The horrific deaths of 1-year-old Joshua Lew and 4-year-old Abigail Blumenstein on Monday have shaken our city. Crossing a prominent Park Slope crosswalk shortly after noon, Abigail and Joshua, along with Abigail’s pregnant mother, Ruthie Ann Blumenstein, her friend, stroller-toting mom Lauren Lew, and another man, were hit by a driver accelerating through a red light. Both children were pronounced dead at the hospital, and their mothers remain hospitalized.
As a lifelong advocate for safe streets, I know that these deaths were devastatingly predictable. A New Yorker dies in a traffic crash every 40 hours. For children, traffic crashes are a leading cause of death — more than 40 have been killed in traffic crashes since January 2014. Just five weeks ago, 13-year-old Kevin Flores was killed when he was hit by a man driving an oil truck in Bedford-Stuyvesant. And for every child who is killed under the wheels of a car or truck, many more sustain life-altering injuries.
But as a father of three, the relatability of this crash — I couldn’t count how many times I’ve pushed a stroller across a busy Brooklyn intersection- made it particularly jarring. And that’s why I’m demanding this tragedy shock and shake two other New York dads, Mayor de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo, into action.
If we’re going to make our streets safer, they both have big roles to play.
The tens of thousands of traffic crashes that take place on New York City streets each year, including the one that took the lives of Abigail and Joshua, are not accidents. They’re not an inevitable fact of life in the city.
These crashes are the preventable, but all too predictable, result of deadly street designs and broken driver enforcement policies that put motorists at the top of the transportation pecking order. This arrangement puts drivers, including demonstrably reckless ones, in a harrowing position in which cars can easily become deadly weapons.
At both the city and state level, we must urgently address this crisis through smart policies and laws before more children are killed. New Yorkers are outraged, and we won’t accept anything less.
First, de Blasio must take a proactive approach to fixing dangerous streets — streets designed to encourage speeding, fast turns and reckless behavior — before tragedies happen. Under Vision Zero, the city has alerady embarked on a number of street designs, but not nearly enough.
I was pleased to hear Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg say that her department will redesign Ninth St. in Brooklyn, the scene of last week’s horrifying crash, but advocates have been asking it to be fixed for years. As the chief executive of the city’s more than 6,000 miles of streets and nearly 13,000 miles of sidewalk, the mayor must not wait for someone to die before deciding to prioritize the safe movement of people over the movement of cars.
This is an enormous task. Thanks to a decades-long legacy of cars-first planning policies, our streets were designed to move cars and trucks as quickly as possible to their destination with little to no regard for anyone else on the street.
This brought the era of wide, fast car lanes and big intersections that make city streets as friendly to motorists as they are deadly to anyone outside of a car. Vehicle throughput came first in policy priority, with vehicle storage coming in second.
Pedestrians have consistently come in a distant third, along with bicyclists and transit riders all competing for whatever space is left over.
Vision Zero, which de Blasio adopted thanks to the courageous advocacy of the victim’s group Families for Safe Streets, has begun to show how misguided these policies were. Safety upgrades implemented in the past few years effect have made some of the city’s deadliest streets dramatically safer.
Streets have been retrofitted with pedestrian crossing islands, narrower car lanes, protected bicycle lanes, and tighter intersection designs that discourage speeding and fast turns. Signals were re-timed for a citywide 25 mph speed limit, and pedestrians are being given a head start thanks to leading pedestrian intervals installed at 2,500 intersections around the city.
As overall pedestrian deaths have dropped, Queens Blvd. — for decades known as New York’s “Boulevard of Death” — hasn’t seen a single pedestrian or bicyclist killed since it was redesigned over three years ago.
But for every street that receives these life-saving safety improvements, dozens remain unfixed. Of the city’s 154 Vision Zero priority corridors — particularly dangerous streets highlighted by the Department of Transportation in 2015 as needing critical upgrades — none have been wholly redesigned.
Why? Because the mayor and some members of the City Council would rather not upset car owners — a minority in New York City — who, in 2018, still think that driving and parking space should trump safe walking and bicycling space.
As a result, projects like the Skillman Ave. redesign in Queens move forward glacially, as the DOT spends months, even years, mollifying those who cling to Robert Moses-era street designs that put the preservation of parking ahead of the preservation of people’s lives.
This time would be far better spent fixing the backlog of known deadly streets.
Because the data so clearly shows the life-saving impact of safer design, these improvements can no longer be considered optional safety amenities. It’s critical for public safety that these dangerous streets be immediately and comprehensively fixed.
The New York Court of Appeals, our state’s highest court, agrees: In 2016, it handed down a landmark verdict, in Turturro vs. City of New York, that may now put the City of New York on the hook for millions of dollars in claims unless it fixes known dangerous streets. Armed with this new landmark case, the victims of last year’s terror attack on the Hudson River Greenway, which lacked basic protections that would have kept out errant drivers, are now suing the city for $800 million.
To prevent future loss of life and insulate the city against this new liability, de Blasio must give his DOT a strong mandate to move forward quickly with safety upgrades, without months, or more often years, of community micro-process. He can start by instructing his DOT to bundle urgent safety upgrades with routine street resurfacing projects, as the City Council is now demanding.
By making safe streets the rule, not the exception, the mayor can save hundreds more lives in his second term, and lay the foundation for a safer, more sustainable, and more equitable New York.
But while safer street designs can go a long way towards preventing acts of reckless driving from killing people, they can’t keep the most dangerous drivers off the road. That’s mostly Cuomo’s job. The car owned by the driver who ran a red light and killed Joshua and Abigail had been caught eight times for driving violations, four for red light running and four for speeding in school zones, since the summer of 2016.
Yet the car was still on the road, and the woman who seems to have been its principal driver still had a valid drivers license.
That’s because her recent infractions were caught by enforcement cameras, whose tickets don’t include license points. The governor must lead the charge to change the law so that all drivers who rack up multiple violations have their driving privileges revoked, or, if it truly can’t be proven that a given person was behind the wheel, their cars taken off the road.
Cuomo should also forcefully advocate for the expansion of automated enforcement across the city, particularly near schools, to further interrupt reckless drivers before they kill someone.
The scene of Monday’s crash was just a few hundred feet from PS 118, and data from the city shows that automated speed cameras reduced speeding by 63% and pedestrian injuries by 23% at locations where the city has used them.
But for three years, the state Legislature has failed to pass a bill that would expand the use of school zone enforcement cameras across the city. It’s long past time for Albany to approve this measure, and it must be among the top priorities this session.
After enacting these policies that identify reckless drivers, the governor and the Legislature must do more to deter these drivers, particularly those whose licenses have been suspended, from getting behind the wheel.
Currently, a driver has to be caught driving with a suspended license 10 times before he or she is charged with a criminal penalty. That’s an absurdly high ceiling, and more importantly, a driver with a suspended license, a known danger, can still freely drive anywhere, anytime, until they’re caught.
When they do get caught, it’s often too late. A bill before the state Legislature would immediately impound the license plate of a vehicle being operated by someone whose license was suspended for driving recklessly, helping traffic enforcement agents stop tragedies before they occur.
Finally, it’s time for the state to tackle the messy but critical albatross of Department of Motor Vehicle reform. Just as street designs subverted safety to maximize motorists convenience, so too does the state DMV.
Reports indicate that the driver may have had a debilitating medical condition that contributed to the crash. But under current policy, the DMV only requires drivers to self-report these conditions.
In other words, the body that determines who can legally drive and who can not expects you to prove that you can execute a three-point turn, but if you have a condition that causes frequent dizziness and seizures, that’s your private business, everyone else on the road be damned.
State law must be updated so that doctors who find their patients unfit to drive are required to report that to the DMV, who can then revoke licenses and license plates. The DMV should be empowered to educate drivers, monitor infractions to ensure operators are fit to drive, and give meaningful penalties and revocations to drivers who repeatedly show disregard for human life.
On Monday, families from across New York City will march down Ninth St. in Park Slope, from Prospect Park to the site of this week’s crash near Fifth Ave. We will march for Joshua and Abigail, as well as for Kevin and Sophia, Marianna and Kayshawn, Akeam and Shareef and too many others who have senselessly lost their lives to traffic violence.
But we’ll also march for our own kids, and for a future where everyone is safe to walk, commute, and ride a bicycle.
In the early 1970’s, following a number of traffic crashes, advocates and politicians in the Netherlands worked together to “stop de kindermoord” (literally “stop the child-murder”) and usher in a slate of reforms that put people first on its streets and in its policies. The result is a developed nation that is virtually free from the scourge of traffic violence.
For New York, our moment to once and for all implement safe streets, so that not one more child is lost in a preventable crash, is now.
White is executive director of Transportation Alternatives.