During the winter as he dressed for work, Steve Vaccaro found himself once again massaging his right knee, the one he banged up in the fall of 2012 when a car turned into the path of his bike as he rode in New York City. He had fractured a wrist and torn cartilage in his knee, which ultimately required meniscus surgery. But he was lucky, all things considered. Later that day, Vaccaro NLAW’96 was meeting with the parents of a student who had been killed while walking near the Queensboro Bridge by a police car that, witnesses say, had been speeding without having activated its warning siren or flashing lights.

Such is the life of Vaccaro, an attorney who is determined to change how automobiles, pedestrians, and cyclists share the streets of New York City. Vaccaro, a principal in the firm Vaccaro & White, which specializes in motorist negligence, aids the relatives of pedestrians and cyclists who are injured, or killed, by automobiles. Having been a victim himself, he knows of what they speak.

In January, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced Vision Zero, a program to reduce traffic fatalities to zero. Roughly 4,000 New Yorkers are seriously injured and more than 250 killed each year in traffic accidents, according to nyc.gov, the city’s website. Being struck by a vehicle is the leading cause of injury-related death for children under 14 and the second-leading cause for seniors.

Steve Vaccaro with bike in New York City


Jennifer Pottsheiser

The relatives of injured or killed pedestrians and cyclists are also stepping forward. Two of Vaccaro & White’s clients came up with the idea of Families for Safe Streets, founded this year as part of Transportation Alternatives, which has advocated for bicycling, walking, and public transit since 1973.

Vaccaro helped found StreetsPAC, a political action committee that provides funding and volunteer support for candidates favoring safe-streets initiatives and which was intended to bring more attention to street safety and traffic violence during the 2013 New York City municipal elections. “People are beginning to understand that we have designed this automobile system that creates great hazards and kills hundreds of people each year,” says Vaccaro.

A lifelong cyclist, he began classes at the School of Law–Newark in 1993 after working as a union organizer for nine years. Impressed by labor lawyers, he hoped to work alongside them. In his third year of law school, Vaccaro interviewed at Debevoise & Plimpton, a New York firm that specializes in corporate law. Mary Beth Hogan NLAW’90, a partner in the firm, told Vaccaro that she was involved in a pro bono class-action case for New Jersey’s mentally ill prisoners. “It was that interview that allowed me to even consider working for a big corporate law firm. She had this pro bono interest, along with the corporate work she was doing,” says Vaccaro, who joined the firm after graduating. 

In 2007, Vaccaro became interested in advocating for cyclists when Debevoise brought a pro bono case for New York’s Critical Mass, which holds a monthly bicycle rally and rides the streets to advocate for nonpolluting forms of transportation. It was alleging harassment by the New York Police Depart­ment. Debevoise’s injunction in favor of the Critical Mass cyclists failed. But in 2010, five cyclists in a Critical Mass harassment case were paid $98,000 by the City of New York. That same year, in a federal lawsuit brought by Rankin & Taylor, for which Vaccaro briefly worked, 83 cyclists won a $965,000 settlement stemming from unwarranted arrests made between 2004 and 2006.

Vaccaro became interested in applying his experience in mass torts, which are civil actions involving several plaintiffs who are bringing a suit against one or several corporate defendants (such as when asbestos manufacturers were found responsible for asbestos-injury claims).

“Car-related accidents are the source of an enormous death toll, and there is a far greater number of life-changing injuries,” says Vaccaro. “I wanted to litigate personal-injury cases as if they were part of a large mass tort, to take my training on the defense side and apply it for plaintiffs.”

Vaccaro appreciates the value of raising awareness among people, young and old. His 16-year-old son, Clark, is already a bike advocate, who by age 13 was championing designated bike lanes and other safety precautions before community boards. “It’s been great showing Clark the city as a cyclist,” says Vaccaro. “There’s no better advocate for safe streets than a parent whose kids are out there as vulnerable users of the streets.”