A mother’s tears are the motivation. Common sense provides a push.
The way it stands now, drunk drivers who kill or maim can escape the full force of the law if they flee.
That needs to change. That ought to change.
But it hasn’t changed. That is what Tammy Schueler doesn’t understand.
It is nearly four years since the night Schueler’s teenage daughter, Alix Rice, was killed by drunk driver James Corasanti while longboarding on Amherst’s Heim Road. The physician kept driving, later claiming that he didn’t know he had hit someone. In a verdict that enraged the community and shattered Tammy Schueler, a jury cleared Corasanti of the felony charge of leaving the scene of a fatal crash.
There was a subsequent cry to tighten the law. The proposed law – Alix’s Law – codifies the obvious: Drunk drivers should know when they hit something or someone, and they must stop and check. Anyone who doesn’t should, the bill’s summary states, “be held fully accountable.”
If Albany were a sane place, instead of a bizarre maze of hidden agendas, the law would have been on the books years ago. Instead, it has for the fourth time been detoured to the holding pen of a committee, presumably to die.
It is bad enough that Tammy Schueler lost a daughter. Now she is victimized again. Smothering a bill that exposes drunk drivers denies her a measure of comfort, sabotages her daughter’s legacy and – not incidentally – puts the rest of us at risk.
In Albany, it’s all in a day’s work.
“I don’t understand,” Schueler told me Thursday by phone. “The present law lets drunk drivers leave the scene of a crash with no repercussions. Why is it so hard to change that?”
Welcome to state government, Tammy.
The ultimate answer lies with David Gantt. He is 73, a longtime fixture in the Democratic-controlled Assembly who runs the Transportation Committee. The Rochester-based Gantt, regarded as arrogant even by Albany standards, hit local radar screens a few years ago. He blocked a texting-while-driving law championed by West Seneca mom Kelly Cline after her son was killed in a texting-related crash in 2007. Gantt relented only after fierce pressure from Cline, media and fellow lawmakers.
Now Alix’s Law is in Gantt’s hands. I called his office Friday to ask why the law was in limbo. A staffer said there were “technical issues” with the bill. He declined to elaborate before hanging up.
So much for responsive government.
Meanwhile, drunk drivers keep sailing through the hit-and-run loophole. Handyman Barry Moss was hit and left to die by the side of an Evans road two years ago. Despite circumstantial evidence implicating Angola restaurant owner Gabriele Ballowe, the district attorney didn’t bring charges. Perhaps he would have, had Alix’s Law been on the books.
The bill sailed this year through the Senate. It has an Assembly sponsor in Buffalo’s Crystal Peoples-Stokes. She told The News she will put it on the committee table this week, adding, “Why would someone oppose this?”
Good question. I don’t know what measure of gridlock is traceable to Gantt’s obstinacy or to lobbyists for trial lawyers and insurance companies – the usual law-tightening opposition. Either way, the first casualty is Tammy Schueler’s idealism.
“I feel like I keep getting the runaround,” she told me. “There’s never a straight answer.”
The notion that a law is passed simply because it makes sense is laughable to Albany insiders. That’s not the way it works in the banana republic of New York State.
Cline found that out the hard way. The grieving mom fought for years for the texting-while-driving law. She first convinced county legislators to put it on the books. She eventually drove to Albany and knocked on Gantt’s office door. His refusal to speak with her sparked media coverage and mobilized sympathetic legislators. The law passed in 2011, four years after her son’s death.
Schueler may face a similar battle. It helps that Alix Rice is a household name in these parts. Her smiling face and free spirit are the emblem for a bill whose listing – A4760 – reveals nothing of the loss and grief behind it. But Albany’s inertia doesn’t crack without a push.
“That’s what I found out – you have to fight for it,” Cline told me Friday by phone. “I can’t believe Gantt is still blocking common-sense laws like this. You have to call people out, loud and clear. My advice for Tammy is, ‘Don’t give up.’ ”
It’s a worthy strategy – forged in grief, from one mom to another. Only the heartless would stand in the way.