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What New York Should Learn From the Park Slope Crash That Killed Two Children

9th Street and Fifth Avenue in Park Slope. Photo: Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao/New York Magazine
9th Street and Fifth Avenue in Park Slope. Photo: Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao/New York Magazine

A few days after the crash, I went down to the Park Slope corner where it had happened. There was — is — one of those makeshift altars, the kind that appear after every horrific event, in front of a bank. Bouquets, notes, teddy bears. On the corner, buried in flowers, there was a folding stroller. It had been painted matte white, like the ghost bikes that mark sites where cyclists have been killed. I heard nothing on 9th Street but quiet talk of the crash.

As I got to the intersection, there were five or six people standing around the shrine, discussing what had happened on March 5, what hadn’t happened, what might be done. A lot of the signs made reference to Abigail and Joshua, the two children, ages 4 and 1, who had been killed there. As I stood there, a little girl, just about Abigail’s age, stepped up with her dad and set a few yellow flowers on the stroller. This was a neighborhood in mourning, one that saw the fragility of its own bodies reflected in the experience. “It could have been me” is a cliché, but it really could have been anyone.

On that Monday afternoon, Abigail Blumenstein and her mother, the actress Ruthie Ann Miles, had been crossing 9th Street with two friends, Lauren Lew and her 1-year-old son, Joshua. They had a WALK signal. A woman named Dorothy Bruns was waiting in her car across Fifth Avenue, and for whatever reason — the Daily News reported that she said she’d had a seizure — she drove through the red light. She hit the two mothers, the two kids, and another man. In the worst nightmare imaginable, the car continued on for about 350 feet, dragging the stroller, eventually crossing the median lines and crunching into a parked car. The two children died at the scene. Miles, who was badly hurt, is now on the mend. She was seven months pregnant at the time, now about eight. Lew was also hurt, but less severely, as was the other man. The driver has not been charged, and a spokeswoman for the Brooklyn DA’s office characterizes the case as “under active investigation.” The scene was so gruesome that a local parents’ group has arranged trauma counseling for witnesses.

I’ve tried to describe that scene as straightforwardly as I can, but I’m anything but an unbiased observer here. My wife is an executive at Transportation Alternatives, the pedestrian-and-bike advocacy group. When I speak with her colleagues, I hear about kids run over by buses, about bicyclists with their heads busted open. Maybe inevitably, given the nature of our how-was-your-day-at-work dinner chat, some version of that scene on 9th Street flashes through my head every morning as I walk my son to school. There are four crosswalks en route, and in each one, I try to walk on the traffic side of him, so that a fast-moving car would hit me first. Some days, in my mind’s ear, I hear the dull bang. It’s louder than you think.

I know that sound firsthand. I wasn’t with my son the day it happened to me. It was two years ago on a rainy morning near the Jersey City PATH station. A driver waiting to turn left at an intersection accelerated without looking, and I was in the crosswalk, right in front of him. My umbrella and I rolled up on his car’s hood; he slammed on his brakes, which launched me. I flew about four feet and landed on my hip, hard. I was lucky to stay in front of his bumper instead of being pitched into the opposite lane of traffic, which likely would have killed me.

It is a natural reaction to analyze an accident, apportioning blame: Was someone jaywalking? Not looking? Texting? How was the visibility? The crash in Park Slope was cut-and-dried. Traffic was stopped. The people in the crosswalk had the light. Everyone steps into the street this way. Indeed, a 2011 study found that nearly half the pedestrians hit in New York were in crosswalks and had the right of way. Last year, 101 pedestrians were killed, or two per week.

I said “an accident” just now, and that term is, almost invisibly, part of the mental blame-apportioning that takes place. One of TransAlt’s initiatives has called for us to change the word we use to describe these bonebreaking events from accident to crash. Accidents happen; crashes have causes (the Associated Press’s stylebook now agrees). It is a semantic choice, but it’s also a significant one. Most of these not-really-accidental events are preventable by steps more powerful than telling people to “be careful.”

Here’s another semantic distinction that spills out into the real world. There are, roughly speaking, two kinds of city thoroughfares. There are roads, which are meant to move traffic at speed, more or less exclusively. The BQE is a road. But then there are streets, and streets serve not just drivers but also bicyclists on bikes, pedestrians on foot, café-sitters and jewelry-vendors and food-cart standees. They all own the street, or should, and their needs should be balanced. Our narrower side streets, say in Greenwich Village, were originally built for horses and carts, and many of them handle the mix pretty well.

Ninth Street, though, is a street that is treated like a road. It has all the pedestrian activity of a Village cowpath, but what’s not obvious, till you stand there and stare at it for a while, is just how wide it is. Traffic roars through that width, partly because the grade that gives Park Slope its name causes drivers to speed downhill. It does have a pair of bike lanes, but they’re painted on, rather than set off by curbs or bollards, and faded.

Fifth and 9th is a corner where you feel the need to take care, but it’s not an obvious deathtrap. It is, says Councilmember Brad Lander, whose office is just a few steps away and who has actively worked on street safety, “a messy intersection, a dangerous intersection. And there’s a lot of them.” It is depressingly average. The other day, I stood there and timed the light. A pedestrian gets 40 seconds to cross. It took me, a fast walker, 20 seconds. A parent with a kid will be slower. I doubt someone with a walker could make it.

Dangerous intersections are largely fixable, and 9th Street will now be fixed to some degree in that way that often happens after a tragedy. Indeed, Community Board 6’s Eric McClure tells me, the street was redesigned somewhat about ten years ago, after a trio of pedestrian deaths, one nearby at Baltic, two down at Third. The bike lanes and the median strip ( painted, and now difficult to see) were added. Since then, another man has been hit and killed at this same intersection. The Department of Transportation is evaluating the street once more. Most likely the bike lanes will be built-in, cutting traffic to one lane in each direction plus the turn lane. That does not affect the thousand other streets that have similar problems and needs, but it is something.

One of those other streets is Lewis Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and there, about two months ago, an oil truck ran over a 13-year-old named Kevin Flores. It got less attention, perhaps because it happened in a neighborhood that is predominantly nonwhite. In Bed-Stuy, the truck driver was not licensed and he had multiple charges on his record. Lewis Avenue is less roadlike than 9th Street, but it too has no special design: traffic lanes, parking lanes.

But, you may be thinking, what does any of this have to do with a person who jumped through a red light? She wasn’t speeding; she just stepped on the accelerator. Even that general class of driver error can be mitigated by smart design. Curb extensions and similar measures go under the name of “traffic calming,” and that field involves measures that sound minor but have major effects. Narrowing lanes makes drivers feel constrained, and they react instinctively by slowing down, as you would when walking on a balance beam. Bike lanes, used not only to provide for cyclists but also to intrude on car space, do the same. (By the way, if you’re one of those people who consider fast-moving cyclists a menace, let me tell you: I’ve been hit by one of those, too. The bike hurt. The car might have killed me.) Brightly colored crosswalks, say, of brick, convey a pedestrian’s right of way more vividly than a standard one does. These and many other measures constitute a well-understood psychological tool kit, available to the designer for not a lot of money, and they work. One study found that adding a raised median strip where crossers can pause — it’s colloquially known as a “refuge island” — cut the number of people being hit by more than half.

Which brings us to the driver. Dorothy Bruns had a record. Her car had recently blown through four red lights and been cited for four other violations for speeding. She had retained her driver’s license, it would appear, long after she should have. How? Because those violations were written by speed cameras, and they record and ticket license plates and thus auto registrations. They do not ticket the drivers of those cars — because the camera can’t recognize who’s behind the wheel — and Dorothy Bruns’s license remained unblemished by them. Those cameras are useful, but they are inconsistently deployed. Having killed two people and hit three others, Dorothy Bruns did not receive a summons. Had her car not been wrecked, she might have been allowed to drive home.

A couple of weeks after the crash, we learned that she had reportedly hit another pedestrian in September and sped off. Paperwork that would have led to a deeper review had gone unfiled. Like Nikolas Cruz, the Parkland shooter, she was recognizably unfit to handle a dangerous machine, known and perhaps flagged by the authorities but not stopped, leading to violent, preventable death. And a lot of people seem to think of a driver’s license in near-purist Second Amendment terms: as a right that can be revoked under only the most extreme circumstances.

We have, as a city and even as a country, begun to move toward smarter policies about all this. New York’s former transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and her current successor, Polly Trottenberg, understand what needs to be done and have poured a lot of concrete to make it so. Mayor de Blasio’s adoption of Vision Zero has cut the annual number of pedestrian deaths by 45 percent in less than five years. More than that, though, is a growing desire to exist without the triple problem of car culture: the headache, the expense, and the physical threat of being run over. Every study of younger adults shows that they seek a life that does not depend so heavily on driving. The most desirable neighborhoods in most cities and suburbs are the walkable ones, with less sprawl and good trains. Our city is particularly, beautifully suited to that life. The American dream of the open road is increasingly being revealed as a dead end. Streets, not roads, are where we want to — and ought to, and deserve to — live.

*This article appears in the April 2, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Lessons From the Park Slope Crash That Killed Two Children