At Jean Chambers Vigil, Urgent Pleas for Action Before Another Life Is Lost

John Chambers addresses last light's vigil for his wife Jean, killed last week by a turning driver at West End Avenue and 95th Street. Photo: Stephen Miller
John Chambers speaks at the vigil for his wife Jean, who was killed last week by a turning driver at West End Avenue and 95th Street. Photo: Stephen Miller

Yesterday evening, more than 100 people gathered on the corner of 95th Street and West End Avenue to remember 61-year-old Jean Chambers, killed last week by a turning driver while she had the “walk” signal. Jean’s husband and other traffic violence victims spoke at the vigil, and Council Member Helen Rosenthal announced that in the wake of this latest death, DOT will soon redesign at least 10 blocks of West End Avenue.

Jean Chambers is the fourth person killed in traffic within a two-block radius on the Upper West Side since January. After two nearby deaths at 96th Street and Broadway, DOT quickly implemented recommendations that had been developed last year. But it took yet another death to bring more street safety changes to the neighborhood.

“Jean came to 95th Street expressly to avoid 96th Street, because 96th Street and West End is especially treacherous,” said John Chambers, Jean’s husband. “There’s an irony there. She was very conscientious.”

Last night, Rosenthal said DOT has committed to a redesign of West End Avenue, a wide street with ill-defined lanes that handles lots of car traffic going to and from the West Side Highway. “It will be at least ten blocks, and I think it’s going to be longer,” she said, adding that DOT will be making big changes soon. “It’s going to be faster than you’ve ever seen,” she said. DOT said it hopes to work with Rosenthal and Community Board 7 to develop the project in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, there are a number of smaller changes DOT is making. Another speed hump on 95th Street between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive is planned, and a leading pedestrian interval at 95th Street and West End Avenue will be installed next week, DOT says. A ban on left turns from 95th to West End, the maneuver made by the driver who killed Chambers, was approved just days before Chambers’s death and implemented very recently [PDF]. The ban is only in effect from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. on weekdays, however. Rosenthal hopes DOT will make it around-the-clock and install signs reminding drivers coming off the West Side Highway at 95th Street to drive carefully.

Many of these changes have been requested for years by parents at PS 75, where Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled his Vision Zero action agenda in February. John Decatur is a father of three and has two children at PS 75, where he serves as co-president of the PTA. “Many parents have told me about nearly getting hit by cars. At the crosswalk where Jean was killed, I had my kids in the crosswalk. A driver leaned out and said, ‘Get your fucking kids out of the crosswalk,” he said. “I had the light.”

Photo: Stephen Miller
Photo: Stephen Miller

There were some sour notes at last night’s vigil. Rosenthal spent much of her time talking about texting while walking, and the “preliminary traffic safety action plan” her office handed out last night called for “more ticketing” of jaywalkers and cyclists [PDF]. I asked Rosenthal why she supports more tickets for vulnerable road users, especially considering the disastrous jaywalking crackdown the 24th precinct launched in January at 96th Street and Broadway.

“[I am] tracking these ticketing numbers for pedestrians and drivers,” she said. “I want to see them all move up. We need a shift in behavior. So everyone has to change their behavior — pedestrians, bikers, drivers.” According to DOT, driver behavior is the main cause of 78.5 percent of serious pedestrian crashes.

NYPD refused to say if the driver who struck Chambers was issued any summonses. The office of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance is investigating Chambers’s death, saying this morning that the investigation remains open and that no decisions have been made about filing charges against the driver. John Chambers said he has not yet watched video of the fatal collision and declined to discuss his interactions with law enforcement.

Intro 238, signed into law last month, makes striking a cyclist or pedestrian with the right of way a criminal misdemeanor, with escalating fines for causing serious injury or death. The law takes effect in mid-August.

Six months to the day before Chambers’ death, 9-year-old Cooper Stock was killed two blocks away at West End Avenue and 97th Street. Like Chambers, he was in the crosswalk with the signal when a left-turning driver ran over him. In that case, Vance did not pursue any charges against the driver.

Dana Lerner, Stock’s mother, spoke passionately at last night’s vigil. “Both my son’s death and Jean’s death were completely preventable,” she said. “Although we are taught that pedestrians have the right of way in New York City, this is not the case. The rules do not apply here.”

“There are people in this city whose job it is to protect pedestrians, and they are not doing this,” she said, calling out DOT and CB 7 for years of foot-dragging on safer street designs for the Upper West Side. “They have been ignoring suggestions since 2008. If these plans had been changed, if my son would be alive today, every day I wonder: Why didn’t they do this?”

Lerner also asked the media to keep covering traffic safety issues, and had a special request for Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. “Laws are signed but they do not get enforced,” she said, naming Hayley and Diego’s Law and Elle’s Law as examples. “I don’t understand it. Again, how many people have to die before this is done? Commissioner Bratton, what are you going to do about this? I want to talk to you.”

Elana Shneyer, policy director for Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell, said he is considering introducing a bill with State Senator Brad Hoylman to bring elements of Cooper’s Law to all DMV-licensed drivers statewide. That law, introduced by Rosenthal and signed by Mayor de Blasio last month, allows the Taxi and Limousine Commission to suspend or revoke the licenses of taxi and livery drivers who break traffic laws and cause critical injury or death.

Rosenthal said last night that she will be hosting a traffic safety town hall during the week of July 28. Details, including a date, time, and location, will be released in the coming days.

  • Komanoff

    I’m nauseated that an elected official at a vigil for a pedestrian who had clear right-of-way (crosswalk + green light) when she was struck and killed would push an agenda giving the same weight to “more ticketing for jaywalking” and “more ticketing for cyclists” as to “more ticketing for speeding and other traffic violations.” Has this official learned nothing from the spate of traffic murders in her backyard?

  • Mark Walker

    Yes, blame-everyone-equally comes shamefully close to blame-the-victim. False equivalence is lazy thinking and bad policymaking.

  • J

    Indeed, the enforcement of laws should be representative of the consequences of breaking them:
    Walk or bicycle recklessly and you yourself might be hurt or killed
    Drive recklessly and you might hurt and kill OTHER PEOPLE.

    The whole idea of equal enforcement is complete and utter bullshit since the consequences are far from equal.

  • Mark Walker

    Does anyone know what ten-block stretch of West End Ave. would be covered by the redesign? I’m praying it will go several blocks north of 96th. For pedestrians crossing at the corner of 98th, as I do daily, southbound motorists don’t become visible until they clear the hill at 99th, often at breathtakingly high speeds. The invisibility works both ways — drivers at 99th seeing peds in the crosswalk at 98th have only one block to come to a full stop. Even with the light, crossing is a gamble. I always wonder when my number is going to come up.

  • JK

    Dana Lerner is right, passing new laws is the easy part. Getting these laws enforced is very hard. This is why automated enforcement — speed and red light cameras — are so very important. The City is good at keeping these revenue producing cameras working. It is bad at traffic enforcement that depends on people. The most direct route to creating a culture of accountability among motorists is through speed and red light cams. Laws which strengthen pedestrian right of way and rights are nice, but they will rarely be enforced, and are mainly used only after a pedestrian is struck. Motoring interests most resist speed humps and cameras, that’s because these measures actually make motorists slow down and drive safely.

  • vnm

    I hate to say this, but if the left-turn ban at 95th & West End is enforced merely by signage, and not by changing the configuration of the roadway, it won’t amount to much of anything. I live near an intersection that has two signs saying U-turns are prohibited. But people make U-turns all the time, probably more than a hundred times a day, because people have gradually learned that there’s no enforcement to back up the signs, and the street is wide and invites the turns. I work near signs in Midtown prohibiting left turns onto Fifth Avenue between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., at a time of day when the crosswalks are filled with people. Yet people make left turns all the time because there is no enforcement.

    Signage by itself doesn’t seem to work. What does work is physical reconfiguration of the lanes, or special turn lanes with red arrow/green arrow signals. People DO follow those.

  • rauschpfeife

    I was at the vigil. There

    was clearly a fed-up mentality among us old UWS codgers.

    The thing was apparently organized by council member Helen

    Rosenthal, whose drippy, self-aggrandizing perfomance would

    have been disappointing if I had expected any better. She

    talked a *lot* and to very poor effect — much agonized

    hand-wringing.

    “What can we do? I’m baffled. It’s a new world. Cell phones!

    We need fresh ideas!” I’m paraphrasing, naturally, but this

    was the burden of her song. And there was plenty of

    blame-the-victim stuff about defensive walking.

    All baloney, of course — what we need is neckdowns and

    mid-street islands and short turn radii and prison

    sentences for killer drivers. As somebody observed,

    this is not rocket science.

    Helen did not mention the NYPD’s and DA’s nonfeasance,

    of course. She did graciously thank the boys in blue for

    closing down 95th Street between RSD and WEA for the

    duration. Which probably seemed like a very big concession

    to the rabble in their eyes, too.

    She and DOT had come up with a derisory, too-little-too-late

    “solution” for this engineered-to-kill intersection — a leading

    pedestrian signal, an early-morning left-turn ban, another

    speed bump. Helen would like to see the left-turn ban made

    24/7, which of course will just move the problem a block east,

    to Broadway. When drivers bother to observe it at all.

    Somebody from TA droned on for a few minutes. He was,

    at least, mercifully brief. Unlike Helen, who seems to be

    an embryo Chuck Schumer — don’t get between her

    and a microphone.

    Nobody from the lackadaisical CB7 showed, as far as I could

    tell. Certainly nobody spoke.

    In short, one senses a change in public opinion, but the electeds

    and the DoT, it seems, will drag their feet as long as they can.

    And NYPD, of course, a law unto itself and responsible to no

    one, is inimicus humani generis — an enemy of humankind.

  • Serial Jaywalker

    It’s hard to figure which voters Helen Rosenthal is hoping to attract with her recommended crackdown on jaywalkers, given that 99% of her constituents do it. But perhaps she is cannily playing to the widespread denial about street deaths, i.e., “the victims must have been doing something wrong because this could never happen to me.” She is reassuring her constituents with the fantasy that this problem is fixable through behavioral changes.

  • Reader

    When everyone is responsible no one is responsible.

  • Anne Watkins

    I attended the gathering on Thursday night, too, and did not remotely get the
    idea that Council Member Helen Rosenthal was blaming the victims or
    encouraging punishment for pedestrians. She handled the occasion with grace and tact, keeping the attention of the crowd on support for the Chambers family whose terrible and tragic loss of our friend and neighbor Jean was the impetus for the timing of this vigil. There is anger and frustration in the community, and with that a possibility for greater involvement from all of us, so she had a responsibility to harness that concern, and offer us a way to channel it in what was described as a Call to Action.

    She and one of her interns who is a member of Families for Safe Streets due to a severe injury from being hit by a taxi, along with Mary Beth Kelly whose husband was struck and killed by a tow truck while on a bike, and Dana Lerner, whose son was struck and killed by a taxi while walking across West End Avenue along with Tom DeVito who represented Transportation Alternatives are all actively committed to stopping this tide of needless carnage on our streets.

    Council Member Rosenthal spoke of the expansive range of her search to get help with this issue, as what we are battling requires what she called “a shift in behavior.”

    We are people, not just pedestrians.
    Some of us walk and run, some cycle, some rollerblade, some drive. Some of us do all of those things. Language that labels us as cyclists or drivers or
    pedestrians divides us. It isn’t helpful. We are New Yorkers. We know how to
    share. Why not pay attention and extend courtesy to each other on our
    sidewalks, greenways and roadways? Make eye contact, say thank you, wave!
    Of course people driving cars have a greater responsibility due to the damage that can be inflicted with a car. But a habit of awareness, of connecting more to the environment and each other, and less to our hand held gadgets and our urgency to get where we are going could help shape a safer and more civilized city for all of us. Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t blame people who use the phone while walking on the street. It is part of the culture. I lament the loss of connection and its consequences.

    In the hundreds of times that I ran into Jean Chambers in Riverside Park or on the street, I never saw her on the phone. I never saw her jaywalk. At the very least, if there was no time for conversation, she smiled and called out a greeting. These memories of Jean, relaxed and smiling, often with a dog leash in each hand, stir me to acknowledge the importance of this effort and get involved.

  • Lora Tenenbaum

    It seems to me that what is needed at these intersections are conflict free pedestrian crossings. Basically, when pedestrians are crossing, no turns are allowed (there is a red arrow for turning cars) and then, when cars get a green arrow for turns, pedestrians cannot cross. Countdown lights for pedestrians could be paired with this as well.

    I don’t understand why there have been no charges. The video clearly shows she had the right of way and that the driver failed to yield. What an avoidable tragedy!

  • dporpentine

    “Blame everyone equally” is the official message of Vision Zero. Actually, Vision Zero embraces a “blame pedestrians first” model in its posters . . .

  • StepUpAndSaySomething

    Politicians that still fail to recognize who is responsible for pedestrian deaths, should be voted out of office. While scientific studies show that speeding causes a very high percentage of deaths are common, I’ve seen no peered review studies show that crossing outside of an intersection or walking with headphones cause any increase in injury. Politicians who blame victims are reprehensible, either too dumb to know what’s going on, or too corrupt, muddying the waters to stop real change.

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