Volume 23, Number 10 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | July 16 - 22, 2010

Downtown Express photo by Kenzie

State Senator Squadron (at the podium) was joined by other local officials and the families of Hayley Ng and Diego Martinez last Wednesday on the steps of city hall to discuss a new bill awaiting the governor’s signature.

New law could penalize careless drivers

BY Aline Reynolds

In January 2009, four-year-old Hayley Ng and three-year-old Diego Martinez were walking hand-in-hand along East Broadway when a 9,400-pound delivery van backed into them. The driver had leapt out of the car, accidentally leaving the vehicle running and in reverse.

Ng was pronounced dead on the scene, and Martinez died at New York Downtown Hospital an hour later. Other fellow preschoolers from the Red Apple Child Development Center were also hurt in the accident.

To the surprise of many, the driver was not charged, since New York State currently does not penalize negligent drivers; subsequently the Manhattan District Attorney’s office was unable to take the driver to court on charges of manslaughter. The families, together with Transportation Alternatives, a local nonprofit, have since pushed for a change in this law, calling on support from local elected officials.

“We’re very, very angry at the system,” said Wendy Cheung, Ng’s aunt. “So we came together and said, ‘let’s do something to memorialize what happened to Hayley and Diego and try to save more lives.’”

Currently, a bill passed by the New York State Senate and Assembly in June and awaiting Governor David Paterson’s signature could do just that.

“This law will help make drivers throughout the state more conscious of their obligation to drive safely…I urge Governor Paterson to sign it into law,” said Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, the bill’s sponsor.

If the law is changed, a driver who carelessly injures a pedestrian or biker would receive a $750 fine, serve 15 days in prison or be forced to take a driver’s training course. The driver would incur a misdemeanor charge the second time he is accused for careless driving within five years of the first offense.

“This bill is meant to send the message loud and clear that driving can have tragic consequences,” said 25th District State Senator Daniel Squadron.

The senator is confident that Paterson will sign the bill into law in the coming days or weeks.

A driver’s brief moment of inattention could result in fatal accidents such as the one last January in Chinatown, the bill’s proponents say.

“So many people are walking and biking to get where they need to go in Lower Manhattan,” said Wiley Norvell, communications director of Transportation Alternatives. The streets are so packed with pedestrians, he added, that there is no margin for error. He considers the incident to be one of the city’s worst pedestrian-related vehicle accidents in years.

Drunk drivers were similarly let off the hook until the 1980s, when laws were created to hold them accountable for their actions.

“There was a time in this country when drunk drivers were sent home with a wink and a nod from local police without consequences — those days are over,” Norvell said. “We’re now looking to bring about similar culture change with dangerous driving. This new law will take us down that path.”

The Ng-Martinez incident isn’t the only recent case of careless driving in the Downtown area. In May of this year, a Chinatown bus ran over a man on Canal Street, resulting in leg injuries. And on June 8, a tour bus turning the corner of Clinton and East Broadway hit and hospitalized a 50-year-old woman.

“This legislation sends a message that the right to drive a car in our city does not include a license for recklessness,” said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer in a statement.

District 1 Councilmember Margaret Chin seconded Stringer’s sentiments.

“There’s never enough punishment to replace lives that are lost and the people that are hurt. Hopefully this [law] will make people think twice and be more careful drivers,” she said.

Chin added that the city has to look into where traffic lights and stop signs are most needed in Chinatown and Tribeca, Downtown neighborhoods that are packed with pedestrians. She is supporting the local residents’ push for a traffic light or stop sign at Greenwich Street in Tribeca that would improve pedestrian safety.

But the families are still shattered by their loss and perplexed by the law.

“We can prevent tragedies like this from happening to other families,” said May Ng, Hayley’s mother, in a recent statement. “And we can hold someone who breaks the law and takes a life responsible for their actions.”

Wana Wu, mother of Diego Martinez, wasn’t even notified about the accident involving her son until 30 minutes after he died at Downtown Hospital.

“My son died by himself in an emergency room,” Wu told the Daily News last year. “[I was] not able to see my son take his last breath, not to know that he was in pain, not to be by my side — that’s the worst thing that can happen to a parent. All I want is justice.”

“We realize that we can’t bring Haley and Diego back,” Cheung said. “But we want to have this law changed, so that they didn’t die in vain.”

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