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Weak State Law Protects Unlicensed Drivers Who Kill

The unlicensed driver who hit and killed a 10-year-old boy was charged with a misdemeanor because of lax state law. Photo: WPIX

The unlicensed driver who hit and killed a 10-year-old boy riding his bike in Brooklyn on Saturday will spend no more than a month behind bars because of a lax state law that fails to adequately punish unlicensed drivers who kill — but more so because of a car culture that prioritizes driving over the safety of pedestrians and cyclists, experts say.

State law regarding driving without a license is lenient — and does not even set aside a higher penalty for unlicensed drivers who kill, said attorney Steve Vaccaro, who works exclusively in vehicular crimes.

“It’s part of our giant blindspot for the dangers of driving. It speaks to how we have forgotten how driving is a privilege and not a right,” said Vaccaro.

Some state lawmakers want to close this nonsensical loophole by increasing the penalties for unlicensed drivers who kill. Under legislation proposed by Queens State Senator Michael Gianaris, drivers could face up to seven in prison if they kill someone while driving with a suspended license.

The higher penalties would only be applicable to drivers whose licenses are suspended because of prior driving infractions, like another crash where they were proven to be at fault, or speeding or going through a red light, not for merely failing to pay a parking ticket or child support, according to Gianaris’s office.

The distinction between punishing drivers who actively choose to get behind the wheel knowing they shouldn’t and others who may lose their license for non-driving infractions is the key to improving the current law and getting reckless drivers off the road, said Amy Cohen of Families For Safe Streets.

“It is horrific that drivers who lose their license because of previous dangerous driving choose to get behind the wheel anyway and then kill someone. This is not an accident. These reckless drivers need to be held accountable. If current laws do not permit that, then we need to change the law to do so,” said Cohen.

The Senate unanimously passed the Gianaris bill last April, but it now sits in the Assembly’s codes committee — which must pass it soon to make streets safer, said the lawmaker.

“Too many deaths and serious injuries occur at the hands of dangerous drivers. We need to prevent these needless tragedies by building safer streets and providing the tools to keep dangerous drivers off the road,” Gianaris said.

But codes committee chair, Brooklyn Assembly Member Joe Lentol, said some legislators were cautious to hike the penalties for unlicensed drivers since many undocumented immigrants are unable to get a license at all, making them yet another target for police and immigration authorities. 

But now that Gov. Cuomo signed into law the Green Light bill, which allows undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver’s license, Lentol said he and his colleagues are eager to revisit the legislation this year — despite previously telling the Post that the law wouldn’t be “fair” because “accidents happen.” 

“I believe this is a good bill that we need,” Lentol told Streetsblog on Tuesday. “We certainly want to ensure the safety of all pedestrians, cyclists and motorists. Other Assembly members, including myself, were concerned with the disproportionate impact that this bill would have on undocumented immigrants. Now that the law would apply more fairly to everyone, I look forward to taking a deeper dive into the bill next session.”

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