The image was of some Mad Max villain driving his auto of death toward a crowd of children at ramming speed. But that wasn’t what they were really talking about, because that’s not what happens in New York City. The drivers have no desire to kill or maim, but to get where they’re going like anyone else.
For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of driving a car or truck in Manhattan, it’s not like Kansas. Cram enough people into a space too small to hold them all and something has to give. Add to it cabs going vertical to grab a fare, and boxes (the square where an avenue and street cross) jammed for three consecutive lights, and frustration abounds. Then there are bikes weaving between cars and people crossing wherever it works for them, and you’ve got chaos.
And sometimes, perhaps too often, cars hit something. Other cars, bikers and pedestrians. Nobody means to have this happen. Sometimes, drivers aren’t as accommodating as they should be. New Yorkers can be rude that way, putting themselves first and expecting, forcing, the other guy into a game of chicken.
But when I saw this website, the one that made me think Mad Max at Madison Square Garden, it coalesced into the next dangerous conflation of law.
Families of Traffic Violence Victims Demand Justice From District Attorneys
Traffic violence? So by adding the word “violence” to the back-end, it converted the tragedy of a traffic accident to a crime? That’s exactly the game they’re playing.
Braving the cold, more than 150 people gathered on the steps of City Hall yesterday to demand that New York City’s five district attorneys begin filing charges against reckless drivers who kill and injure New Yorkers on the streets.
“The five New York City district attorneys have failed to do their job,” said Amy Cohen, who helped found Families For Safe Streets after her 12-year-old son Sammy was killed in 2013. No charges were filed against the driver who killed her son. “New York City has a culture of lawlessness on our streets, because reckless drivers are not held accountable,” she said.
Charges are filed against drivers who commit crimes. Recklessness is a mental state,* not an adjective that gets tossed at anyone who has an accident that results in tragedy.
“Recklessly.” A person acts recklessly with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that such result will occur or that such circumstance exists. The risk must be of such nature and degree that disregard thereof constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the situation. A person who creates such a risk but is unaware thereof solely by reason of voluntary intoxication also acts recklessly with respect thereto.
This isn’t a slap in the face of mothers whose children have been harmed or killed, but a distinction between conduct that is criminal and accidental.
Charges for reckless or negligent driving are exceedingly rare absent other aggravating circumstances, even in cases where the victim dies. Since January 2012, more than 500 pedestrians and cyclists have been killed by drivers in NYC, but in only two known occasions have city DAs filed homicide charges against a driver who was not drunk, fleeing the scene, running from police, or intentionally attacking the victim, according to records kept by Streetsblog. Fewer than 2 percent of drivers in non-DUI cases are prosecuted, according to Families For Safe Streets.
There is a reason for this, but those who want “justice” because of back-end consequences don’t really care and those who find arguments like this influential don’t really understand. That the end result was a tragic loss of life doesn’t make the conduct causing it criminal. That the driver who caused the accident committed a traffic infraction doesn’t, standing alone, raise the culpability to a crime.
This isn’t a matter of being unsympathetic toward the victims of traffic accidents, and unlike so many others who usurp the language of victimhood for their own ends, they are very much victims. But then, they also can’t usurp the language of crime by adding the word “violence” to the end of traffic. This isn’t traffic violence. Mad Max was traffic violence. This is traffic accident, as painful as that may be to a mother whose child was lost.
What makes this particularly alarming is that it’s part of a larger trend to connect unrelated words to give rise to an appearance of criminality where none exists, or should exist. The Utopian notion of a city where no one is ever hurt in a traffic accident is clearly something that most would favor, though the nature of human beings in command of 2,000 pound machines in the midst of Manhattan chaos makes that an unlikely outcome.
Rather, by conflating criminality with tragic outcome, what this well-intended group would produce is another group of criminals, except for the lack of having done anything more wrong than being lousy drivers, if only for a moment. Can anyone say they are a perfect driver? Does anyone manage to drive so well that they violate no traffic law? And if the moment of inattention, or speeding, or whatever, ends in tragedy, is there anyone who thinks they deserve to be convicted and imprisoned for it?
Because if you do, then what you are suggesting is that the crime, the conduct you engaged in and over which you had control, is worthy of prosecution and imprisonment. Whether you strike someone or get home safely is fortuitous, but you committed the crime the moment you failed to be the perfect driver, the rest being just dumb luck that there wasn’t a child in your path.
The push to criminalize every potential bad outcome, for which there are a growing number of groups each with their own issue that cries for “justice,” uses rhetorical devices such as adding “violence” to the back-end to obscure its conceptual emptiness. Just as calling victims “survivors” when their life wasn’t threatened, it’s a trick played on the public to generate support for a cause among people who don’t understand the issues or problems, and are susceptible to emotional pleas without sufficient thought behind it.
The death of a child, of anyone, in a traffic accident is tragic. That death results, however, doesn’t make something a crime, and doesn’t justify the conflated phrase “traffic violence.” Now you know. Don’t fall for it.
* While the word “reckless” is used, it’s more likely that they are calling for prosecution for criminally negligent homicide, Penal Law §125.10. Criminal negligence is defined as:
“Criminal negligence.” A person acts with criminal negligence with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that such result will occur or that such circumstance exists. The risk must be of such nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.
This remains a long way off from common negligence that gives rise to civil liability for damages.
Update: After posting, Dave Goodkin sent me this decision out of Michigan, People v. Stinchcomb, where ordinary negligence plus tragic outcome is a crime.
A negligent homicide conviction requires that the prosecution prove beyond a reasonable doubt that:
(1) defendant was operating a motor vehicle, (2) defendant was operating the vehicle at an immoderate rate of speed or in a careless, reckless, or negligent manner, (3) defendant’s negligence was a substantial cause of an accident resulting in injuries to the victim, and (4) those injuries caused the victim’s death. People v Tims, 449 Mich 83, 95, 99, 103-104; 534 NW2d 675 (1995).
The Court drops a footnote which shows the absurdity of this view:
While we recognize that the prosecution has broad discretion to bring any charge supported by the evidence, People v Nichols, 262 Mich App 408, 415; 686 NW2d 502 (2004), it is regretful that the obviously unintentional actions of defendant resulted in a negligent homicide charge. By all accounts, defendant simply overcompensated in swerving to avoid a vehicle that was difficult to see and, in doing so, caused the death of his friend and co-worker. We are hard-pressed to think of circumstances more deserving of the exercise of lenient prosecutorial discretion.
The only safety valve is prosecutorial discretion. What could possibly go wrong?