A group of family members who have lost loved ones in traffic deaths have spent the last month painting Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. as a big part of the problem.
Members of the group, called Families for Safe Streets, have targeted Vance at press conferences, held at rally at City Hall to protest his approach to traffic fatalities, even shouted him down at a business breakfast. All, they say, because of an unusually low number of prosecutions of traffic-death cases, when compared to other cities around the country.
Now, the tension finally appears to be easing. Last week, for the first time, Vance met with members of the group as well as some elected officials in his Manhattan office – and family members say they emerged cautiously optimistic that progress is possible. “He was engaged,” said Amy Cohen, a Families for Safe Streets member whose 8-year-old son was killed in October 2013 after chasing a soccer ball out into the street near Prospect Park. “They were interested in doing more.”
Members of the families group were joined at the meeting by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, a staff member from the office of East Side Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, and an attorney from Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group. They said Vance was joined in the meeting by senior staff members, which they saw as a sign of a renewed commitment to the issue.
“It went much better than anyone could possibly have imagined,” Brewer said. “He was very honest and spent quite a bit of time with them.”
Brewer said the D.A. pledged to organize a group of people, including family representatives, to look at future legislation, which could strengthen his hand as he tries future traffic-death cases.
“It was a very productive meeting,” said Vance spokeswoman Joan Vollero. “We are committed to working together on our common goal of making New York streets safe for everyone.”
In the end, the tension between the D.A. and the family members stems from a disagreement over how aggressive prosecutors should be when it comes to pursuing criminal cases against drivers who kill people.
Prosecutors say they can only try people with the laws on the books, which aren't as strict as in other states, when it comes to handling traffic-deaths cases not involving drunk driving or other crimes.
The families, though, believe Vance has been much too cautious in his application of the law, still viewing most traffic deaths as accidents, with no cause for prosecution. If New York laws aren't forceful enough to address the problem, they say, Vance should be leading the charge to argue for their strengthening.
“They need to bring these cases even if they believe the law is not perfect,” Cohen said. “They're too risk averse. The only way the culture is changed is if they bring these cases and the public can see that people are getting off scot-free. We will never get to Vision Zero is there is no accountability.”
In addition to more cases, the group also pressed Vance for more transparency around the cases it has filed. Family members say it's nearly impossible to get a citywide accounting of how many cases have been filed against drivers, and how they've fared.
Brewer said the goal of the traffic advocates is to give the epidemic of traffic deaths the same high profile as Mothers Against Drunk Drivers achieved for their cause decades ago. And, she said, they see tougher prosecution as a key part of that effort.
“We have a culture of reckless driving,” Cohen said. “The only way people will realize they are driving a weapon is if we treat it as such.”