Bearing Witness to the Crash That Claimed the Life of Chaim Miller

A Brooklyn resident who saw a driver strike and kill Miller, 28, as he rode his bike near Ocean Parkway last Friday recounts the crash and his interactions with local elected officials in its aftermath.

The intersection of Ocean Parkway and Quentin Avenue immediately after an eastbound driver fatally struck Chaim Miller.
The intersection of Ocean Parkway and Quentin Avenue immediately after an eastbound driver fatally struck Chaim Miller.
This account of the crash that took the life of cyclist Chaim Miller in Brooklyn last Friday was written by an eyewitness who wishes to remain anonymous. The writer, a member of the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, is a bicycle rider and street safety advocate, and over the years our paths have crossed many times. He reached out to me over the Labor Day weekend and I suggested he post his account on Streetsblog. A warning: This post includes a graphic photo of the crash scene.

For eight years running there has been an NYC unicycle festival starting just before Labor Day weekend. The Friday festivities include a ride over the Brooklyn Bridge, and then across Brooklyn to Coney Island. The group makes a stop to rest and talk along the Ocean Parkway bicycle path at Avenue P.

Last Friday at around 5:30 p.m. I went to greet the unicycle group there, hang out, and practice some one-wheel riding, before heading home to get ready for my approaching Sabbath.

When the break ended, I followed/escorted the last riders south on the bike path on the west side of the parkway for a block to the north side of Quentin Road (“Avenue Q”), where a friend of mine was watching the proceedings. On the main Ocean Parkway roadway, the usual high volume of vehicles headed north and south waited for the light to change. East-West traffic was minimal. It seemed the light was about to change, if it hadn’t already started to do so.

Suddenly, an eastbound driver came through on Quentin at high speed, presumably to beat the light. It happened so fast it’s hard to say exactly what followed in minute detail, but the car caught our attention and we turned to follow it. Then, across Ocean Parkway, around the eastern service road there was a loud collision, following which we saw a cyclist go down north of the car.

In the immediate aftermath there was silence, shock, and disbelief. (Did I really see that? Did that really just happen?) Then, realizing what had transpired, I started yelling, jumping out and gesturing in front of an NYPD van driver whom I saw right nearby, waiting for the light to change, at the head of the westernmost southbound lane.

The officer in the van didn’t appear to react to the crash. But when I started yelling and motioning and pointing across the parkway, he put on his siren and headed there quickly in front of the north and southbound vehicles, before they resumed travel after the light change. The flow of traffic resumed so I couldn’t cross to the other side. As I waited, I grabbed my camera and started shooting. As soon as I could, I crossed over to the crash site.

I didn’t have a cell phone so I couldn’t call the local Volunteer Ambulance Service. I guess the police officer radioed for help through his channels, though help seemed slow to arrive. Someone asked the victim to talk to him. I thought there was some response, perhaps not. Later I heard talk about a pulse, someone seemed to say there was none. Many compressions were done on the victim’s stomach, though not mouth to mouth. He seemed basically intact, his helmet still in place. I didn’t see a bloody aftermath, so perhaps the injuries were mostly internal.

chaim_miller

Time went by and a crowd grew — from NYPD, EMS/NYFD, Hatzalah (the local VAS), and people in the area, some headed to synagogue.

After impact the driver continued to the next intersection. The officer was shouting for him to stay there. I don’t know if he ran and was captured, but he can be seen near the car in one or more of my pics.

After a while, the police spread crime scene tape around the entire block area of Quentin Road, Ocean Parkway and East 7th Street.

I had to get going to be ready for evening services. I suspected that the victim didn’t make it, but I wasn’t sure and was out of touch over Sabbath. On Saturday night I saw in the Daily News that the cyclist didn’t make it.

On Sunday, I found a report on an Orthodox Jewish site that the victim was a member of the Orthodox community, in his twenties. The funeral would be that afternoon. I headed over there, but by the time I arrived, the eulogies had ended, and people were emerging to escort the deceased on his way.

Among the mourners was NY State Senator Simcha Felder. I mentioned to him that while I didn’t know the deceased, I wanted to share my account and pictures, in the pursuit of justice. Senator Felder said he wasn’t law enforcement. Perhaps people were still processing what had happened and thinking about the burial. Maybe the mood was more mourning than demands for justice. I was advised to visit the shiva/mourning house. I also told the senator that the victim was wearing a helmet, which could be seen in my photos, and that helmets were not the (ultimate) solution. He said we would agree to disagree on that.

On Monday I was in the area and encountered Kalman Yeger, who is running to replace the departing council member, David Greenfield, and was out campaigning. I went over and told him about the crash and fatality. He said he hadn’t heard about it. I urged him to speak up to ask that the investigation include having the car’s “black box” subpoenaed to help determine its speed prior to the crash. He said the police are doing their investigation, but he asked for my contact info and promised to check with the precinct if my witness was needed. He said he thinks charges will be filed.

A sign right near the crash site says, in large letters, black on a light background, CITY SPEED LIMIT 25, PHOTO ENFORCED” (mostly obscured by a tree however). There is also a matching sign across the avenue, in the other direction (unobscured).

Addendum: According to a portrait of the deceased in the Jewish newspaper Hamodia, he was cycling from Far Rockaway to Brooklyn to prepare for Shabbos when he was struck and killed.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    There’s nothing on that car’s “black box” unless it was wrecked and the air bags fired, which seems unlikely. Belief in the relevance of black boxes among pedestrian and bicycle safety advocates is misplaced and based on Internet myths and hoaxes.

  • Komanoff

    Black boxes deploy in many though obviously not all non-air-bag collisions. Read the literature. If you disagree, let us know what you base your belief on.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    I’ve read the datasheets and I have practical experience hacking these devices. Event data recorders in cars have exactly one record. The control module writes the record continuously. If the restraint system or in newer cars the stability control system thought the car might crash, the recorder latches in certain data from the moment prior. If the car actually crashes that data is permanently written, but if it doesn’t the data is overwritten. It can be overwritten by the mere passage of time, by turning the car off and on a lot, or by actually crashing the car after the fact.

    EDRs do not keep a log of the fact that you drive like a jerk. The analogy with airplane data recorders is misleading.

    Now, I’m an urban safety absolutist and I think all car telemetry should be beamed back in real-time to the authorities and automatically monitored and retained. But just because I wish for such telemetry doesn’t mean it exists today.

  • Komanoff

    Thanks for sharing your expertise.

    If I send you a pic of the vehicle (cracked windshield, dented front fender, several pieces broken off), will you hazard a guess as to the odds the EDR was activated? (Send your contact info to komanoff (at) gmail. Thx.)

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Are you talking about the car involved in this story? That’s a surprising description since they made it sound like the guy drove off. I’m not going to play video doctor on the internet. If the cops have this car then they absolutely should read out the EDR, because even if the data wasn’t permanently committed it’s possible that the temporary records are still there.

  • Komanoff

    Yes, I am. Sorry if the account wasn’t fully clear on that score. Glad we came to agreement on the need for NYPD to read out the EDR.

  • Jules

    I want to thank the anonymous person who sent in this story. It helps everyone remember that Mr. Miller Z”L was a person whose life ended in an instant due to someone’s idiotic decision, and not just a statistic on a bike. And that it didn’t have to be this way.

    I hope Felder went to the house for shiva. If speaking to a mother who’s just lost her son doesn’t convince him that raising the speed limit on Ocean Parkway isn’t the hill he wants to die on, then nothing will.

  • Jeff

    Motorists: Quit this whole “beat the light” bullshit. If you insist on running red lights, then slow down and/or come to a stop, check to make sure it’s clear, and then proceed slowly through the solid red when it’s safe to do so. I don’t understand their logic: It’s totally cool to plow through the intersection at high-speeds, other road users be damned, so long as they “almost made it”, but slowing down and yielding right of way and proceeding when it’s safe, like cyclists do, is literally satan.

  • From having ridden in Philadelphia on several occasions over the past four years, I have developed a theory. I think that the excessive length of the red-light periods in New York exacerbates drivers’ tendencies to speed in an effort to beat the light.

    By contrast, Philly’s red-light periods are extremely short. As a result, there is much less perception there of a need to beat the light, because drivers know that the red will be changing in a few seconds, anyway. And this squares with my experience of markedly lower levels of aggression on the part of drivers in Philadelphia as compared to here in New York. One might expect these two neighbouring cities to be similar in this regard; but the difference is highly noticeable. (And Philly drivers stop at stop signs, as well.)

  • Setty/Steven

    In a single ride from the beach to the park on Ocean Pkwy last summer, I saw two separate situations where cars turning left off Ocean onto side streets almost smashed into cyclists or pedestrians. The second time, it was a car that almost hit a man carrying a baby. The baby blocked his peripheral vision and he didn’t even know the car was coming, but I screamed and the car stopped before hitting him. It’s a horrible street where left turns shouldn’t be allowed and speeds should be lowered by design.

  • William Lawson

    Every single intersection in New York should have speed cameras which are triggered both by excessive speed and blowing lights. We need to make habitually reckless drivers suffer financially until they come to their senses, and take their licenses away after a certain number of fines. It’s the only language they understand. They don’t care that their behavior is likely to lead to someone’s death, and I don’t think the NYPD or the DA’s will ever reform themselves to the point where they actually give a sh*t about road deaths enough to start throwing these scumbags in jail.

  • Michel S

    I don’t know what Philadelphia you’re talking about. MY Philadelphia has a real problem with drivers running red lights, of using turn lanes and bus only lanes as passing lanes to get around traffic and make it through the intersection, and where running stop signs is affectionately known as the “South Philly Slide.” Drivers are routinely aggressive and pass me within inches of my life while I’m on my bike. I’d love for you to show me your Philadelphia; it sounds wonderful, but I’m afraid it doesn’t exist.

  • Jeff

    I will say that, as a frequent visitor, the shorter signal phases make for a much more pleasant walking experience. I can’t stand “strolling” in NYC with other people, because I’m constantly worried about which lights are red/green/about to change, where we should cross the street to minimize time spent waiting for red lights, etc.

  • Vooch

    agreed – motor traffic lanes should be narrowed, bulb-outs at every intersection, and texture ( cobblestones ) highlighting pedestrian crossings

    25 MPH should be engineered into ocean parkway.

  • Vooch

    send the speed camera data to car’s insurance company. ( w/o a traffic ticket ).

    The insurance companies will solve this far more assertively than a mere traffic ticket by jacking up rates for the dangerous cars.

    this does not require approval from Albany. City could do this tomorrow.

  • Over the past four summers, I spent a lot of time riding on Frankford Avenue to get back and forth between where I stay in Northeast Philly and the Center City area. It is specifically on the side streets intersecting with that street that I remember being most impressed with a level of compliance with stop signs that was entirely foreign to me as a New Yorker. And I witnessed the same thing repeatedly on gritty Lehigh Avenue, on the wide-open spaces of Tyson Avenue, and in many other locations. Even going up and down through South Philly on streets such as 5th, 6th, 9th, 10th, etc., I saw compliance with stop signs that blows New York away.

    I also noticed a response to my hand signals in Philly that I don’t see here at home. For instance, when I have to pull out to the left to change lanes or to go around an obstruction, drivers demonstrably slow down at my backward-facing palm sign, doing so to an extent that just does not happen here. And when I am making a left turn at an intersection of two-way streets, I will hold up my hand and give a “stop!” signal to the cars coming in the opposite direction as I turn across their path. In New York, the drivers keep coming, slowing only a bit; in Philly, they actually come to a complete halt.

    While it may not be apparant to you as a resident of Philly, I as a visitor from New York can state that the Philadelphia drivers are relatively polite, and that they show comparitavely little aggression, at least by contrast to what I am used to. For instance, they don’t tend to right-hook you, a practice which is distressingly common in New York. (When I was riding back home from a trip to Philly this past summer, I experienced a dangerous right hook in Linden, New Jersey, and I said to myself: “well, I know that I am back in the New York area now”.)

    Every time I go down to Philly, I expand my mental map, getting to know what connects to what. I study the real map intensely before I set out each day, and then try to look at it as little as possible during the ride, trying to figure things out while on the move. Of course, I do wind up sneeking a few peeks at the map during the day, in order to contextualise something that I have just seen. But each day the need for that is less.

    In riding around the town, I have learnt several things: I have learnt to avoid the elevated tracks on Kensington Avenue and the trolley tracks on 11th Street, and to be ready for the hills on Bustleton Avenue and Verree Road. I have also learnt that the place where my “politeness” theory holds the least is not South Philly, as you suggest, but West Philly (where they also seem to have run out of pavement). Even in the Center City area, the bike lanes on Pine and Spruce Streets are respected a lot better than are New York’s long unprotected bike lanes, such as those on Dean Street and Bergen Street.

    I will mention something which strikes me weird about Philly: the geography out east, where the whole grid is tilted. Streets such as Cottman Avenue, Rhawn Street, and Grant Avenue feel like they are are running north and south; yet they are officially east-west streets. And Torresdale and Frankford Avenues feel to me like east-west streets; yet they are considered to be going north and south. (Note that eastbound Erie Avenue, when it crosses Kensington Avenue, magically transforms into northbound Torresdale Avenue, without ever changing direction. So I am not completely crazy for having this perception.) This is a mental adjustment that I must continue to work on.

    Anyway, I have come to love riding in Philly, and I can’t wait to get back. If we get a mercifully mild fall and winter, maybe I’ll do a trip or two there by bus (BoltBus, which lets you take the bike on board). But, most likely, I won’t be able to accumulate more observations on the behaviour of Philly drivers until next summer.

    As much as I love New York, and as proud as I am of being a New Yorker, my experience with the dramatically different behaviour of Philly’s drivers has made me see my hometown in a different light. When people say that New Yorkers are rude assholes, I now understand that they might just have a point.

  • Joe R.

    With the size of storage devices these days, we can easily keep a lifetime record of everything ever done in a car. If you pick a few items of telemetry like speed, pedal positions, steering wheel positions, signals, etc. you’re at maybe 10 to 20 bytes per record. Even if you store records once per second it would take you hundreds of thousands of hours to fill up a relatively small 100GB SSD. Heck, given that few cars are driven more than 100,000 hours, even a 32GB or 64GB device might suffice. Those are dirt cheap, the telemetry is already available. Really, we should push to have auto manufacturers have permanent records of everything the vehicle has ever done. Those records should be available to the driver, and also to law enforcement on demand. On public roads there is no expectation of privacy.

  • Joe R.

    I don’t understand that myself. It’s “OK” to nail it to make a light, perhaps go through just as it changes to red at 50 or 60 mph, but what cyclists typically do is considered heresy. This just shows how incapable of rational thought many motorists are.

  • Michel S

    An outside perspective is always appreciated, and I think we’ve had a similar discussion to this before. I struggle sometimes with my impulse to make perfect the enemy of good. I love riding my bike in this city; it’s quick, cheap, good exercise, and ultimately a freeing experience. But it is often also dangerous, and I’ve had my share of negative encounters. Our protected bike network is shameful, our politicians regressive and resistant to change, so it’s hard not to feel like the winds are always against you. I haven’t tried to ride in NYC, and Philadelphians really struggle with the specter of inferiority being so close to NYC brings. I guess I just assumed New Yorkers had it at least marginally better than we do here. In the end perhaps it’s a problem of scale. NYC is huge, so it’s roads are bigger, which we know invites more traffic. Our streets are comparatively narrow, so cyclists have a bit more clout proportional to the road, and have an easier time being noticed and holding their own when necessary.

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Yep, there is no technological barrier to this. But we are still in a world where photo radar and even front license plates are controversial. We haven’t matured enough as a society to even think about live telemetry for murder machines.

  • AMH

    I agree; I noticed this in several neighborhoods in San Francisco as well. Short light cycles make walking and cycling much more pleasant. Wide streets make this more difficult of course, because of the time required for pedestrians to cross.

  • LinuxGuy

    Nobody in Philly is driving recklessly like you say. Rare cases. If you keep having these problems, maybe you are the one who should examine what you are doing? If problems do exist, they should be fixed with engineering tweaks.

  • LinuxGuy

    Timings are a mixed thing. You need a balance with signal timings. Too short and too long are both bad, but for different reasons. What we do need are longer yellow times everywhere, though.

  • It’s hard for me to think of the disadvantage of a very short red-light period. It seems that the shorter it is, the more that traffic speed is calmed.

    Also, I’m not convinced that having longer yellow lights is a good idea. Drivers, in their charmingly sociopathic way, tend to perceive the meaning of the yellow light as “race to beat the red”, rather than grasping its true meaning, which is (as Jim Ignatowski knows) “slow down”.

    So l’d say that the ideal state of affairs would be short red lights and short yellow lights. In other words: traffic lights should fluctuate between red and green every few seconds, allowing only a handful of cars per green-light cycle in each direction. This would remove both the psychological incentive to speed up and the real-world reward for doing so.

  • qrt145

    Regarding “very short” red lights: what about people who can’t walk very fast? How are they going to cross the street? I’m a very fast walker and indeed feel like the lights are too long for me. But then I see a person with a walker who can’t make it to the other side before the light changes and my perspective changes. I suspect one reason why elderly people are disproportionately killed by cars while walking is that they sometimes can’t get to the other side in time (together with drivers who pay more attention to the green light than to the presence of people in front of them!).

    Yellow doesn’t mean “slow down”. Of course, it doesn’t mean “speed up”, either! 🙂 All it means is “decide”. Decide whether to stop, which you should do if you are far enough from the intersection to do so safely, or to proceed, which you should do if you are close enough to the intersection that a sudden stop would be unsafe.

  • The point about pedestrians is a good one. So perhaps the red-light period should be the length of time that it would take a slow-walking person to cross the street, and no longer.

    But I am not comfortable with your conception of the yellow light. The yellow means that the driver should slow down in preparation to stop, unless he/she is too close to the intersection to-do so safely. In other words: the meaning is not simply “decide”, with two equally available options. The yellow light gives the default instruction “slow to a stop”, but with a specific exception.

  • LinuxGuy

    The more cycles you have, the more potential for a crash. Do not need to calm traffic, need 85th percentile speed limits. Yellows are too short all over, which leads to more crashes. If they were longer, people would not react erratically. Nobody is trying to mow anyone down. So basically, if you want to hurt people, what you propose makes perfect sense.

  • The 85th percentile theory applies only to highways. There the road is for the exclusive use of automobiles, which are meant to ride long distances without stopping.

    This ideology is completely inappropriate for city streets, where frequent stopping is expected and where perpendicularly crossing auto traffic is present by design, and where the road is shared with other street users such as bicyclists and pedestrians, whose needs and vulnerabilities provide a sound basis for constraining automobiles. The safety-related principle for cars on city streets is a very simple one: the slower the better.

    What I witnessed in Philadelphia has left me all but convinced that short red-light periods and frequent changes of the light are conducive to traffic calming and to safer streets, while New York’s long periods promote speeding and recklessness.

    What’s more, the yellow light should be long enough only for a car that happens to be right at the intersection to go through. A driver seeing a yellow light from any other distance should be prepared to stop at the red (which, ideally, will also be short).

  • LinuxGuy

    85th applies to all roads. Forced slow traffic causes crashes. People biking and walking violate many rules. Look up the dilemma zone and you will see most yellows now are too short for the car near the light to stop or go through. Can’t do either safely.

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