From Tragedy to Triumph: The Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act

Although I am an eternal optimist, at my old age I sometimes let cynicism enter my psyche. I refuse to get into politics on this blog, it is not the place for it though I have my opinions. Yet I remember while I was growing up in Brazil to an expat family, the United States sounded like the promise land. Each summer, I’d come to visit and was impacted by the hundreds of cereals to choose from at the supermarket.  And like the cereal, I believed the United States was a country of such abundance and intelligence that certain things would never happen here. Things that in a country like Brazil, with millions living in poverty and a broken legal system, could. I am not saying this was an accurate portrayal of either Brazil or the United States, but that is how I thought. I was sure that “XYZ could never happen in the US, because if it was getting close, someone would find a solution.” So there was no way a meteor would crash and destroy New York City, because someone would find a way out of it … it was the USA after all.  But time and time again XYZ has happened: from gun control to immigration things I thought we’d never get to are here. Regardless of what side of the aisle you sit on, there are reasons to be concerned. But not all is lost, and this is not even a post about the United States. It’s about a group of people who lived up to that idealism, and restored my faith that this is still a great country.

On February 15, 2012 there was a fatal hit and run crash on the William Powell Bridge which connects Miami to Key Biscayne, where I live. While Aaron Cohen and Enda Walsh set out on their morning bike ride shortly before 6:00am, Michele Traverso seemingly left a bar and was driving home to Key Biscayne. He hit the cyclists and took off to hide. Enda suffered several injuries, but Aaron died from his. He left behind a wife and two children under three years old.

Aaron Cohen and his daughter shortly before the crash

Aaron Cohen and his daughter shortly before the crash

At the time, I was just getting into triathlons. I had joined a team and we trained on that bridge, in the early morning, twice a week. Aaron Cohen was killed on a Wednesday, but had it been Tuesday, it could’ve been me.

The thought paralyzed me and I almost gave up cycling all together. You can read about that here. Then, after much talking with Joe, he convinced me that as long as I do everything in power to be safe, then I should ride my bike and not live in fear. I could have a car accident too, but I didn’t think about it every time I drove.

I listened and took my three pronged approach. First, I became an ultra conservative rider: I ride indoors often, stop at all lights, I rarely ride with people I don’t know, and never in the dark. Second, I co-founded Bike Key Biscayne to advocate for bike safety in my community, and third, I participated in the GEICO Road Safety Bike Tour to bring statewide attention to the issue. All this is documented under the “Advocacy” tab above (though you have to scroll down, this was a while ago!)

The GEICO Florida Road Safety Bike Tour

The GEICO Florida Road Safety Bike Tour

Though important, these were small steps. They remained individual actions and limited in their impact. Michele Traverso, the driver that fateful Wednesday morning went to trial and received less than a year in jail for his crime. Because he fled the scene of the accident and only turned himself in hours later, there was no proof he was under the influence. The law, the way it was, did not penalize you for lacking human decency by trying to get away with murder. The law used to carry a mandatory minimum four year sentence for a fatal crash ONLY if you were driving under the influence. Traverso, who lives in my parents building, knowingly or not, took advantage of that as he holed in his house for hours and got sober.

So, if you were under the influence and had a fatal crash, even if you stayed to help your victim, called 911, and whatever else you could do, you still had a minimum 4 year sentence. But if you ran away and weren’t busted for a DUI you didn’t have that sentence.  Let’s say you crash and you were under the influence. You know you are in a serious amount of trouble. It would be best to flee first, and then turn yourself in when you are nice and sober so you don’t get that minimum four years.

And that is what Traverso did. They could not prove he had been under the influence and so he served less than one year for the death of Aaron Cohen.

Traverso’s sentencing was met with indignation by many in our community, and that indignation turned into action.

You can see these all around Miami ... for Aaron.

You can see these all around Miami … for Aaron.

My dear friend and teammate Mickey Witte, along with others namely Mary Walsh (whose husband Enda was also injured on that crash) began hosting meetings to do something about this. Unsure of where to go with it, the group decided to check into the legal system. From the many discussions, they came up with the proposal: change the law so that the penalty for leaving the scene of an accident is at least as grave as the penalty for a DUI.

And so their quest began. It took over a year and a half but they gathered signatures, spoke at club meetings, garnered support from local elected officials who then took the bill to the Florida House and Senate in Tallahassee. Mickey, Enda, and Cohen’s wife Patty took numerous trips to the state capitol to speak on the issue.

Do you know what happened?

They changed the law.

The Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act changes the law so that if you leave the scene of a fatal crash, you also get the minimum mandatory four year sentence. The law also describes a vulnerable road user: a cyclist, pedestrian, construction worker – people with a legitimate right to be on the road but not protected by metal. Granted, I know that if you are drunk, and driving, you don’t have the werewithall to think all this through. But if the message is loud and clear, then it will be one more reason for you to exhibit decency and stay at the scene of a crash. Just as everyone knows you get in serious trouble for drinking and driving, soon, everyone will know you get into serious trouble for leaving the scene of an accident.

I’m not a lawyer, so I might have some details missing. However, the point is because this grassroots group would not give up (there were plenty of setbacks along the way), yesterday, Governor Rick Scott was right here in Key Biscayne to sign the Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act into law.

Gov. Scott speaking at the ceremony

Gov. Scott speaking at the ceremony

Hundreds of cyclists gathered around to honor not only Aaron and his family, but all those who have died … and there are many. It is absurd how common hit and runs are.

I’ve watched the process from the sidelines and certainly was a cheerleader; I wanted to make sure my kids went to the ceremony. They know about Aaron’s story, but I wanted them to see the Governor, to see everyone there, the press, and to see how someone they know, Mickey, could be a part of this whole big thing and help put together something important. I asked Lilly, their triathlon coach, if she wanted to join us and she did … with another seven kids.

Our crew at the signing

Our crew at the signing

It was pouring down rain at 3:00pm, while our departure time was 4:00pm. The ceremony was held at the Crandon Park Marina about four miles away. The rain eventually stopped but the thunder didn’t. I debated, often, if we should ride our bikes and finally opted to go for it. Sometimes I don’t know why I do this to myself, I was anxious the entire time. Yet we wanted to have a good showing of cyclists and thought that having kids there, on their bikes, was part of a greater statement.

These kids know how to ride a bike in a paceline, so Lilly went up front and I took the rear. Back there I kept thinking … how stupid are we? We are sitting on metal while there is thunder outside in a pace line with nine children. Sure, the thunder was far away, but I was not at ease. The kids though, they were having a blast and insisted on going through every darn puddle the entire way.

Puddle fun.

Puddle fun.

I spoke to our young group about Aaron Cohen, the law and why it was important, but also that this came to be because a group of people wanted to change something. This was democracy in action. It wasn’t easy but it got done by ordinary people like you and me. Some understood more than others.

At the event was the Mayor of Miami, of Miami Dade, Congressmen, our State Senator and then came Governor Scott. I also met up with the Key Biscayne Chief of Police and our Mayor who both attended the ceremony. They all spoke their official words, and my boys were rather bored listening. Then came Patty Cohen, Aaron’s widow, and their two children who I believe are now five and three. I saw Fearless’ expression change, and Dreamer began to pay closer attention. I don’t know if they heard her words, but they certainly related to those kids and how they didn’t have a father.   They listened more, and closed in on me.

Listening. Fearless closing in on Dreamer as Patty Cohen spoke.

Listening. Fearless closing in on Dreamer as Patty Cohen spoke.

It began pouring down rain, but no one moved. As things wound down, some of the kids, aka Fearless, began to complain they were cold and wet so we decided to head home.

At dinner, I asked my boys what was important about today. Dreamer answered “Mickey was able to pass a law and that is really hard to do because it doesn’t happen all the time.” A far cry from everything I had explained  but I took the answer as a victory.

Because more than anything, what I wanted my boys to see was that change was possible. And to quote Dr Seuss:

dr seuss care

I am hoping that Joe and I, and the village around us (because it sure does take a village to raise a child) are raising boys who not only care a whole awful lot but will have plenty of proof to believe that anything is possible.  Even changing the law.

8 thoughts on “From Tragedy to Triumph: The Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act

  1. Thank you for your commitment and desire to lead by example, Cris! Having you, D, F, and Lily’s team there yesterday was so meaningful and meant so much to me and to the Cohens.

  2. A great blog post and a great lesson for young and old! Thank you for being such an ardent supporter of road safety. The Aaron Cohen Law is meant to discourage people from driving dangerously or driving while impaired in the first place. (That’s why we had huge support from MADD as well.) If drivers make the wrong choice, they need to know there is no easy way out. They MUST do the Right Thing and STAY on the Scene.

    Thank you, Cristina, for leading the way to the next step: Educating people!

    1. Thank you Mary for your comment. There is so much of the lingo I don’t know … but I am much more helpful on the education side than on the legal side … for sure! Count on me for help.

  3. I’m so glad you took the kids to the bill-signing. I’m betting they will always remember the example of Mickey and Mary who made something good out of something horribly wrong.

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