Seconds That Count:
The damages of distracted driving

NEW JERSEY | March 25, 2014 – “There was blackness…and I saw a dark figure, which in my dream state I knew was my mother”, said Joyce Vence about a dream she had two months before a fateful crash killed her mother, Helen Kulesh, in February of 2006. “A force knocked her down and she didn’t get up.”

The driver of the Mitsubishi Galant that plowed into Mrs. Kulesh on a street corner in Elizabeth, N.J., had been distracted by her cellphone. The tragedy may sound familiar; perhaps a small story printed on the inside page of the local newspaper, one among many traffic casualties. Despite its quiet suburban neighborhoods, New Jersey sits between two very large metro areas, housing some of the most traveled roads and bridges in the country. Deceptively smooth rides numb us to the fact that most commuters pilot 4,000-pounds of machinery every day, and habit provides the illusion of safety. It is almost as if inside these giant capsules of metal, the laws of physics could somehow be forgiving of our mistakes. In fact, many have not yet tuned into the seriousness of distracted driving as a true behavioral impairment — and how a dose of over confidence and that seemingly brief moment of juggling through the mundane, has the potential to shatter someone’s world in an irreversible way.

For those left to deal with their losses, that split second of distraction can set in motion a lifetime of grief. Sitting at the Colosseum Diner in Linden, N.J., seven years after the accident, Ms.Vence, now 61, spoke with tearful eyes about a sorrow that will never resolve. “When your heart is so in love with somebody…I felt a part of something leave me.”

Worried that the dream that had haunted her might turn into a premonition, Ms. Vence had taken to not letting her 89 year-old mother do anything without offering her help. “Don’t walk on ice mom, I’ll take you shopping,” she would tell her. But Mrs. Kulesh treasured her independence beyond the walls of the Elizabeth Towers, an apartment complex for seniors on West Grand Street.

That winter, Mrs. Kulesh was struck in a nearby crosswalk, on her way home with a cart of groceries. The woman behind the wheel, Ruby Ibarra-Guzman, 48, had been on her cellphone for just 21 seconds at the time of the accident. It matter little that she had been going at the speed limit. The crash was fatal.

Mrs. Guzman, however, only received a few traffic violations and was sentenced to 30 days in a Union County jail, but only served a day and a half. In the weeks and months following the crash, Ms. Vence often spotted Mrs.Guzman driving in the neighborhood while talking on her cellphone. She was Ms. Vence’s neighbor.

It took Ms. Vence quite some time to process what had happened. She tried to unwrap the course of events with trauma doctors. She was told that when Mrs. Kulesh was hit, her legs were probably broken, her neck snapped — and if that did not kill her instantly, the harsh landing most likely did.

The open casket was the only thing that gave Ms. Vence some level of closure about her mother’s death. Ms. Vence, however, says she will always have unanswered questions. Did her mother suffer? Did she see the car coming? Did she try to get out of the way?

At a nearby table back at the Colosseum Diner, a lively party was taking place. It was a birthday celebration for an old woman sporting short white curls just like Ms. Vence’s mother. “She was my best friend, my confidant and I’ll never have anybody like that in this life”, reminisced Ms. Vence.

Last year, the city of Elizabeth saw yet another split-second tragedy that will send ripples across several generations. In August, Carlos Carvalho and his wife, Ana Maria Carvalho, went to Portugal to pay his 95 year-old mother a birthday visit. It would be the last time that the 58 year-old welder, who had been born in Mozambique and lived in New Jersey for decades, would spend time with his family abroad.

A few months after the couple returned from their Portugal trip, Mrs. Carvalho was home waiting for her husband to return from work. It was a Thursday evening like any other. At the end of his shift, Mr. Carvalho called his wife asking whether dinner was ready and assuring her that he would be on his way. Thirty minutes passed…Then one hour…And another hour. Worried that something might have happened, Ana Maria called her oldest son, Charles Carvalho, who tried to calm her down. He reasoned that his father might have been caught in traffic or some other kind of hold up.

Shortly after, her youngest son, who still lived with them, arrived home from work. By then it was already 8 o’clock at night and Mrs. Carvalho had a heavy heart. He mentioned an accident on routes 1 and 9 in Newark, not far from their home in Elizabeth.

Less than two hours later, police investigators stopped by the house to inform her that the flipped pickup truck on that highway belonged to her husband. “I was very shocked. I’d be lying on my couch, paralyzed. I cried every day. I couldn’t speak to anyone”, said Mrs. Carvalho.

The funeral home advised the Carvalhos not to have an open casket funeral, due to the extent of the injuries that Mr. Carvalho had suffered when he was ejected from his truck, dying instantly at the scene. Nonetheless, Charles Carvalho pushed them to do all that they could to make the viewing possible. Caught in the suddenness of events, friends and family still could not believe Mr. Carvalho’s death to be true — and Charles Carvalho knew it was important for his mother to see her husband’s body one last time.

“They did a beautiful job. He looked as if he had been sleeping”, remembered Mrs. Carvalho. “But they warned us not to touch him, saying his head had been badly smashed.”

The woman who hit Mr. Carvalho’s truck was Jennifer Sahoye, 35, and she carried a suspended license with a long history of reckless driving. Moments before she swerved into Mr. Carvalho’s lane, Ms. Sahoye had been texting, and despite her record, the police at the scene of the crash never sent her to the hospital for toxicology tests.

A similar thing happened in the event of Helen Kulesh’s death, when the officers who investigated the accident let the driver, Mrs. Guzman, leave the scene without being tested for substance use. Additionally, they saw no problem in allowing her son to sit in the interrogation room and answer questions on her behalf.

Because Ms. Vence’s husband, John Guslavage, had been a supervisor in the Police Department for more than 17 years, he made sure to keep close track of all the facts. “The average person doesn’t have eyes on an investigation, so they could have been told anything.”

As Mr. Guslavage predicted, the Carvalhos rarely heard any updates on the investigation. “What she did, she did not do overnight”, said Mrs. Carvalho.

Based on her records, Ms. Sahoye should have never been on the road that day, and statistics grimly suggest that she is not the only one.

A Worldwide Compulsion

Every year, more than 1.2 million people die on roads around the world, and another 20 to 50 million are injured. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2030, crash fatalities will become the 5th leading cause of death, surpassing HIV/AIDS, cancer, violence, and diabetes. To put things in perspective, there are currently 600 million cars on the road, 4.6 billion cellphone subscriptions, and more than 80 percent of accidents continue to be caused by driver behavior. The odds are not in our favor.

A culture that tends to demand uninterrupted productivity, coupled with new technology built into our cars, leads many drivers to think that multitasking can be safe. But human beings have a finite cognitive capacity. If we are talking on our cellphone or texting, we cannot be devoting all of our cognitive resources to the driving task. One could argue that the same thing could apply when drivers converse with their passengers. However, the fundamental difference is that a passenger will tend to be equally reactive to what is happening outside the car, being aware of when it is safe to interrupt the driver.

The only exception to that expected behavior seems to be teenagers. Cognitive researcher, David Strayer, explained that understanding the rules of the road can make a big difference in a scenario like this. “Teens just learning to drive don’t know when to shut up or how to help the driver out. They will keep talking even though an adult wouldn’t”, stated Mr. Strayer, “So that protective effect that you see with having a passenger in the vehicle goes away with teen drivers.”

Recent studies have found that hands-free devices do not necessarily mean that drivers will be uncompromised while behind the wheel. As a matter of fact, cognitive research shows that the mere act of listening and responding to a disembodied voice can be enough to cause a serious driving handicap. Through fMRI pictures of the brain, a Carnegie Mellon University study revealed that situations like that can induce a 37 percent drop in the activity of our parietal lobe, the part of our brains associated with managing navigation and spatial tasks related to driving.

But what makes cutting this habit so challenging? Stephen O’Connor, Ph.D., a researcher on behavioral science was co-investigator of a study aimed at understanding the psychological factors associated with compulsive cellphone usage, and why people chose to use their phone in a risky situation.

Mr. O’Connor found that those who demonstrated higher levels of anticipation for an incoming call, were also the ones who were the most conscientious about the task they had at hand. Awareness of the dangers involved in picking up that call did not seem to be enough to refrain people from doing it. Moreover, contrary to common belief, their urge to pick up the phone was not an impulsive act. Even though these people proved to normally not take many risks, when it came to multitasking, they were confident in their ability to push the limits of what they thought to be manageable. Mr. O’Connor’s study inadvertently suggests that people who get into such crashes are not first timers.

On June 1st of 2011, Toni Bolis, 29, was driving home from work in Washington Township, in southern New Jersey not far from Philadelphia. It was a Friday night. She was on the phone using a hands-free device to tell her mother about her latest obstetrician appointment to check on her pregnancy. Her baby was due any day. As Mrs. Bolis told her mother the news, a driver on the opposite side of the road swerved into her lane. At that moment there were three cars that Daniel Pereira, then 21 years old, could have hit. The first car was able to swerve out of the way, sustaining no damage. The second driver had to pull off by the side of the road. As the woman in the third car narrowly dodged the hit and slammed her horn, she almost drove into a tree. Mr. Pereira’s car continued out of control.

On the other end of the line, Toni’s Bolis’s mom heard a noise that she couldn’t identify. Mr. Pereira had smashed into the only other car left that couldn’t react in time. Under her breath, Mrs. Bolis’ had one last moment to utter: “I’m in an accident, I think I’m losing the baby. Please come help.”

Since the crash happened close to her family’s home, Mrs. Bolis’ sisters and her mother were the first ones on the scene. Angela Donato saw her sister trapped in the car and unconscious. Her left arm and her head were hanging out of the window. At that point her lips were turning blue.

Paramedics and police arrived and pulled her out of the car. Later on, when the family was at Kennedy University Hospital, the doctor operating on her sister told her that Mrs. Bolis’ vertebrae and spinal cord were snapped and her placenta detached at the time of the impact. If his mother had survived, Ryan Jeffrey would have been born 2 days later weighing 8 pounds and 2 ounces. He would have been a brother to Mrs. Bolis’ two year-old daughter, Mia Rose.

“Holding a dead baby in my arms for a half hour was the most bitter sweet moment of my life”, Ms. Donato said at a court hearing. “That was my nephew who should have been alive.”

Prior to Mrs. Bolis’ death, the family had been in a celebratory mood, with the prospect of Ryan Jeffrey’s birth, Angela Donato’s recent college graduation, and an engagement party scheduled for her sister Annette.

Mr. Pereira admitted he had been distracted by his cellphone, claiming he had been using his GPS and nothing else. The Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office could not find anything criminally wrong with the situation. At that time, there were no provisions to prosecute such a case.

Just 27 days prior to crashing into Toni Bolis, Mr. Pereira had rear-ended another woman who was nine months pregnant. Luckily she and her unborn child incurred no injuries, but Mr. Pereira totaled his car. Struck by his irresponsiveness at the scene of the crash that killed her sister, Angela Donato visited Mr. Pereira’s Facebook page to look for some kind of reaction from him. But Ms. Donato was shocked to see that his later-deleted post following the crash exhibited concerns not about her sister, but about his car.

“So when he hit my sister, he was not the first person to get out of his car and call 911”, said Ms. Donato in testimony before a legislative hearing. “He did not go over to my sister’s car as she took her last breath. His immediate reaction was ‘Oh my god. My brand new car’, as my sister lay there in her car, dying.”

More than 4,000 people attended Toni Bolis’ viewing. The funeral started at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and only ended at midnight. There were 120 people in the small municipal court hearing supporting the Bolis case. “It is something that will never go away. My granddaughter will never know her mother…She sees pictures and videos but a lot of the things she says about her mother, she makes them up.” said Mrs. Bolis’ father, Charles Donato.

The investigation found that Mr. Pereira had lied about using his GPS. His friend had been texting him just moments prior to the crash, only to find out whether he had left his cap in Mr. Pereira’s car the night before. “My daughter got killed over a baseball cap”, said Mr. Donato.

An Overhaul in Demand

Dumbfounded by his mother-in-law’s death, Mr. Guslavage kept inquiring the Traffic Department about Mrs. Guzman’s call records prior to the crash.

When they finally learned that Mrs. Kulesh’s death coincided with Mrs. Guzman having been on the phone for about 21 seconds moments within the time she fatally struck her, Ms. Vence started writing numerous letters to senators and legislators. Mr. Guslavage followed up with telephone calls. Nobody seemed to want to do anything about it.

“They were not interested if the woman was talking on the phone or not. It seemed to be trivial,” said Mr. Guslavage. “It wasn’t an accident. This could have been prevented if she was paying attention.”

After much persistence, the couple found enough supporters to move the bill forward. One of them was assemblywoman Annette Quijano. Every day in the city of Elizabeth, Ms. Quijano would cross the intersection of Grove Street and West Grand, where there still sits a little memorial on top of the street pole, made up of a Christmas reef, a pair of plastic doves, a lavender bow and a collection of pink silk flowers at the bottom. She always wondered what happened at that intersection. It wasn’t until Ms. Vence and her husband, Mr. Guslavage, came to see her that she learned about Helen Kulesh’s death and how the absence of legal avenues to prosecute cases of distracted driving created an environment of impunity and recklessness in the community. It wasn’t long until Ms. Quijano received a request for a second meeting, this time with a couple from the Morris County.

“My staff scheduled a meeting at our Union office and I didn’t understand why it had to be on the ground floor”, recalls Ms. Quijano. “So you know, a husband and wife walk in in blue jeans and I didn’t think anything of it until they start telling me the story”. That was when Ms. Quijano noticed that each of them had one leg amputated.

The couple was David and Linda Kubert. They had just gotten home from the hospital, when Joyce Vence and her husband came to their house to ask them to speak out about the accident that changed their lives forever.

It was a fall day in 2009. The Kuberts had visited their son’s house to give him an anniversary gift and were heading out to a meeting of the motorcycle club they belonged to. It was about 6 o’clock in the evening and they had only driven half a mile from their home in Mine Hill Township.

While taking a curve with his wife on his backseat, Mr. Kubert saw an 18 year-old on the opposite lane, balancing the steering wheel of his truck with his elbows, while his head was down, focused on something other than that small two-lane road. Mr. Kubert had been driving at only 20 miles per hour, but there was no shoulder on the road and a wall on one of his sides. With nowhere to go, he knew right away that they were going to crash. Kyle Best’s truck went right into the Kubert’s Harley-Davidson.

Mr. Kubert’s leg was torn off above the knee at the time of impact. He saw what happened but did not lose consciousness. He tried to crawl to his wife who was thrown to the side of the motorcycle but could not get to her. The bones of her leg were protruding through her pants. Best’s instincts as a firefighter and EMT kicked in and he tried to help them. They were flown to the trauma center at Morristown Medical Center for treatment.

The injuries they suffered that day would result in a long string of physical and emotional damage. Mr. Kubert went through two major surgeries and his wife incurred seven surgeries. Besides his leg amputation, he sustained six broken ribs, two broken bones in his back and a crushed hip, which required metal rods and pins to be implanted. Doctors tried to save his wife’s leg but told her that there were no guarantees that she would be able to walk again or be pain free. Mrs. Kubert’s Achilles tendon was completely ripped off and her foot was held on by a thread. Her knee was smashed, requiring metal rods and plates to hold it together. The choices were narrow and amputation seemed like the best alternative.

The young driver who struck the Kuberts received three motor vehicle citations, pleading guilty to reckless driving in early 2012. He was ordered to speak to 14 high schools about the dangers of texting and driving and had to pay $775 worth of fines, but his license was never suspended. At the time, the prosecutor’s office sent the Kuberts a letter stating that there was nothing under the NJ statute that would allow them to prosecute the case.

It was a small town and the Kuberts knew who the Bests were. “He would ride past our house with the truck he ran us over with…Sometimes, even three times a day,” said Mrs. Kubert.

The couple filed a civil lawsuit against Mr. Best and the case was settled for $500,000 in mid 2012 . By that time they had also sued the sender of the text message, Mr. Best’s girlfriend, Shannon Colonna, arguing that she had known her boyfriend was behind the wheel and therefore, contributed to Mr. Best’s being distracted. At the time, the suit against Ms. Colonna was dismissed and the 17-year-old was not held liable, but four years after the case was closed, the New Jersey district courts ruled that on a civil case, the sender of a text could still be held partially accountable for provoking an accident.

The settlement that the Kuberts received, represented the maximum sum allowed by Best’s insurance policy, and it was used to pay back their medical bills. Had David not been enrolled in a decent health care plan with his employer at the time, they would have been in an unrecoverable situation. Their medical bills went well over $1 million dollars — and counting.

“What we got were pennies. Every couple of years we need a new leg. People say, well you got this money, but we really got nothing,” said Mrs. Kubert.

After the lawsuit, Mr. Kubert went on disability. He had worked for Verizon for years and was re-positioned to a desk job, but seven months in, the constant, paralyzing pain he felt meant an early retirement. Unable to afford living in New Jersey, the Kuberts packed up and moved to Florida.

Despite all the odds against them, the Kulberts still count on their blessings. “We’re one of the lucky ones, that’s what we always say,” Mr. Kubert pointed out.

The Lingering Battle

Over the last decade, there have been efforts worldwide to regulate cellphone usage while driving. Many countries have established bans on hand-held devices. As people’s habits become more enmeshed with the advancing technology, new studies have proven that our ability to multitask is even worse than previously believed. This has propelled countries like Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom — and most parts of the United States — to place bans on texting as well as talking on the phone, while behind the wheel. But the catch remains that in all of these countries, the law does not apply if the driver is using a hands-free device.

Japan is currently the only country in the world that bans the use of hand-held and hands-free mobile devices while on the road. Unfortunately, the complete ban that some American states like New Jersey enforce, applies solely to young drivers or those driving school buses. And even though texting while driving is banned in 41 American states, penalties are usually light enough to be willfully disregarded.

When his granddaughter came of age, Lynn Edgin and his son, Robert started a campaign in Colorado to curb accidents caused by teenagers’ texting. They were both in the insurance business and had seen the consequences of this type of reckless behavior first hand. They partnered up with several United Nations initiatives to end distracted driving and educate new drivers. After carrying their message to hundreds of schools and different law enforcement agencies, Mr. Edgin believes that the older generation also needs a shake up.

“Younger people are getting it but the problem now is that the adults are doing it,” said Mr. Edgin. “Technology today has pushed us all into doing this. We’re all hypnotized. And we gotta be in constant instant contact with everybody. A few years ago that was not the case and we were living just fine.”

Laws will only have to get more elaborate to catch up with an ever-increasing array of products that, like Google glass, encourage a fragmentation in attention. Despite the positive change, measures that focus solely on isolated problems like texting will never succeed in covering the problem at large.

David Strayer from the University of Utah, has been studying the cognitive effects of distracted driving for more than 14 years, and says that the effects of talking on a hands-free device versus a hand-held cellphone are essentially the same. Through eye trackers, driving simulators, road tests, and measures of brain and cardiovascular activity, Mr. Strayer was able to find empirical proof that the brain can be overloaded.

“If you’re trying to talk on the phone while driving (…) the brain activity associated with driving related events is cut in half,” said Mr. Strayer.

In a study commissioned by the American Automobile Association (AAA), Mr. Strayer looked at all the activities that drivers tend to engage in, the level of attention each one of them demands and how it affects our cognitive ability. Mr. Strayer found that activities such as listening to radio or an audiobook do not produce heavy mental demand from the driver. However, talking on a cellphone, hands-free or otherwise, has a dramatically different effect. “A close analogy would be to mentally try to balance your checkbook while traveling down the highway,” said Mr. Strayer.

It has been seven years since assemblyman Albert Coutinho first sponsored a bill that would tighten the texting and driving regulations in the state of New Jersey. At the time, the best that they could do to get the bill passed was to settle for the provision of a mere fine of $100 for texting violations. People did not take the issue seriously, since not everyone had smartphones then.

Today, Americans text over 200 billion times a month, and a survey by the Vlingo Consumer Messaging Habits, found that 49 percent of adults admitted to texting while driving.

According to Mr. Coutinho, most people in those surveys would agree that it should be illegal to drive down the road drinking a martini but they don’t seem to understand that cellphone usage in this context should be just as inadmissible.

Furthermore, it continues to be difficult to convince people that hands-free devices can be similarly dangerous. “We’re at the beginning stage of what I consider to be a pretty long battle (…) just like it was extremely difficult to get people to really take drinking and driving seriously,” remarked Mr. Strayer.

Drawing from his extensive studies, Mr. Strayer says that three out of four people who are surveyed wish that phone usage were made illegal while driving. But when those surveys follow up with a question about their own habits, 75 percent of people say that they do use their phone while driving.

“People support those laws because they want that other person driving in front of them to get off the phone. And they don’t realize that they’re the problem as well,” said Mr. Strayer.

“It’s not just the kids. It’s the soccer moms. It’s the dads that are working on their phone, working for a company that wants you to respond…” said Ms. Quijano.

It wasn’t until a string of serious accidents took place that several New Jersey counties started to get more mobilized around this issue. After meeting with the Kuberts, Annette Quijano paired up with assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande to back another bill appealing for a texting and driving law overhaul in the state of New Jersey. The bill stalled for 4 years and these efforts only became loud enough when Toni Bolis’ family decided to join the pleas.

Down in Washington Township, the Donatos had been going through an impossible trial to get the justice they deserved. The only punishment that the driver who killed their daughter received was a $367 fine and a 3 year license suspension. From the beginning, the family felt that the investigation and prosecution had been treated in a rather nonchalant way by the authorities.

Within 48 hours of the crash, Mr. Donato soon realized that the authorities weren’t going to push the envelope to make this a landmark case. “It goes back to the unfortunate situation we live in in this judicial system.”, argued Mr. Donato. “These prosecutors not only in NJ, but all over the country (…) their jobs are scored on how many convictions they get on crimes that they indict. So they were very reluctant to indict and have this go before a jury and no get a conviction.”

During his talk with Dana Anton, one of the prosecutors for Gloucester County, Mr. Donato learned that the New Jersey statute for reckless driving did not include anything that specifically referred to impairment caused by cellphone use. If only Mr. Pereira had been under the influence, or even sleeping, that would have been a different scenario.

At the time, it was not against the law to be on your phone. “I started flipping out,” said Mr. Donato. “That didn’t make any sense to me. He had been negligent!”

The Donatos claim that they were highly discouraged by the prosecutors from moving the case forward. They were told that if they managed to get in front of a grand jury they would not be able to support their case on a number of key details about the profile of those involved. That would have included withholding the fact that Mrs. Bolis’ was 28 years old and nine months pregnant; or that the young man who hit her car had been charged with possession and distribution of oxycodone just months prior to the crash — and that at the time, he held 31 traffic violations on record.

“They basically threatened us…if you want to go to a grand jury then you can’t do this and that, so it’s really not even worth your trouble.” said Ms. Donato. At the time, the prosecutors told them that such facts would have no relevance to their claim, and would only succeed in prompting the jury to have a biased opinion toward the case.

Pushing for Collective Change

Mr. Pereira ended up receiving a $367 fine and losing his license for 3 years. So when Joyce Vence and John Guslavage arrived in South Jersey during a fundraiser for Mrs. Bolis’ daughter’s college fund, they did not have to do much to convince the Donatos to join in as supporters of their bill, which was otherwise set to expire by the end of the year.

By that time, Ms. Vence had had her own share of frustrating experiences, while trying to prosecute her mother’s case. “Basically we were on our own in court and I don’t think she (Mrs. Guzman) would have gotten a jail sentence if it wasn’t for our persistence in the courtroom”, said Mr. Guslavage.

“When you talk to a victim who is in a state of bitterness or anger they don’t care how full the jails are and they hate plea bargains” said Ms. Vence, “No one made a plea bargain on my mother’s life”.

Through her work on the new bill, Ms. Vence was able to find a greater purpose in her mother’s tragedy. “If this could stop people from talking that cellphone or texting,” she said, “ my mom, Toni Bolis, her unborn baby and the Kuberts will save a multitude of lives. And if that happens, then I’ll be one grain of sand on all the beaches in the world…and I’ll try to comprehend that this may have been her destiny…To save other people”

Armed with three high profile supporters, Ms.Quijano and other legislators were finally able to move the bill. Known as the ‘Kulesh, Kubert and Bolis’ Law, the new provision allows prosecutors to charge offenders responding for reckless driving with vehicular homicide or assault. Under the new law, the teenage driver who cost David and Linda their legs, would have been punishable by up to 18 months of imprisonment and fined $10,000.

Despite the victory, there is still a lot of work to be done to improve road safety. “You can have all the laws you want in the United States, but if you don’t have enforcement people are going to get lax. That’s what I’ve seen in my years of law enforcement,” said Mr. Guslavage.

The Carvalho case was the first one in the county of Essex to take an allegation of texting to trial as a crime of the second degree. Under the old law Jennifer Sahoye would have managed to get away with a few points in her license and a fine of up to $500. Earlier this year, she was facing up to ten years in jail and a $150,000 fine. This would have been the first time that this bill would be put to practice — but a turn of events prevented that from happening.

After being released on a bail of $75,000, Ms. Sahoye had yet again been arrested — this time for passing a forged prescription for anti-anxiety pills in Staten Island. The crime happened in November, less than one month after she provoked Carlos Carvalho’s death and three days after her first hearing. Charged with fraud and felony on top of the charges already withstanding, Ms. Sahoye seemed to be at the end of her rope. Her case did not look sympathetic.

During the first deliberation, the judge noted that Ms. Sahoye’s driving record included 35 moving violations and 65 license suspensions dating back to 1996, when she was first issued a license in the state of New Jersey. The abstract of Ms. Sahoye’s traffic violations was 17 pages long.

Early this February, Ms. Sahoye was found dead in Staten Island under undisclosed circumstances, leaving a 9-year-old son behind. The Office for the Chief Medical Examiner in New York says that the cause of death is still unknown and further studies are pending. Now that Ms. Sahoye is dead her case has been dismissed, but the impact of what she did created an open wound for the Carvalhos.

With no resolution to be had, Mrs. Carvalho felt cheated out of justice. “We wanted to know how many years she would get.” said Mrs. Carvalho. “When we learned that she had died we were not happy. We wanted her to respond for her crime.”

For the families of victims there are no victories. Even a conviction is only a brief vindication. “Putting somebody in jail for the rest of their life or charging them $200,000, or $150,000, is never going to bring your loved one back, but there has to be some sort of accountability…” reflected Ms. Vence. “Is there fairness and justice? Not on the victim’s part. She got out of jail and resumed her life. My mother is in the cemetery.”

Ms. Sahoye lived in Rahway, but had grown up in Elizabeth, not far from the Carvalhos. Unbeknownst to one another and how their fates would intertwine, both families frequented the same local Portuguese restaurant.

For Ms. Vence the unfortunate reminder of how the legal system had failed her mother was just across the street. Eventually Mrs. Guzman decided to move out of sight. “I don’t really even think I hate the people involved in it…I think I hate the carelessness that took my mother away.”

For Ms. Vence, the second year of grieving was the most difficult of all. As the legal cases wrap up, and the culprits move away, a void sets in.

“The funeral is over…The lawsuits are over…And you’re still dealing with hate, you’re still dealing with bitterness and anger. There was no time to grieve, you know? Really grieve”, remembered Ms. Vence. “Having to say that my mom was killed is so unfair”.

Copyright Rachel Vianna | 2014