Hundreds of people gathered on the north side of Union Square Park Tuesday evening for a vigil honoring the nearly 25,000 people injured or killed in traffic collisions since January. Hundreds of advocates, many affiliated with the organization Families for Safe Streets, protested the normalization of traffic-related injuries in the city as well as the widespread usage of the word “accident” over “crash" to describe such incidents.
“When you say 'accident', you’ve already decided that [the collision] wasn’t preventable,” said Caroline Samponaro, Deputy Director of Transportation Alternatives, an organization devoted to reclaiming NYC streets from cars. “When you say 'crash', you’re not saying the driver is always to blame, you’re just acknowledging that we should know more about that, that we should look deeper into it, that we should think about what we can change."
When they arrived at the event, hundreds of attendees put on yellow Families for Safe Streets t-shirts displaying the word “crash” in large letters over a scribbled out, almost unintelligible, “accident”. Many in the crowd held up yellow carnations in memory of those who have passed, and a moment of silence was held to honor the cyclist who was struck and killed Monday in Brooklyn at the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic Avenue.
Opening the event, Families for Safe Streets member Amy Cohen spoke of her personal experiences with audience. In October 2013, she lost her 12 year-old son, Sammy Cohen-Eckstein, to the driver of a mini-van on the street in front of their Park Slope home.
“As I look out today over a sea of yellow, the color of hope,” she told the crowd. “I am hopeful that together we can build a legacy for those we have lost in a safer and more caring city.”
Names of those who have been killed in traffic collisions in 2015 so far were read, month by month, by family members of victims, survivors, and elected officials gathered around a podium at the base of the crowd. For January, City Council member Brad Lander began, “Pamela Pimentel—age 27, daughter, neice; Wesley Manning—age 27, son, golf instructor,” and the lists went on like this, though many victims were left as “unidentified”.
A recurring theme of the night was accountability, with calls against the usage of the word “accident” coming up frequently and many pushing against what they see as a culture that allows reckless and dangerous driving without consequence.
Families for Safe Streets member Cara Cancelmo spoke of her experiences with traffic injuries to the audience. She was hit by a cab two years ago, which shattered her shoulder, resulted in reconstructive surgery and led to a permanent shoulder disability.
“I will not allow myself or anyone else to blame the victim," she told the crowd. She then asked, "Do we want to live in a city where even when we are perfect pedestrians or cyclists, cars can still injure, maim and kill without consequence?"
The vigil was held in support of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero plan, which aims to eliminate all traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2024. Part of this effort was the passage of the Right of Way Law last summer, which was designed to protect pedestrians by heightening consequences for careless drivers—specifically, under this law, if a driver fails to yield to a pedestrian or cyclist crossing a street with right of way, and ends up killing or injuring them, they can be charged with a misdemeanor crime by the NYPD.
In terms of some other successes, Transportation Alternatives Legislative and Legal Manager Marco Conner pointed to the lowering of the city’s default speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph last August, which he sees as very much a product of efforts of activists from his organization and Families for Safe Streets.
Some initiatives, such as the Right of Way Law, have received pushback. The Transport Workers Union Local 100 is seeking to amend the law to exclude bus drivers entirely, and were recently successful in getting a bill passed in the state senate that would prevent the arrest of bus drivers at the scene of a crash, which is currently protocol under this law. They have cited that bus drivers are forced to make dangerous driving choices because of the nature of their vehicles and their jobs, and that accidents should not turn them into criminals.
“[The] Right of Way Law is not about bus drivers,” said Samponaro, commenting on this. “The simple way to avoid getting a criminal misdemeanor for running someone over in the crosswalk is not to do it.” Conner added, “We take serious issue with kind of creating this special exemption for one class of drivers. When you have laws that are being applied in a non-uniform way, adherence to them tends to be less.”
Samponaro continued that data suggests that the law should stay as it is.
“Last year, eight people were killed walking in a crosswalk by bus drivers, [while] they had the right of way,” she said. “This year, despite all this debate, zero people have been killed walking in a crosswalk by bus drivers with their right of way, so in some small way, we can say, the early signs are that the law is working in that regard.”
There were a number of elected officials on hand. They expressed support for the de Blasio administration's efforts reduce traffic-related fatalities and injuries. Families for Safe Streets member Samara Daly, whose husband Lewis was injured while riding his bike to work a little over a year ago, said, “By and large, we’ve had a good group of supporters and cheerleaders. More needs to be done, for sure. But by and large, we feel like we’re moving in the right trajectory.”
Others attendees emphasized the unfinished work that remains to be done. Families for Safe Streets member Dulcie Canton was injured while riding her bike in Bushwick in August of last year and left unable to work for one month. She said the evidence pointed to the driver being at fault. Yet, the police “did nothing.” She said, “They basically see it as a civil issue, it’s not criminal. Like, we didn’t see it so it didn’t happen.” Of the efforts currently going on at both the city and state level, she continued, “I don’t think it’s enough.”
For Samponaro, the event was about more than advocating a particular policy. It was an attempt to change the broader culture that does not take the issue of traffic violence seriously enough.
“I think that traffic crashes, up until now even, have been this public secret,” she said. “People, like the members of Families for Safe Streets that are suffering alone, are not being acknowledged by the public as having had this terrible kind of loss, and I think Vision Zero validates this kind of loss, it validates this problem, and it acknowledges that it’s a preventable thing.”