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Girl Gone: Anatomy Of a New York City Pedestrian Death

Tuesday, March 18, 2014 - 03:19 PM

WNYC
Hsi-Pei Liao at an intersection in Flushing. Behind him is the street where his four-year-old daughter, Allison, was struck and killed by an SUV. Hsi-Pei Liao at an intersection in Flushing. Behind him is the street where his four-year-old daughter, Allison, was struck and killed by an SUV. (Jim O'Grady/WNYC)

On a recent chilly Sunday, Hsi-Pei Liao stood with his back to the intersection of Cherry Avenue and Main Street in Flushing. Over his shoulder was the spot in the crosswalk where an SUV hit his four-year-old daughter Allison and 71-year-old mother Chin Hua. The two were walking hand-in-hand, crossing with the signal.

It was Sunday, Oct. 6, around 5 p.m. He's thought a lot about how Allison got to that spot, at that moment. "That day, Allison really wanted to go outside to get a watermelon," he recalled. "She was pretty insistent, which normally she wasn't. She normally just watched TV, watched Dora."

Allison was visiting her grandmother, as she often did. Hsi-Pei and his wife Amy were at home in Fresh Meadows, 10 minutes away. He later learned from his mother about how Allison got ready for shopping: "She took out a little purse she carries with her as a toy purse so she could pretend to pay."

Allison's preparations set in motion a chain of events that would soon turn her into a grim statistic: one of the 156 pedestrians killed in New York City traffic last year. (Twenty-seven pedestrians have died in the first 10 weeks of 2014.) This account of the collision that took her life is part of WNYC's "Mean Streets," a year-long investigation into who is dying from traffic-related causes, and why.

Allison and her grandmother walked three blocks to the Chinese grocery store with the long red awning on Main Street. Hsi-Pei says a store camera video shows his mother with a small watermelon in a plastic bag on her left arm. Her right hand is by her side, holding Allison's hand. They leave the store, move down the sidewalk, turn and enter the crosswalk.

Hsi-Pei knows what happened next because of a video taken by a dashboard camera on a car being driven, by chance, toward the intersection. "The driver made a left turn and he's basically — it looks like he just sucked my daughter in from the left tire and knocked my mom down to the floor," Hsi-Pei said.

The driver, Ahmad Abu-Zayedeha of Williamsburg, could not be reached for comment. The police report says he was behind the wheel of a two-ton Nissan Murano SUV. He had a steady green light as he approached from Cherry Avenue. Allison and her grandmother were in the crosswalk, halfway across the street, their backs to Abu-Zayedeha as he turned left onto Main Street. The Nissan struck Hsi-Pei's mother first.

"The worst part is that, as she's getting up quickly, my mother has to see that my daughter gets run over by the back tire," Hsi-Pei said.

In the video, the driver only slows once he's past them. He stops, jumps out of his car, and appears distraught. He stays on the scene. Breathalyzer tests later show alcohol in his system, but under the legal limit. The police say there's no evidence he was using his phone while driving.

That day, when Hsi-Pei and his wife received a text from a family member telling them Allison had been taken to the hospital after an accident, their first thought was of their 5-year-old son Preston, and how he broke his arm the year before. They figured something like that had happened to Allison.

But when they arrived at New York Hospital Queens, which is two blocks from the scene of the collision, they walked into a disorienting scene. "We see my mom on the floor in this special room and you see blood on the floor," Hsi-Pei said. "We see my daughter's toy purse on the floor with all blood on the ground. And my mom is just crying. And we're going, 'What's happening?'"

His mother was not seriously hurt, only inconsolable. She started chanting ritual phrases of grief in a Chinese dialect. A doctor then took Hsi-Pei and his wife to the room where hospital staff were working to save Allison. "You just hear the beeping of the sound, her heartbeat, and you're going, 'Please let it keep going,'" Hsi-Pei said. "But they had to stop eventually."

A police investigation concluded that "the cause of the collision is operator error." For that, Abu-Zayedeha received two summonses. One for "Failing to Exercise Due Care," the other for "Failing to Yield to a Pedestrian." Queens District Attorney Richard Brown declined to pursue a criminal case. In New York State, drivers can only typically be charged with vehicular homicide or manslaughter if they're disabled by alcohol or drugs at the time of a collision.

Hsi-Pei says he and his wife are planning to sue the driver in civil court. "Him just getting two summonses, or tickets, for running over my daughter and killing her, it seems unimaginable," he said.

Hsi-Pei's mother, who worked for years preparing appetizers in Chinese restaurants and loves to cook, only recently started leaving her home to buy food again. And that's only when a family member goes with her. Hsi-Pei said she's seeing a psychiatrist and needs medication to sleep.

The Liaos have become active members of Families for Safe Streets, a lobbying group that is pushing for a local speed limit of 20 miles per hour. That's five miles-per-hour slower than Mayor Bill de Blasio's proposal in his Vision Zero project, which sets the goal of eliminating traffic deaths in New York within 10 years. Families for Safer Streets is also pushing for tougher penalties on drivers involved in fatalities.

Hsi-Pei said he'd like to spare as many families as possible from having to face what he and his wife faced on that Sunday in October, when they walked into the hospital room that held their daughter, Allison. "Initially you go in there and there's a sense of life," he said. "And then you sit there and there's nothing more. That's the really hard part."

Editors:

Andrea Bernstein

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Comments [36]

Alex from Brooklyn NY

I live in the US but I'm originally from the UK. I cannot understand why drivers are allowed to turn left or right across pedestrians. In the UK crossings have a third phase where all traffic stops (all lights red in any direction) which allows pedestrians to cross. When the light shows a green walk signal, you can be confident that no cars will try to edge past you as you cross.

I cannot get over the obvious flaw with NY (US?) traffic planning that allows cars and pedestrians to mix. The pedestrian will always come off worse. Are we sacrificing people so that drivers can save a few extra minutes at the stop signal?

Mar. 28 2014 02:06 PM
BillG from Florida

My condolences to the Liao family, losing a loved one is unimaginable sorrow.
I live in Florida and here too I see so many distracted drivers, from talking on cellphone to reading while driving! I also see so many drivers that do not know the rules of the road, it is very easy to get a driver license in Florida. That should be the first phase of education make sure that we firm up the training required to get a license. Do not issue licenses to people who cannot drive!

Mar. 28 2014 08:37 AM
BillG from Florida

My condolences to the Liao family, losing a loved one is unimaginable sorrow.
I live in Florida and here too I see so many distracted drivers, from talking on cellphone to reading while driving! I also see so many drivers that do not know the rules of the road, it is very easy to get a driver license in Florida. That should be the first phase of education make sure that we firm up the training required to get a license. Do not issue licenses to people who cannot drive!

Mar. 28 2014 08:36 AM
LANVY NGUYEN from nyc

What's the statistics for deaths due to jaywalking?

Mar. 23 2014 11:33 PM
Yolanda

This is a realy heartbreaking story... Bless!

Mar. 23 2014 12:38 PM
Brad from Queens (NYC)

I heard this segment on the radio yesterday, and I think you went too easy on the Queens DA. You mentioned that a conviction for vehicular manslaughter wouldn't have been possible, but not that a conviction for criminally negligent homicide (NYPL 125.10, class E felony) would have. You also don't mention whether or not you sought a comment from their office.

I'm also puzzled as to why you didn't mention the name of the driver. The reporting seemed to be totally fact based, and so I wouldn't think libel would be an issue.

Mar. 20 2014 11:43 AM
Reda Gendy

I would like to offer the Lieo family my deepest sympathies. Also I want them to know that I feel and share their pain. I lost my son Kyrollos Gendy (4 years old)on August 9th 2013 in a hit and run accident. The laws that govern traffic accident with fatalities are too weak specially in a hit and run cases. The law always assumes that the driver panics and leaves. In my son's case the driver surrounded 18 hours later with a lawyer. the only crime he was charged with is leaving the scene of an accident and was assumed to be sober at the time of the accident. This guy stopped got out of the car looked at what he's done got back in his car and drove off. who dose that? didn't even dial 911.

Mar. 20 2014 10:51 AM
NK in Brooklyn from Brooklyn

There are a few practical measures that would definitely make the streets safer for pedestrians - with the sensory overload drivers confront in the city (whether they're looking for a parking spot, a restaurant, bombarded with giant video screens, other traffic, people, commercial chaos), the speed limit should be 20. It would be something we'd all have to get used to. Cameras at lights would help with enforcement. And we could have lights that stopped all traffic at intersections and allowed pedestrians to cross. Speed bumps would work in some places - massive public education is desperately needed, and, somehow, there must be a way to discourage all the driving that goes on in a city where public transportation is so decent and available. It's a huge issue - it is one of the biggest quality of life challenges for families in this city.

Mar. 20 2014 12:24 AM
Chris from NYC from NYC/Brooklyn

This is an utter disgrace. How do you give two summons and call it a day. Shame on NYC and anyone who supposably represent the people of NYC and could look at this and not do anything. Absolutley revolting.

Mar. 19 2014 04:49 PM
Susan from Yorkville

Our Mayor does not really want to remedy this problem. First of all, putting in new speed limits does not control motorists when they know there is almost no enforcement. But more important, Mayor deBlasio is putting thousands of garbage trucks in an area, Yorkville, utilized by thousands of children going to parks, schools and after-school facilities; and we know garbage trucks cannot see children

Mar. 19 2014 04:00 PM

"the cause of the collision is operator error." For that, Abu-Zayedeha received two summonses. One for "Failing to Exercise Due Care," the other for "Failing to Yield to a Pedestrian."
FAILING TO YELD TO A PEDESTRIAN! Again, and again, and again.

Mar. 19 2014 11:58 AM
David from NYC

When your city is a "magnet"for illegals there is a price to pay for that.

Here is your price.

People behind the wheel and in front of the bumper are to blame.
And pleeeese Mr. Bratton enforce the no handheld phones laws.
And just don't use a couple of officers in uniform at stop signs and lights cause thats not working.

Mar. 19 2014 11:02 AM
Juliehauserman from Nyack

Road accidents in NYC

I am living NY 3 years am a UK citizen
First time driving green light to turn right and all these pedestrians crossing whats that all about
As a pedestrian given man to cross road and the traffic on green light to turn - no wonder there are accidents crossing on pedestrian crossing particularly with young children
In UK have different light system
If green light only traffic moves
If shows crossing man only pedestrians cross. There is not both pedestrians and traffic given the cross time at the same time

Thank you

Mar. 19 2014 10:46 AM
sarah from Brooklyn, NY

The Liao family has experienced a tragic loss that was absolutely preventable. Their advocacy in the face of this tragedy is inspiring. Reducing speed limits and increasing consequences would prevent more loss of innocent life. As a mother who walks two young children to school across Atlantic Ave in Brooklyn, I can only hope that the Liaos are successful in their efforts to make streets safer for pedestrians and that other families will not have to suffer the loss they did. Thank you Amy and Hsi-Pei.

Mar. 19 2014 10:41 AM
Hilary from Brooklyn

Years ago, I think in 1995, I was in Southern England. They had an excellent scheme where they put black dots painted on the streets where traffic fatalities happened. The bigger the dot, more people had been killed in that location. The same thing could be done with pedestrian deaths caused by vehicles. It made a strong impression.

Mar. 19 2014 10:40 AM
frances from Upper Manhattan

When I was last in a major European city quite a while ago, I remember being impressed with the fact that the crosswalks were set into the block several feet rather than at the corners. In that way, cars have finished their turn, the most dangerous part for the driver, and have a clear line of vision to see pedestrians crossing. Also knowing that the crosswalks come after the turn,
they are likely to develop the habit of slowing down after they turn in anticipation. On my corner off First Avenue, there's always a Fed-Ex or UPS
truck parked in the lane that sticks out into the street and cars turning have absolutely no way to see any pedestrian crossing.

Mar. 19 2014 10:39 AM
Kent from Hell's Kitchen

I have been a cyclist/pedestrian for all my life and every day I am almost killed by drivers driving or parking in the bike lane. Sometimes this is done by POLICE CARS. Often I see police witnesses these infractions but not acting on them. When I flag down a police car they act like I am the crazy one. And then they harass me. They can't because I have an ID, am riding the correct direction, have lights, and wait for lights. but the dangerous drivers always get away. It is a travesty.

There is no need to change any laws. The police(who are drivers) need to make a massive culture change in which they see pedestrians and cyclist as victims, not causes.

Irony here is if the police follow all these violations, the city would MAKE MONEY. The city only gets a fraction of revenue from moving violations but they could get all of it from parking violations. People regularly (including police) use bike lanes to park. This leads bikes to go into car lanes. A recipe for disaster. Enforce parking, amke money, save lives. Thats one solution.

Mar. 19 2014 10:38 AM
Janine from Manhattan

So sad! I was struck by a taxi driver who just kept saying "you're alright" after hitting me. It took a few minutes for me to even register what happened and his passenger was more apologetic than he was. The crossing guard said I needed to report this at the police station, but the cop on duty was really sarcastic and said, "where's the cab?" and almost refused to take the report saying I had to report the minute it happens. I filed a report anyway and then a report with 311 thanks to the passenger who gave me his number and all the information of the driver.

Mar. 19 2014 10:38 AM
dajuad from NYC

Speed bumps. as a driver I can state that nothing slows drivers down and wakes drivers up like a speed bump. It is cheap, it works in the middle of the night. It does change driver's habits in a simple way. At every dangerous intersection why can't there be four speed bumps

Mar. 19 2014 10:36 AM
AMHess from Harlem

What a terrible tragedy. My suggestions would be banning parking at corners for better visibility, banning large vehicles such as SUVs or requiring them to have wheel covers that prevent them from "sucking in" pedestrians and crushing them. Better enforcement of speed limits and pedestrian right-of-way is much needed, and fortunately is beginning to happen.

Mar. 19 2014 10:31 AM
mercedes from cortlandt manor

And yes, left hand turns in LA are essentially considered "illegal". think of them first as illegal and then judge it carefully from there. This person's loss is painful and will remain that way for a very long time.

Mar. 19 2014 09:25 AM
Nancy from NYC

This is a heartbreaking story... my heart goes out to the Liao family. The laws really need to change. No one should walk away with a summons if a life is taken. There is no doubt that drivers need to slow down on turns and yield to pedestrians.

Mar. 19 2014 09:23 AM
mercedes from cortlandt manor

New York City has to face it, the pedestrian HAS the right of way. (And pedestrians need to obey the signs/lights) as well. LA got it right when they created their traffic laws: no pedestrian can cross the street unless they have the walk sign, but more importantly, the DRIVER CANNOT CROSS THE WALKWAY WHEN A PEDESTRIAN IS IN IT even when the pedestrian is wrong. The driver is behind the wheel and much more capable of causing injury or death. In LA all traffic laws are strictly enforced. As a result, pedestrians will not step into the street without a walk sign OR jaywalk because they'll be ticketed Ah, ticket givers, a jobs program. And tickets, more revenue for the city. I was here 19 days after moving from LA & was hit on Union Square by a New Jersey driver WHO JUST KNEW THAT HE HAD THE "RIGHT OF WAY". The issue is safety, not right of way. Joseph Wambaugh once said in an interview, that even a drunk, at 3 o'clock in the morning (read "empty street", for sure) would not cross against a no-walk sign. Law enforcement at its safest.

Mar. 19 2014 09:18 AM
Peter Drake from UWS

A sad story.

Speeding is only part of the problem: the left turns are as big a problem. At the intersection I can see from my window (105th n Bway)there is a collision a month, and it is the same for the intersections to the north and south of this one. Cars wait--perhaps--at the median until there is no oncoming traffic, then gun the engine crossing against a red light. No regard for the pedestrians at all. This is a legal turn, although I for one cannot figure out why. There are no right turns in NYC, why then can this stupid and dangerous left turn be made?

Mar. 19 2014 08:44 AM
Mike from Williamsburg

This is the first time radio has made me cry.

Mar. 19 2014 08:27 AM
Nathan from Hoboken, NJ

A hard to read story and my heart goes out to the family, especially the grandmother.

I think we all know this, but no one really seems to say it: cross walks at intersections are dumb. As a driver and a pedestrian, I know it can often be hard to see into and around the intersection because of illegally parked cars, lighting, etc... and if you *dare* creep slowly an angry cab driver or some over-entitled wall streeter in his 100k+ car are going to zoom around you nearly missing people. It seems anyone who ever has paid attention to this crossed mid block or even 100 feet off the corner so the driver is looking forward. I do not know anyone who has not nearly or actually been hit by a turning driver.

We have the same issue in Hoboken, people just ignore cross walks, but our cops seem too busy hanging out at the Cake Boss and such to do much about it. If we need help paying for those flood problems, they should just park uptown and nail 'em all.

Mar. 19 2014 08:08 AM
David J. Krupp from Howard Beach, New York

All radio stations should remind motorists to leave their lights on during dawn and turn them on before dusk. They could make an announcement during their regular news programs. In addition, all new motor vehicles should be required to have full time running lights and automatic headlights that would stay on during dawn and come on before dusk.

Mar. 19 2014 06:16 AM
CH from New York

I am simply so sorry for your loss....It is wonderful that you are turning your grief into energy to help others.

Mar. 18 2014 10:53 PM
MB from Central NJ

To LB from NY: I am very sorry for your loss and you are correct about the value of the case. However, it is not the state that places a low value on the age of the victim, it is the insurance industry with their actuarial tables that makes all these decisions. They decide value of life based on loss of future income, pain and suffering, etc.

As far as his policy, I find that is what typically happens. The losers who cause most of the accidents due to their negligence, don't have the money or the desire to buy a policy that will protect themselves or others in case of an accident so they get the bare bones policies you spoke of. The insurance industry is elated that these types of claims are easily disposed of, there is not umbrella policy for excess coverage, no time of theirs spent negotiating with a plaintiff's attorney and no haggling in court (which costs them even more money).

Again, I am very sorry for the loss of your mother.

Mar. 18 2014 10:14 PM
Camille from Crown Heights

This is hard to read but people need to know. Just two nights ago my 1 year old son and I were sitting in the window of our building here on Empire in Crown Heights and a woman let out a scream because a car hit her 5 year old son. The boy (who turned out to be my downstairs neighbor) ended up breathing his last breaths laying on the hood of a car in front of our building. It was so awful, easily one of the most horrible things I have ever witnessed.

Cars are so dangerous! You can be so careful and still have the worst happen. It makes me afraid to take my little one out.

Mar. 18 2014 10:00 PM
Nathanael

This is a clear case of vehicular manslaughter via reckless negligence.

If the police refuse to prosecute because they don't want to bother, a grand jury needs to prosecute.

Mar. 18 2014 08:23 PM
AL from WaHI nyc

Busy intersections need a 4-way (all way) stop for cars and let pedestrians go. Too many deaths happen on turns.

And we need to criminalize aggressive driving. The uncle of Cooper Stock who was killed on the uws wrote this oped:

http://mobile.nytimes.com/blogs/well/2014/01/24/treat-reckless-driving-like-drunk-driving/

Mar. 18 2014 07:32 PM
Kevin McGruder from Yellow Springs, OH

I think many drivers do not understand that, even when they have the light, a pedestrian in the crosswalk has the right of way, and that even cars with the light have to wait for them to cross. I've driven with a friend who seems to expect people in the crosswalk to move out of the way to make way for their car. If drivers understood that pedestrians have the right of way some at least would actively check to see if the crosswalk was clear before turning.

Mar. 18 2014 07:29 PM
Nicholas from Muncie, IN

I think there is too much leniency given to drivers overall. Making slower speed limits, increasing education, increasing signals are all good things, I don't thing they are enough. Car driving somehow takes away the guilt of crimes like injuring or killing another person. There simply is no excuse for that kind of leniency. Treating these sorts of incidents as the assaults and the murders they are is what needs to happen.

Mar. 18 2014 07:24 PM
LB from NY

My mother died a pedestrian death at the age of 81. Crossing in the crosswalk with the green walk signal, she was hit by a 17 year old driver as he made a left turn across her path. His DMV hearing was a farce, not even a slap on the wrist. He admitted that he didn't see her crossing because he was busy scanning the street for MacDonalds. He was not issued a single traffic summons despite the fact that he had a history of traffic infractions and his license had already been suspended in his still nascent driving career. (It is unclear whether his license was suspended at the time of the accident.) A lawyer retained to assist with the insurance claim (against the boy's parents' bare minimum policy) said there's no money in the death of an 81 year old, especially when she didn't live, and suffer, for long after the accident. (She, and her family and friends, only suffered for a week before she died.) The driver was immediately back on the road continuing his life as normal.

I often wonder if he ever thinks about that day, if he's honed his driving skills and taken any care to look out for pedestrians. And if he's hit any others since then. How ironic to know that had my 81 year-old mother hit this young man, as he was walking across the street, that would have been the last time she was ever behind a wheel - her children would have seen to that if the state didn't. The young man's parents would have had a chance at my mother's much more substantial insurance policy and, had they sued my mother in civil court, the chances of a large jury award would be very real, given his young age. Certainly it is not about money, but that is how the state measures the value of a lost life. When no other steps are taken against a careless driver, a civil suit with the hope of monetary award is the only route for the victim's family to come anywhere close to a sense of justice and closure. In my mother's case, without a word of chastisement, warning or penalty to memorialize the event in the driver's mind, my hunch is this young man's accident involvement is not over.

Mar. 18 2014 06:57 PM
S Ram from Marlboro nJ

I have been following pedestrian deaths in NYC closely . The conflict between the vehicle and the pedestrian, when the light turns green, giving both permission to move is the root of the matter. We need to give the pedestrians the walk sign first when the cars get a red arrow , meaning no permission to turn and then the pedestrian sign becomes red, when the green arrow sign gives permission to the vehicles to turn. Unless this comes into existence we will always some pedestrians dying in the streets of major cities with large number of pedestrians.
Ram

Mar. 18 2014 06:56 PM

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