threw her into oncoming traffic, where she was struck by a second taxi traveling downtown. That 22-year-old woman died.
At the end of their gut-wrenching investigation, they wrote a remarkable report, which has now been unsealed and is available at the back of the room and on our website.
In their report, the grand jurors wrote, and I quote: “We hope that this report lessens the pain, suffering, helplessness, and outrage of those affected by the deaths or serious physical injury of pedestrians and cyclists.” “This representative body of Manhattan citizens implores the elected officials of the City of New York and the State of New York” to “prevent vehicular violence before tragedy strikes.”
And in the area of criminal prosecution and evidence procedures, they recommended the following major reforms: One, strengthen offenses for vehicular collisions resulting in death or serious injury. Two, expand sanctions imposed on reckless drivers. Three, improve the development and admissibility of evidence Four, strengthen the voice of vehicular violence victims, and five, remove dangerous drivers from our streets before they kill, through increased oversight, education, and street design.
When you read this report I think you will get a sense of the urgency with which the grand jurors viewed this epidemic. I think New Yorkers up and down our state share that sense of urgency. Anyone who walks or bikes around our cities – anyone who reads the same news reports that we do – knows that we are losing our neighbors at a devastating rate, to conduct that we can actually prevent in part through more effective laws and procedures.
So after the grand jury handed down their recommendations, we immediately got to work on crafting a bill, which we’ve named the Vehicular Violence Accountability Act.
Following the grand jury’s recommendation, our bill creates a new article of the Penal Law titled “Vehicular Violence” to enable more prosecutions of dangerous driving. It includes the new crimes “Death by Vehicle,” a class A misdemeanor, and “Serious Physical Injury by Vehicle,” a class B misdemeanor. And these offenses would escalate to a class E felony and class A misdemeanor, respectively, when there are aggravating factors like recent vehicular convictions, speeding more than 20 miles above the speed limit, or committing more than one moving violation at a time.
I want to be clear about what this bill does and does not do.
This is not a bill which simply takes laws that are working, and ups the penalties.
Rather, this is a bill which fixes laws that are fundamentally broken, so that more drivers who injure or kill can be held accountable in the first place.
This bill reflects what we heard time and again from survivors and their families – who are not looking for us to throw the book at dangerous drivers. They are asking us to fix the law in order to empower survivors, to remove driving privileges from habitually reckless people, and to achieve some measure of accountability for acts which are not covered by our current, broken laws.
Our Vehicular Violence Accountability Act will now be introduced by Senator Kennedy as Chair of the Transportation Committee, with Senator Hoylman as the first co-sponsor. They’ll have the full support and resources of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office as they work to pass the bill, as well as the support of Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets, who are some of the most effective advocates working in our State today.
Here at the DA’s Office, we’re also heeding the grand jury’s recommendation to better empower victims and their families, by creating a new Liaison position in our Witness Aid Services Unit. This liaison will work with vehicular violence survivors and their families to connect them with services and counseling, and help them understand the criminal court process over the lifetime of their case.
As I said at the outset, the solution for ending vehicular violence does not lie entirely with criminal laws or handling of evidence. We also need vigorous enforcement, smart engineering in street design, dramatically better education and outreach, and more collaboration between City and State agencies and our communities.
But the Vehicular Violence Accountability Act is our effort to make sure that on the criminal legal side, we are doing all that we can to support survivors and ensure that drivers who kill or injure face accountability.
Thank you to our sponsors and advocates for your collaboration today and in the months ahead. And most of all, I want to thank the courageous survivors and loved ones who told our Grand Jury their stories and helped us make the legislation we are announcing today. Thank you for turning your pain into purpose and helping to change the laws of New York State.
Finally, I’d like to acknowledge the many successes of the Mayor’s Vision Zero initiative, which our grand jurors called, quote, “commendable” – a sentiment that I share. Thank you to Mayor de Blasio and his administration for your commitment to Vision Zero and for laying the groundwork for statewide reform.