Street Improvements Alone Won’t Prevent the Next Curb-Jump Crash

A child who was struck by a curb-jumping motorist near a Maspeth school last Thursday died two days later. Parents this week vented to Council Member Elizabeth Crowley and DOT about unsafe conditions in the area. No charges have been filed against the driver by NYPD or Queens District Attorney Richard Brown, and after immediately declaring the crash an “accident,” Crowley has had nothing to say about the investigation.

Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, left, and Queens DOT commissioner Dalila Hall, second from right, met with parents this week to discuss street improvements near schools on Grand Avenue in Maspeth. Photo: The Forum

Michael Gomez, 13, died at Elmhurst Hospital on Saturday. Reports published in the immediate aftermath of the crash indicated Gomez had a “swollen arm” after he and four other students were struck when Francis Aung Lu drove a Honda SUV onto the sidewalk at Grand Avenue and 71st Street, near Frank Sansivieri Intermediate School.

No official cause of death has been released, but media outlets including the Post and the Daily News cited anonymous sources who said Gomez died from an asthma attack. The Times-Ledger reported yesterday that “a spokeswoman for the city medical examiner could only say that the death at Elmhurst Hospital was being investigated.” Streetsblog has a message in with the medical examiner’s office.

Bajram Kacic, 11, suffered a leg injury from the crash. Angie Peña, 13, was hospitalized in critical condition. Marina Abadir, 14, suffered head trauma, multiple spine fractures, and had surgery on both elbows. Ashley Khan, 13, who with Abadir was pinned under the vehicle, had fractures to her pelvis and legs, among other injuries.

A group of parents met with Crowley and Queens DOT commissioner Dalila Hall on Monday. From the Forum:

The legislator, parents and civic leaders said they would like to see speed limits reduced from about 69th to 80th streets along Grand Avenue — where a city study found about 98 percent of vehicles speed — to accommodate students at IS 73, PS 58 and Maspeth High School.

“Between these three buildings, there’s close to 4,000 students here,” said Joann Berger, the PTA president for IS 73 and president of the Presidents’ Council for District 24. “There are a lot  — a lot — of kids walking around here in the morning and afternoon.”

Parents want a DOT “slow zone,” truck restrictions in the hours before school starts, and crossing guards, the Forum reports. “We’re afraid for our children’s lives,” said Maryann Johnson, president of the PTA at PS 58.

Parents said reckless drivers are a major problem near area schools. “It’s not just kids being kids,” said Johnson, as quoted by the Times-Ledger. “It’s drivers being bad drivers.”

“The rules need to be enforced,” Johnson said. “Drivers should slow down and be more respectful.”

She said children in the local schools participate in a classroom education program offered through the American Automobile Association. Students learn about the importance of wearing seatbelts and safely crossing the street.

“We need something similar for parents,” she said.

Hall said DOT would consider the possibility of installing a 20 miles per hour slow zone and other measures. A spokesperson for Crowley said 70th Street should be made one-way, the Forum reported, a change that Hall said DOT has approved but not yet implemented.

Officers from the 104th Precinct issued 95 speeding citations this year as of August, and ticketed 110 motorists for speeding in 2012.

On Wednesday, volunteers from Transportation Alternatives handed out flyers on Grand Avenue to alert pedestrians and motorists to dangerous conditions.

Lower speed limits and other traffic-calming measures near schools will of course make kids safer. But it’s incongruous for Crowley to focus exclusively on engineering when this crash could have happened on a well-designed street. To prevent future injuries and deaths, it is also imperative that motorists be held accountable, and it’s up to electeds to make that happen. The public should know whether law enforcement is thoroughly checking the driver’s story against available evidence, yet over a week later it is still unknown whether cell phone records or EDR data have been examined.

Some media outlets are reporting as fact the driver’s account of the crash — that he “accidentally” applied the accelerator rather than the brake as he attempted to park, before mounting the curb, hitting a parking meter, five people and a street sign. NYPD and the press continue to emphasize that Lu is “fully cooperating” with police. No media account that we have seen has questioned the relevance of this detail or why NYPD, while purportedly investigating the crash, would essentially advocate for Lu in the press.

City Council Member Mark Weprin is exploring the possibility of legislation that would make it a crime to drive on a New York City sidewalk. Aside from Crowley, no other elected or mayoral candidate that we know of has said anything publicly about this crash.

  • Morris Zapp

    Maryann Johnson for City Council.

  • carma

    a slow zone is welcome here. but please note that the speed of this curb jumping Honda was well below 20mph.

    the only way this accident could have been prevented is if this driver who doesnt know what the difference between gas and brake is was never licensed in the first place.

  • Robert Wright

    I suspect – but don’t know because the crash hasn’t been investigated – that there are other factors that could explain what happened. In some of the (admittedly unclear) video pictures it seems to me that there’s a shape like a cellphone near the driver’s face. Whether I’m right or not about that, it certainly seems more likely that a distracted driver would make as fundamental and stupid an error as stepping on the gas pedal when he meant to hit the brakes.

  • Jonathan

    If the driver backed into the spot, rather than going in head first, I think the chances of him running over these kids would have been diminished.

  • Car Free Nation

    How about redesigning cars with handbrakes? The two pedal system is fraught with the possibility of user error.

  • Anxiously Awaiting Bikeshare

    How about a mandatory class required of all parents if you want to drop your kid off by car. Have some statistics on crashes in school zones, some talk from a Dr. about how terrible getting hit by a car is for anyone, but especially for children, etc.

    Could do it as a video and have it available at schools one night a week before the school year starts and then once a month thereafter.

    I doubt NYPD would do much to actually enforce those without permits but it would at least add the “and (s)he didn’t even have a permit” when determining criminal charges after a crash.

    It would also help to decrease the # of parents dropping their kids at school by car. The more hurdles for dropping a kid off by car at school the better.

  • Brad Aaron

    Starting to think all vehicles should be equipped with something like a “dead man” switch that must be engaged at all times for the car to move. That, or automatic transmissions should be banned.

  • Anxiously Awaiting Bikeshare

    Not sure if this would be safer. If all the sudden a car stopped accelerating when the driver hit the accelerator there is a good chance they would panic and/or get distracted. I’d rather something cut the accelerator if the car computer senses an impact so that the car doesn’t accelerate through whatever it hits (which happens naturally in a collision if the driver’s foot is on the gas as their body flies forward depressing the accelerator further.)

    To the handbreak, I’d rather drivers have 2 hands on the wheel, especially when turning than requiring a hand to be on the break. A better alternative is the combined gas/break pedal: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11829287

  • Joe R.

    I think a joystick would be better. Push back to accelerate, push forward to brake, push left to turn left, push right to turn right. You can also brake or accelerate when turning by moving the joystick towards the corners. Hands off is straight and neutral power. Or you could have a system where you have to apply downward pressure to the joystick and if you take your hands off the vehicle’s emergency brakes come on. This way if something goes wrong just take your hands off and the vehicle brakes to a stand as quickly as possible. Much more intuitive than the stupid pedals plus steering wheel system which is a throwback to when there needed to be mechanical connections to everything. The steering wheel is especially dumb nowadays. It’s yet another thing for the driver to hit in an impact, and you have to make huge motions for relatively small turns. Back when I briefly had a learner’s permit, I found the steering wheel to be a very awkward means to direct the car compared to the slight handlebar movements I was used to making on a bike.

    You can supplement all of this with a railroad style alert where you have to keep hitting a button at random intervals if no control is moved (i.e. you’re cruising on a straight highway at constant speed). If you fail to hit the button, an increasingly shrill warning starts, and finally the emergency brakes kick on. This will at least prevent drivers from falling asleep.

  • Keith Williams

    Did the parents ask the NYPD to attend the meeting? If so, did the NYPD give a reason for declining?

  • ausserirdischesindgesund

    Was the speed of the motorist below 20 mph while driving or at the time of hitting the curb? If it was while hitting the curb, the car was probably faster before.

  • Joe R.

    Actually, there is one street improvement which would prevent these types of things-namely bollards. Bollards should be used liberally in any area heavy with pedestrians, especially children. We may lack the societal will to better train drivers so things like this don’t happen, or to revoke their licenses when they do, but installing bollards should be possible even in today’s climate. It’s sad it has to come to this where you literally need to armor-plate sidewalks but I’m not seeing any viable alternatives. These sidewalk-jumping incidents are far too commonplace to continue to not take any action.

  • Anonymous

    Is the Collision Investigation squad even working this case? In the past, only a fatality would trigger an investigation, but maybe nothing has happened b/c someone didn’t die until a few days later.

  • carma

    it doesnt take more than 5 mph to go over a small curb.

  • carma

    ive been driving stick shift since i got my license 19 years ago. driving stick requires so much attention that it really does become second nature in paying attention.

    think about it. there is no limb that is allowed to be free driving a stick shift. i know many folks have no clue these days, but there are THREE pedals that are required to operate a stick shift. plus the use of both hands to steer and move, limiting the ability to use any kind of cell phone, texting device.

    i would love for automatic transmissions to be banned. or at least limited to ultra luxury cars. this way, it forces the mass to learn stick shift and reduce the distractions. may even keep many drivers from driving period. although the reality is, stick shifts are being phased out.

  • Joe R.

    It’s a given that cars are eventually headed towards electrification and a one-speed transmission. Even if we outlawed automatic transmissions, there’s no analog for a stick shift in an EV. That said, there are all kinds of interlocks we could use to ensure the car doesn’t continue to move if something happens. We could for example require the left foot to depress a pedal all the time or the brakes stay on. We can and should use GPS to limit the acceleration rates of vehicles on urban streets. Arguably, this would never have happened if the vehicle had been limited to a sane acceleration rate of 2 or 3 mph per second. Those kids might have had time to jump out of the way. Or better yet, the driver would have had more time to stop the vehicle before it ran onto the sidewalk. Today’s vehicles accelerate as fast as race cars did 25 years ago, and yet drivers don’t possess the requisite training to deal with it. That’s why we need to limit acceleration rates, at least on urban streets. I’d prefer a maximum power-to-weight ratio of something like 40 HP per ton even more but the automakers will cry foul and say that will hurt car sales.

  • A. Scott Falk

    There was a full-on fence/barrier between the street and the sidewalk where a cab driver caused Sian Green to lose her leg last month. It didn’t stop the taxi from making it on the curb. That’s a serious lesson to me about how design isn’t enough without enforcement and a change in the culture.

  • RReiter

    You are correct — these accidents (curb overs, with pedal error as a cited cause) are far more common than people realize. A recent study indicated 50 to 60 building strikes per day nationally. Bollards are the best option in certain high risk areas.

  • ausserirdischesindgesund

    Are curbs lower in the USA than in europe? When pedestrians are killed in traffic around here, it is when they are crossing the street most of the time.

  • Kevin Love

    Fences are bad because they trap people when a car driver is heading right at them. Bollards are much better.

  • Kevin Love

    Or, better yet, how about schools simply ban students from arriving by car by implementing and enforcing No Stopping zones near schools during school hours. This is New York City. Nobody should be going to school by car.

    See, for example, how this was done in the city of Groningen:

    http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2009/11/stopping-ban-by-schools.html

  • Daniel Winks

    I’m pretty sure our average curb is a bit higher, especially in cities, where many European streets have curbs that are an inch or two high, or no curb at all. There’s a couple of reasons why pedestrians don’t get killed on sidewalks in EU, and it’s probably a combination of stricter liability, better driver education, and a much MUCH lower speed limit in urban areas. Also, cars here tend to be much larger, which is needed because our drivers are much ‘larger’, and our vehicles tend to have much higher acceleration combined with much worse handling.

  • Daniel Winks

    A fence is much less able to withstand an impact with a car than a steel bollard, sunk a few feet into the ground is. It’s trivial to determine the size and depth a bollard needs buried to in order to withstand a car impact, and engineer them to withstand an average car at 50% over the posted speed limit. Plus, with any luck, not only would they make things much safer for pedestrians, but hitting such a narrow, immovable object tends to be rather ‘bad’ for the murderous motorist. Maybe if there were a few solid bollards in the way, that cab driver would be the one with the missing leg and not Ms. Green. Basically the whole “put a spike on the steering column if you want safer cars” paradigm.

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