All the talk of epidemics and public-health policy hasn’t changed one dreadful fact of life in New York City: Roughly once every 48 hours, a pedestrian or cyclist is killed in a car crash. For several years now, vehicles have been more lethal than guns here, and far more lethal than any contagious disease. Some 200 people have died so far this year on the city streets, and traffic-related fatality is the No. 1 cause of death for children ages 1 to 12 here. While New York’s pedestrian fatality rate is better than some other major American cities and is lower than it was a decade ago, Mayor de Blasio made the issue an early priority. His “Vision Zero” plan to reduce traffic deaths has brought one major policy change: a citywide speed limit reduction to 25 miles per hour, which goes into effect next month. Advocates have praised the effort, but the unfortunate reality is stopping pedestrian deaths isn’t quite as simple as lowering the speed limits by five miles per hour.
Each death last year had its own set of circumstances, and a whole host of policy changes would be needed to have stopped each one, which is exactly what some of the victims’ families are advocating. On Saturday, volunteers with the direct-action group Right of Way will join forces with Families for Safe Streets, a group of relatives of crash victims that formed last year, to install stenciled street memorials for their lost loved ones in eight locations in three boroughs. Like the cycling community’s Ghost Bikes, these memorials can be personalized with names and epitaphs (two of the eight memorials are for cyclists, the rest for pedestrians).
The organizers are also pushing for more comprehensive policy changes: stronger enforcement of traffic laws, more criminal investigations of suspicious crashes, and enforcing the “failure to yield” laws at intersections. “New York City is one of the only cities where cars have the ability to turn at the same time that pedestrians have the signal,” says Amy Cohen, one of the lead organizers of Families for Safe Streets, whose 12-year-old son, Sammy Cohen Eckstein, was hit by a van a year ago on Prospect Park West. “We want to change it so there are three signals. People say it might mean cars get a little slower. I have to say, my son’s life is worth someone getting to their destination two minutes later.”
Below, more on the memorials—and what the victims’ surviving family members feel must change.
1. Josbel Rivera (December 26, 2011), Moshulu Parkway at Paul Avenue, Bronx
The driver of the Suzuki Vitari that struck Rivera, 23, must have known he’d done something wrong. Two days later, a surveillance camera showed the car being abandoned by a curb in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, then bursting into flames. It took eight months for police to track down the driver. Mitchum Williams pled guilty this spring to leaving the scene of an accident — a class D felony — but only after being threatened with the harsher sentence of being prosecuted for arson. Rivera’s family can’t understand why the car mattered more, in the eyes of the law, than Josbel. “We have lobbied with our assembly men and women to impose stricter laws for those who elect to flee a scene of an accident,” says Rivera’s brother Jaasiel. As his other brother Shaniel said in the spring. “It needs to be taken care of, because it could happen to someone else.”
2. Ariel Russo (June 13, 2013), 97th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, Manhattan
Four-year-old Ariel was killed while walking with her grandmother to day care. The driver, Franklin Reyes, was a teenager who’d been pulled over and panicked because he wasn’t supposed to be using the Nissan Frontier SUV he’d been driving. Prosecutors charged Reyes with manslaughter, assault, driving without a license, leaving the scene of the accident, and fleeing police, seeking the maximum sentence of 15 years. A computer glitch in the city’s revamped 911 system led to a four-minute delay that Ariel’s family sued the city over. The other problem, Ariel’s mother Sofia says, was that police were pursuing Reyes “in a school zone where there are four schools, at a time when there were kids walking to school. I don’t think that should ever happen again. I think they need to make better choices about how to pursue.”
3. Rubin Baum (September 22, 2012), 59th Street and Park Avenue, Manhattan
This one is out of The Twilight Zone. Four decades ago, Baum met his future wife Denise while hailing and fighting over a taxi. The two married, had two children, and in 1977, Baum’s father died when he was struck by a taxi. Then, two years ago, the couple was hailing a taxi after a concert when a 20-year-old driver struck a van that then careened toward them both. Baum pushed Denise out of the way, only to be struck himself.
“This young boy had ecstasy in the car and a backpack of marijuana,” Denise says, but he wasn’t tested on the scene. “He got a misdemeanor — a slap on the wrist for killing my husband.” Now, she says, “I’m just doing everything I can do get a law to do mandatory blood, breath, and urine testing in the event of a collision resulting in death or serious injury. It’s in 17 states, but not in New York, which is beyond me. The State Senate has passed this since 2005, but the Assembly is, for lack of a better word, dragging their ass.”
4. Matthew Brenner (July 6, 2014), Sands Street at the BQE ramp, Brooklyn
Brenner, 29, a former bike messenger, was struck by a 25-year-old female driver as she pulled onto a ramp for the northbound Brooklyn Queens Expressway. She stayed on the scene and no charges have been filed. The police initially seemed to blame Brenner for riding against traffic; Brenner’s mother Franci says that video from a DOT camera shows that “someone exiting onto the BQE decided to jerk left and almost ran into Matt. He had to jump out of the way, and the second car hit him.” Brenner seemed to have happened onto the ramp by mistake and was trying to find a way out. “There was a little tiny sign telling him where to go, and he was new to that area,” she says. “He didn’t like riding in New York. He used to ride in D.C., but New York was so packed.” Franci says she hopes events like Saturday’s help spread the word about vigilance on the road. “The driver was terribly upset. And I forgive her. It wasn’t her fault. But we have to terribly careful. New York is full of bicycles.”
5. Unknown pedestrian (July 3, 2014), Livingston Street at Elm Place, Fulton Mall, Brooklyn
Earlier this year, Upper West Side families were shook by the death of a 9-year-old Cooper Stock, who was struck by a left-turning taxi while his father was walking him across West End Avenue at 97th Street. Cooper’s mother, Dana Lerner, has become an active member of Families for Safe Streets. It was Lerner’s suggestion to devote one of the Saturday’s eight memorials to an unidentified victim. “I started to think about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” she says. “I thought, There are people out there, and we may never know who was killed.” Of the 200 pedestrians and cyclists killed so far this year, 26 have not been identified. (“Traffic violence clearly has a disproportionate toll on the homeless population,” says Keegan Stephan, one of the organizer’s of Saturday’s event.) The change Lerner hopes most for is an end to the silence that greets so many of these deaths. “It’s incredible to think that two hours later, there’s no evidence that it even happened,” she says. With that change might also come the end of the presumption that the victims are at fault. “My son, he and my husband had the light and were crossing. There’s a videotape of this man running my son over. And yet there are still people out there who say it’s their fault. It reminds me of how people used to blame women for being raped.”
6. Lucian Merryweather (November 2, 2013), Clermont and Dekalb Avenues, Brooklyn
Nine-year-old Lucian wasn’t even on the street when an out-of-control SUV driver jumped the curb, pinning him to a brick wall. His mother and younger brother both survived. Police threw the book at 59-year-old Anthony Byrd, charging him with criminally negligent homicide, assault, reckless endangerment, criminal mischief, reckless driving, driving the wrong way on a one-way street, failure to yield, and two counts of operating a motor vehicle on the sidewalk. Saturday’s memorial will be one of the first times Lucian’s family has been a part of a public event on this issue. His mother, Anna Kovel, says while “we’re open to all the policy changes,” she is not sure how she’ll feel at the memorial itself. The memorial will take the place of an impromptu wall of messages written in chalk by neighbors. “People left messages for months,” Kovel says. “Honestly, I avoid going there as much as I can. But because it’s the center of our neighborhood, I pass by it many times. Sometimes I want to see. By the end of summer, I saw it was gone, and it made me feel empty.” Saturday’s event, she says, “is about awareness and community for us — and connectedness to the other families.”
7. Leighton Parnham (August 7, 2012), Metropolitan Avenue and Humboldt Street, Brooklyn
Parnham, a 19-year-old FIT student from East Grand Rapids, Michigan, was struck by a livery-car driver. A witness said it seemed as if the driver blew the light on Metropolitan and hit Parnham while he was crossing in the crosswalk, just three feet from the curb, hurling him into oncoming traffic. Leighton’s family later said the police refused to treat the incident as criminal. “There really wasn’t a thorough investigation,” says Leighton’s mother, Cindy Wiegerink. When the driver appeared for a deposition in the family’s civil suit, Wiegerink says he “had no remorse. He claimed he didn’t know he hit something, even though his windshield was broken.” It’s a mystery to her why the police didn’t investigate further. “I don’t know if it’s that New York is so accustomed to this happening, which is horrific to me.”
8. Mathieu LeFevre (October 18, 2011), Meserole Street and Morgan Avenue, Brooklyn
The final memorial of Saturday’s event is at the site of one of the more embarrassing recent NYPD investigations into a traffic death. LeFevre, a 30-year-old artist originally from Alberta, Canada, was making a turn on his bike when he was run over by a turning flatbed truck. The police refused to blame the driver until months later, when they admitted to LeFevre’s family that LeFevre didn’t run a red light, and that the truck turned without signaling across his path, dragging him for 40 feet and the bike for another 130 feet. The family now is advocating for more zealous police investigation of traffic deaths that currently give drivers the benefit of the doubt. “Part of this is getting the police to treat the victims and their families more humanely and respectfully,” his mother Erika says. “We got to New York and it took six days for the police to speak to us. We had to make funeral arrangements, to do all these things, and we didn’t even know what happened.” These memorials, she says, “give dignity to the family. It says we’re not going to accept this preventable carnage in the streets — we value and honor human life. And it speaks as a cautionary measure. It says ‘This street is a dangerous place. Be cautious. Be careful.’ The purpose here is to save lives. It’s saying ‘We care.’”