Death of Staten Island Student R.J. Tillman Stokes Call for Safer Howard Ave

Two colleges and two high schools are located on Howard Avenue, which is plagued by deadly speeding. Photo: Erika Reinhart

Staten Island’s Howard Avenue was once known as Serpentine Road. Though the moniker was mostly due to the serpentinite in the hill’s bedrock, the road also winds and writhes up Grymes Hill, the second highest point on Staten Island. The neighborhood is home to two college campuses, Wagner and St. John’s, the secondary schools Notre Dame Academy and P.S. 35, century-old homes and breathtaking views stretching beyond the north shore to encompass Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Bayonne.

Howard Avenue is also plagued by rampant speeding and careless driving, with poor accommodations for walking and biking. According to Crashstat, since 1997, 17 pedestrians and two bicyclists have been injured along Howard from Arlo Road to Clove Road — a span of less than a mile. Now, after a hit-and-run crash claimed the life of Wagner nursing student R.J. Tillman, a budding local movement for safer walking and biking is poised to make a difference in a borough where politicians are notoriously loath to buy into complete streets.

It was on Howard Avenue that Tillman was fatally struck by a hit-and-run driver while riding his bicycle on February 12. During the memorial ride tribute to Tillman that I participated in last month, the crowd of 50 had to congregate on the asphalt roadway, since there was no sidewalk on the side of the street where the ghost bike was placed. Two participants had to direct oncoming traffic around us, as cars sped around the curve and honked during the proceedings.

Last Wednesday, a group determined to improve safety along on the street gathered at the Wagner College campus for the Howard Avenue Traffic Safety Community Forum. The workshop was the latest effort in a years-long campaign to get the city to make Howard Avenue a better street for walking and biking. While several requests for safety improvements from Wagner staff had been rebuffed by Staten Island DOT Commissioner Thomas Cocola over the last three years, momentum for change is growing.

Recently Cocola has signaled greater willingness to work with community members concerned about safety; two weeks ago he agreed to tour Wagner to assess dangerous locations. And Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro and local City Council Member Debi Rose both sent representatives to last week’s workshop.

They heard Wagner students and staff and local residents describe the dangerous speeding and disregard for public safety that prevails on Howard Avenue today. Laura Barlament, who works for Wagner doing communications and marketing, has taken a leading role in advocating for safer conditions. Barlament was struck by a driver while biking on Howard in June 2011. “This is just a neighborhood,” she said. “To feel unsafe on a daily basis is just not right.”

Barlament has been collecting feedback from residents, students, and employees in Grymes Hill, and at the workshop she presented a vision for Howard Avenue as a safe and pleasant environment for pedestrians, bicyclists, and everyone who travels through that area. She identified problem areas along the length of the street where better pedestrian crossings, sidewalks, bicycle markings, traffic-calming measures, and traffic enforcement are badly needed.

I also spoke, on behalf of Transportation Alternatives’ Staten Island Volunteer Committee, explaining how traffic-calming devices work and how Howard Avenue can become a complete street. I emphasized that it’s up to the community, and Staten Island drivers as a whole, to not only become involved in their community boards and contact their elected officials in favor of safer streets, but to become aware of their own behavior while driving. We must end the “me first” attitude that fuels the rampant flouting of traffic laws, as well as the attitude that “accidents happen” and needless traffic deaths cannot be prevented, to truly achieve safer streets on Staten Island.

Joe Sciortino, representing Molinaro’s office, reassured the group that the borough president is aware of Howard Avenue’s problems, but he added that certain improvements cost millions of dollars and require years of studies and approval. He mentioned that constructing sidewalks on the side of a hill requires extra stabilization, and that shortly there will be an announcement about what will be done on Grymes Hill.

When the floor was opened to the audience, representatives from the Van Duzer Civic Association, the Grymes Hill Neighborhood Association, and the Grymes Hill Manor Estate Co-op all shared their frustrations with the dangerous conditions on Howard. Wagner President Dr. Richard Guarasci voiced his concern for the safety of Notre Dame Academy students who have to walk to school alongside speeding cars, and cited the beneficial effect that red light cameras had on his own driving habits.

The group that gathered last week will continue to press forward. Barlament has created a petition calling for a safer Grymes Hill for pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers. The group has also created “Share the Road” yard signs, which they sold for $1, and intend to use the profits for a scholarship fund in R.J. Tillman’s name. Donations to the fund will also be collected online; specify “R.J. Tillman Memorial Scholarship” in the “Other” box under the “About Your Gift” section.

Meredith Sladek is the chair of Transportation Alternatives’ Staten Island Volunteer Committee.

  • Ben from Bed Stuy

    Meredith, nice article. I’m sorry that a student had to die for some attention to be paid to this stretch. But sometimes that’s what it takes.

  • Paul Schimek

    Based on police statements and photographs of the scene in the SI newspaper website, it seems certain that Tillman was riding against traffic approaching a curve, at night, and probably without a headlight (based on photos of bicycle). 
    We are failing the cycling public when we fail to get important safety messages out: Don’t Ride the Wrong Way, Use Lights At Night, Yield When Required, Don’t Pass on the Right (Especially Trucks at Intersections) etc.
    Yes, there may be issues with road design and speeding, but bicyclists also need to know that they are in danger when they fail to follow the rules. We need to take advantage of these tragedies to publicize the need for changes to cyclist behavior (as well as motorist).

    “The “me first” attitude that fuels the rampant flouting of traffic laws” does not apply only to motorists, as the author seems to intend.

    Please correct me if I am wrong.

  • Ian Turner

    Paul,

    N.Y. VAT. LAW § 1123: “The driver of a
    vehicle may overtake and pass upon the right of another vehicle … Upon a street … of sufficient width for two or more lines of moving
    vehicles”

    Just FYI.

    –Ian

  • Paul Schimek

    Ian
    The same section you quoted goes on to say ” (b) The driver of a vehicle may overtake and pass another vehicle upon the right only under conditions permitting such movement in safety.”
    It is not safe to pass a vehicle on the right at an intersection or driveway, certainly if that vehicle is signaling a right turn (as required), but also even if there is any chance it could turn right.
    (Note that this discussion is not relevant to this case, but is to many other bicyclist tragedies.) 
    Furthermore, if there is a bike lane, a safe bicyclist should not pass on the right at an intersection even in the bike lane, because truck and car drivers do not treat it as a lane that they need to merge into before turning right — in other words, they turn right from the left lane. It is legal in this case to pass on the right, but it is equally dangerous.
    Paul

  • Anonymous

    Paul,

    With all due respect, your comment, while possibly applicable in other
    communities, does not apply in this situation.  Allow me to explain
    below.  I imagine you are unfamiliar with the area in question, as well
    as the history of this campaign.  That is why I am so grateful to
    Streetsblog for allowing me to share the story and raise awareness of
    dangerous driving on Staten Island.

    First of all, see the fourth paragraph.  The campaign to make Howard Ave
    safer for all users has been going on for several years, since 2009,
    well before RJ’s collision. This attitude of selfish and dangerous
    motorist behavior on SI has long been an epidemic.

    Second, as there were no witnesses to RJ’s collision itself, there is no
    way to determine 100% if he was riding on the wrong side of the road or
    not.  And, as a Streetsblog reader, you should know better than to
    trust the Advance’s or the NYPD’s assumptions by now.  That is all they are–assumptions.

    However, let’s assume–just for the sake of argument–that he was riding
    on the wrong side of the road, even with no lights, and was hit head-on
    by the motorist.  There was no way the driver could have not noticed
    that there was a collision.  So please refer to the second
    paragraph–this was a hit and run crash, with the driver still at
    large.  Even if the driver was obeying every traffic law up to that
    point, they broke a big one when they did not remain at the scene, or
    even turn him/herself in after. 

    I have had the privilege of riding with and speaking with much of the
    bicycling community on Staten Island.  While a small community, we are a
    presence on the island, and this “me first” attitude is not even
    marginally as present as it is demonstrated in motorists’ behavior on
    SI.  There is not a culture of regularly flouting traffic rules among
    cyclists as there may be in your community.  Riding defensively,
    perhaps–taking the lane, being visible, assertive, etc–but behavior
    that is legal, and I attribute that assertiveness largely as a response
    to dangerous traffic conditions on SI.

    As I don’t believe you were in attendance at the Howard Ave Traffic
    Safety Forum, please let me inform you that there were a couple dozen
    people in attendance, and not one of them told a story of reckless
    bicyclists or almost getting hit by a cyclist not following the rules. 
    All of them shared their fears of speeding traffic, of almost getting
    hit by cars, of witnessing property damage that would only be induced by
    careless drivers. 

    Other community feedback collected in 2011 by the group makes repeated reference to speeding and reckless driving, not to cyclists disobeying the rules.  Please refer again to the second paragraph–17
    pedestrians were injured by motor vehicles (not injured by bicyclists)
    in less than half a mile, as well as 2 bicyclists–and I happen to know
    for a fact that one of those bicyclists was following all the traffic
    rules.  Refer to the picture in the article–two cyclists, both riding
    legally, one is even properly signalling.

    Like the cycling community, the livable streets community on SI is
    small, but present, and working hard.  Cyclist education on the rules of
    the road is indeed important, but changing the accepted culture of
    dangerous, reckless driving on SI is more pressing, and the
    attitude of traffic law noncompliance is much more present in motorists than cyclists in this instance.  Blaming the victim gets us nowhere.

    I would rather focus our efforts on tackling the real problem head-on than putting a band-aid on a non-problem. 

    Thanks for reading,

    Meredith

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