Car Crash Victims Seek Justice in a New Way: Talking to the Drivers

Bill Penny was the center of attention in a tense room. It had been about nine months since he drove the wrong way down a one-way road in Brooklyn, hitting and critically injuring a woman who was crossing.

He had been arrested and charged with reckless endangerment and had gone through safe-driving classes. Now he had to talk.

Mr. Penny sat in a circle, flanked by his supporters. In front of him sat Kate Brockwehl, a volunteer for an organization that helps drivers who hit pedestrians face what they did. Mr. Penny was nervous about how the conversation might go until Ms. Brockwehl asked a simple question: How did the crash affect him?

Few people had asked, he said. Ms. Brockwehl’s concern made him “open up more and be a lot more vulnerable.” Mr. Penny, who himself had been hit by a car as a child, had felt his role in the crash acutely.

“It just broke me down,” he said. “I was just really heartbroken by the fact that I injured somebody.”

Ms. Brockwehl, also a car-crash victim, is a volunteer with Circles for Safe Streets, a program of the Center for Justice Innovation, a nonprofit group. Launched in 2021 in partnership with Families for Safe Streets, a group of New Yorkers who have lost loved ones or been injured in crashes, the program aims to allow victims and drivers to talk to one another as the city struggles to make its streets safe.

To participate, drivers must accept responsibility and plead guilty. Because prosecutors, courts and insurers focus on the law, legal proceedings after a crash tend to obstruct communication between victims and drivers. Circles for Safe Streets aims to bridge that gap.

Even if a crash is fatal, state law often does not allow serious charges unless a driver was reckless, drunk or high, said Eric Gonzalez, the Brooklyn district attorney, whose office helped found the program. That leaves many victims and their families feeling dissatisfied with the legal process, Mr. Gonzalez said.

“There has to be a way to reduce our reliance on incarceration while still taking these cases very seriously and helping families get through the trauma, pain and suffering,” he said.

So far, 31 cases have been referred — all but three by the Brooklyn district attorney’s office — and 11 circles have taken place. About 50 people have participated, including drivers, victims and their relatives and friends.

Because the main objective is changing behavior, Mr. Gonzalez said his office now evaluates all drivers being prosecuted to see if they are a fit for the program.

New York has struggled for decades to curb traffic injuries and fatalities. Fatalities dropped to about 200 in 2018, according to data from Vision Zero, a city safety initiative. By 2022 they had increased to 260. Through September of this year, 183 people had been killed and about 38,815 had been injured in all types of crashes.

“You can’t look at the numbers over the last few years and think that we’re doing all that we can on safety,” said Janette Sadik-Khan, a principal at Bloomberg Associates who, as the city’s transportation commissioner under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, was responsible for rethinking pedestrian safety.

“We watched traffic violence ebb over the last decade only to snap back to levels seen a decade ago,” she said. “This shows that while you can quickly redesign an individual street, building a culture of safety in the city is a lot harder.”

As a first step to creating such a culture, staff at the Center for Justice Innovation met with groups of victims and drivers separately, said Hillary Packer, its associate director for restorative practices.

Credit…Janice Chung for The New York Times

They found that many people really wanted to talk to the other side. Victims wanted to understand what had happened in the moments before the crash, to hear whether the drivers felt any remorse, and most wanted an apology. Drivers wanted to express regret.

“There’s nothing that restorative justice can do in terms of the loss of life or a life-altering injury itself,” Ms. Packer said. “But the fact that people were naming that barrier to communication had caused a lot of harm — could we do something about that?”

That led the program’s creators to devise the talking circle, Ms. Packer said. For a driver to participate, the district attorney’s office prosecuting the case must agree. If a victim does not want to be involved, program staff members will choose a volunteer with a similar experience as a surrogate.

In the weeks before the parties meet in one of the Center for Justice Innovation’s offices throughout the city, drivers attend a safety class, are offered voluntary counseling, write a reflection statement and meet with facilitators.

The circle itself takes hours. The opening ceremony can involve anything from a moment of silence to a recitation of poetry. Then the team from the Center for Justice Innovation offers guidelines before allowing everyone in the room — the drivers, the victims and their supporters — to discuss the crashes and how their lives have been affected.

“We want to make real that people are more than the crash,” Ms. Packer said.

But for many families in New York, like the relatives of Karina Larino, the opportunity to speak with the driver who killed their loved one remains elusive.

Ms. Larino, 38, was walking through Astoria, Queens, on her way home from her job at the LaGuardia Bus Depot late one evening in May 2022 when a driver making a turn in a sport utility vehicle hit her. Ms. Larino was steps from home, close enough for her 20-year-old daughter to see her on the ground. She was taken to Elmhurst Hospital Center, where she died from injuries to her head and body.

Olivia Vasquez was close enough to see the scene where her mother died. Carmen Larino, her grandmother, said the family felt left out of the legal equation.Credit…Janice Chung for The New York Times

The driver, who stayed at the scene, was charged with failure to yield the right of way and failure to exercise due care, according to the police.

In the months after Ms. Larino’s death, her family felt excluded from the court proceedings. They had no updates from prosecutors as the case wound through the legal system, said her mother, Carmen Larino. The family, she said, had no agency.

This year, when Carmen Larino was asked to represent victims in a Circles for Safe Streets session, she jumped at the opportunity, along with her son and daughter-in-law. Although they didn’t get to speak with the person who killed Ms. Larino, the experience of speaking with another driver who had killed someone was cathartic.

“It felt very good hearing her being so full of remorse, feeling so sorry for what she had done,” Ms. Larino said. “I don’t know if this woman that killed my daughter had that remorse, had that desire, so it felt really good to hear that.”

As for Mr. Penny, the time since his crash has not dimmed his ability to recall every detail.

It was a weekday evening and his sister had asked him to drive about two miles from their home in Crown Heights to pick up water purifier filters from their aunt’s house in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

As the sun was quickly disappearing, he mistakenly turned down a one-way street. Suddenly, he saw a woman about 10 feet ahead, he said. Mr. Penny slammed on his brakes, but too late.

A police officer nearby saw the crash and quickly ran to the scene. Mr. Penny jumped out of his car to check on the woman, who lay sprawled in the street. How had he not seen her? Was she going to die?

Mr. Penny’s shock gave way to a flashback: He was 12 and running across a street to retrieve a soccer ball. As he sprinted, a truck stopped, but an impatient driver whipped around it, hitting Mr. Penny. He spent three days in a coma and months recovering in physical therapy.

When he saw the woman he had hit lying on the ground on that dark October day last year, it was “nerve wracking,” he said.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen next,” he said.

In the months after the crash, Mr. Penny, who drives every day for his job assembling appliances and furniture, said he had become intensely conscious of his every move.

“Sometimes you don’t pay attention, sometimes you zone out,” he said. “And in that second of zoning out, something can happen that could change your whole life.”

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