Yesterday, nearly 200 people gathered on the sidewalk at a busy intersection on the Brooklyn-Queens border to remember 23-year-old Ella Bandes and hundreds of other people who have lost their lives to NYC traffic since the start of last year. Victims’ families, advocates, medical professionals and elected officials called for slower speed limits and more serious consequences for dangerous drivers.
“It was the worst day of our lives,” Judy Kottick told the crowd, just feet from where her daughter Ella was killed by a turning MTA bus driver a year ago. “We do not want anyone else to experience this nightmare.”
Ella’s family was joined by others who lost children to traffic violence, including Amy Tam and Hsi-Pei Liao, whose daughter Allison was killed by a turning driver in Flushing, Amy Cohen and Gary Eckstein, whose son Sammy was killed by a driver on Prospect Park West just days later, Marta Puruncajas, whose son Luis Bravo was killed by a hit-and-run driver in Woodside, and Joy Thompson, whose daughter Renee was killed by a turning truck driver on the Upper East Side.
“We need a paradigm shift in how drivers use our streets,” Cohen said. “Enforcement is essential.”
Dr. Kaushal Shah, an emergency medicine expert leading a study of pedestrian and cyclist injuries, emphasized that traffic fatalities must be reduced, not just dealt with after they happen. “Treatment is not the answer,” he said. “We need to prevent these injuries.”
The crossing where Ella was struck is a complex, multi-leg intersection where Myrtle Avenue crosses the rectangular grid intersection of Palmetto Street and Wyckoff Avenue. It is also the junction point for six bus routes, with stops for the elevated M train above and the L train below ground.
A 2007 DOT Ridgewood transportation study [PDF] found that the corner where Ella was killed had the neighborhood’s highest pedestrian volumes, with nearly 700 people per hour crossing during peak periods. The study also counted the hundreds of drivers making turns there, but while it analyzed crash data at nine intersections in the area, the intersection where Ella was later killed was not one of them.
Ella’s family says that after her death, DOT promised safety fixes, but there has been little action. DOT installed pedestrian countdown signals at the intersection last October. “We can do better,” Kottick said. “The situation remains basically unchanged.”
“We are developing a safety proposal to be presented to local community boards this spring which would include a sidewalk extension, as well as paint and bollard treatments,” DOT spokesperson Scott Gastel said in a statement, adding that the agency is considering changes to street markings, signage and lighting beneath the elevated train.
According to advocates, DOT sent a letter last December to then-Council Member Diana Reyna, now deputy borough president, outlining this proposal. Streetsblog has asked DOT, the borough president’s office, and Council Member Antonio Reynoso for more details on the letter.
Reyna and Reynoso both spoke at last night’s vigil, joined by State Senator Michael Gianaris, Assembly members Nily Rozic and Maritza Davila, Borough President Eric Adams, and City Council members Elizabeth Crowley and Mark Weprin.
Weprin said that while driving is “a way of life” for many in his eastern Queens district, it’s not something that should be taken lightly. Weprin added that reckless drivers must face stronger consequences. “If you want to drive, you can,” he said, “but you must drive safely, you must drive slowly.”
Crowley emphasized that Vision Zero will require effort from all levels of government. “We need to put pressure on our Department of Transportation to make our streets safer, we need to make sure our police department is enforcing traffic laws, and we need to make sure that the laws are stricter in the city and the state of New York,” she said.
Adams endorsed Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell’s bill to lower the citywide 30 mph speed limit to 20 mph. “We going to make that 20 miles per hour speed limit happen,” the former state senator said. “I’m going to utilize my relationships in Albany, as well as in the city, to make it happen,” he told Streetsblog, emphasizing that borough presidents have a larger role to play in street safety issues than the city charter might suggest. “It’s the personality and the leadership ability,” he said. “That’s going to push things through.”
Earlier yesterday afternoon, Gianaris held a press conference at the Maspeth intersection where, nine days earlier, 68-year-old Angela Hurtado was killed by an unlicensed driver making an illegal left turn. The press conference spotlighted a pair of bills that would crack down on dangerous unlicensed drivers: One would upgrade unlicensed driving charges from a misdemeanor to a felony if that driver kills or seriously injures someone, and an accompanying bill would require all drivers with suspended or revoked licenses to surrender their car registration and license plates.
“We know who the problem drivers are,” Gianaris told Streetsblog, adding that his office is keeping tabs on crashes involving unlicensed drivers. “The tally is growing faster than we had even thought.”