By Nora Hanak
The Vision Zero Network was pleased to host a webinar on August 18, 2020 to share an innovative approach to driving-related offenses that seeks to increase awareness and meaningful accountability amongst dangerous drivers, rather than focusing on punishment, fines or fees. This is part of our commitment to support and promote alternatives to law enforcement and criminal justice practices that perpetuate unjust racial and economic outcomes and deliver questionable results for roadway safety.
The Center for Court Innovation launched the Driver Accountability Program in 2015 as a pilot program at the Red Hook Community Justice Center in Brooklyn, NY. The program takes a restorative justice approach to seeking accountability for traffic violators and healing for victims and survivors. Restorative justice programs focus on behavioral change in a way that is more equitable by not disproportionately impacting low-income communities — offering promising opportunities for Vision Zero champions who want to ensure traffic safety work is both effective and equitable.
The program’s director, Amanda Berman, describes restorative justice as “a theory of justice that focuses on people, relationships, and healing, rather than the crime or offense, punishment, and the law.” With a focus on healing, restorative justice practices can be used as a preventative tool to reduce rates of recidivism and shift harmful behaviors.
How Does it Work?
Participants of the Driver Accountability Program are individuals who have been charged with misdemeanor traffic-related offenses, which typically do not involve causal injury, such as driving with a suspended license.
The program has two central goals: (1) To increase participants’ awareness of their driving beliefs and behaviors, and (2) To improve driving behaviors. The curriculum is a 90-minute session of meaningful dialogue among an average of 10 participants and one facilitator, accompanied by powerful testimonials of people who have been personally impacted by harmful driving behaviors.
The sessions incorporate restorative elements by promoting reflection, self-awareness, and acknowledgement of harm (or potential harm), while also centering the voices of victims. In the process of recognizing accountability for one’s actions, participants, hopefully, come to understand their responsibility as part of a community, including while they are drivers on the road.
The program can function as a condition of a guilty plea either associated or disassociated with other conditions. It can also function as an alternative to punitive fines or incarceration, as well as a pre-condition of charge reduction or dismissal of a case.
In the past five years, this program has expanded to operate in four counties in NYC and has served more than 2,500 participants. In terms of recidivism rates, preliminary findings reveal a 40% reduction in rearrests for traffic-related offenses. According to a post-program survey, 89% of respondents reported a change in driving behaviors.
Why Do We Need Alternatives?
NYC Councilmember Brad Lander, an advocate for safe streets and equitable mobility, has championed the Driver Accountability Program. During the Vision Zero Network webinar, Lander explained his belief that we are not going to reach restorative reform to traffic violence through policing. He points to the flaws of traditional policing strategies as barriers to thinking preventively towards reckless driving and towards healing. Ultimately, Lander explains, the goal of this program is facilitating growth to change behaviors and ensure accountability for harmful actions.
“This kind of work really can build a bridge between the livable streets movement that has sprung up in recent years and the restorative justice understanding,” says Councilmember Lander. “It is a powerful opportunity to bring a racial equity lens to our traffic safety work and it has very significant potential to heal past harms that are institutional, as well as individual crash related.”
Lifting Up Victims’ Voices
“Those closest to the pain should be closest to power,” according to U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley. Councilmember Lander shared the quote during the webinar, emphasizing the power in organizing and collaborating with those who have experienced the pain of traffic crashes themselves or the suffering of losing a loved one.
This is a belief shared by Amy Cohen, a founder of NYC’s Families for Safe Streets, in partnership with Transportation Alternatives (TA), which advocates for life-saving changes and provides support to those personally affected by crashes. Cohen’s 12-year-old son, Sammy, was killed in 2013. She and other members of TA and Families for Safe Streets partnered with the Center for Court Innovation to develop the Driver Accountability Program curriculum and materials and have continued to support the program’s expansion efforts. Cohen and other advocates value restorative approaches as an important tool in promoting prevention-driven interventions and alternatives to in-person police enforcement, and combating mass incarceration and over-policing.
Citing findings from Common Justice, Cohen shared that 90% of victims — offered the choice between restorative justice and incarceration for the perpetrator — choose to work with the perpetrator. Survivors, she says, generally want the following: a sense of control relative to what happened to them; the person to repair the harm as well as they possibly can; and, perhaps most essentially, they don’t want the person to hurt them or anyone else again.
Families for Safe Streets organizer and social worker, Chana Widawski, emphasizes the need to move beyond the current (in)justice system for traffic violence, not only to reduce reckless driving behavior, but to offer a path for healing and a new sense of meaning and control for victims and survivors. She identified the common reality that victims of trauma experience a sense of powerlessness and that restorative justice principles can offer an important counterbalance.
Widawski referenced her own observations of Families for Safe Streets members' sentiments and shared a quote by restorative justice expert Danielle Sered expressing “[there is] a basic human desire to want what is broken to be fixed [and] to want those who broke it to take responsibility for that repair however possible." She shared that many members would give anything to hear a meaningful apology, see some accountability and prevent anyone else from going through the same pain.
The Center for Court Innovation is currently working with Families for Safe Streets to develop a new iteration of the Driver Accountability Program that will use a restorative justice model to address more serious cases involving serious injury or death. The program will bring together drivers with their victims or surviving loved ones for a series of sessions that provide an opportunity for the driver to acknowledge and repair the harm they have caused, where that is desired by the victims.
Councilman Lander and other program leaders are committed to continue to advocate for deepening and expanding the restorative justice efforts around traffic safety. A key focus will be collecting and analyzing to gauge the program's efficacy in preventing recidivism and traffic crashes.
The Driver Accountability program has also served as a model for an automated camera enforcement program, as part of Councilman Lander’s recently passed Dangerous Vehicle Abatement Law (also known as the Reckless Driver Accountability Act). The law targets NYC’s most dangerous who accrue the most speed camera or red light camera violations and requires them to complete a class modeled off the Driver Accountability Program. Those who do not complete the program face their cars being impounded or booted. The legislation serves as an innovative example of how the use of data and a restorative lens can produce more equitable outcomes and safer streets.
Unfortunately, with the strain on government funding caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the funding for this expansion under the Dangerous Vehicle Abatement Law is not currently in the NYC budget. Advocates are hoping to find a way to launch it in the near future when the funding does become available.
Councilman Lander and other program leaders are committed to continue to advocate for deepening and expanding the restorative justice efforts around traffic safety. A key focus will be collecting and analyzing the data to gauge the program's efficacy in preventing recidivism and traffic crashes.
Beyond Brooklyn: Growing Restorative Justice Efforts
To explore possibilities of leveraging restorative justice as a more effective and equitable tool in your own community, Amanda Berman suggests to “get a lay of the land to see where your jurisdiction sits,” as every locality may function differently in how offenses are managed. Depending on where these offenses are handled (criminal court, traffic court, civil court, etc.), that will dictate specific stakeholders you need to engage on the court side. A successful effort must also include collaboration with advocates and community members to learn what are the biggest street safety issues impacting their community from their perspectives. Lastly, Berman notes that elected officials are powerful allies, as proven from her partnership with Council Member Lander.
Given the disproportionate impact of fines and fees on low-income offenders, as well as the promising track record of changing behavior with restorative justice programs, the Driver Accountability Program offers an encouraging route for more to explore. As Councilmember Lander sums up during the webinar: There’s a lot of work we can do together at the intersection of data and working for safety preventively and with a racial equity lens. We can use our platforms to empower restorative justice and advance equity within public safety.
Vision Zero Network encourages interested safe mobility champions to learn more and consider exploring restorative justice opportunities in their local work. And we thank Amanda Berman, Amy Cohen, Chana Widawski, and Councilmember Brad Lander for your leadership.