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For One Reckless Driving Survivor, “Life Looks a Lot Different Than Before”

Traffic fatality numbers usually get the headlines, but as a measure of how safe or dangerous it is to walk and bike, injuries are the more stable metric. Since 2003, according to state DMV data, an average of just under 14,000 people were injured by motorists while walking and biking in the city each year.

Lalita Rao. Photo: Brad Aaron
Lalita Rao, left, with her daughter Amita. Photo: Brad Aaron
Lalita Rao. Photo: Brad Aaron

Of the 38 pedestrian and cyclist injury crashes in NYC on an average day, few are investigated by NYPD. Not all pedestrian and cyclist injuries are classified as "serious," but traffic violence disrupts the lives of thousands of victims -- and their loved ones -- permanently. For every victim’s story the public sees or hears in the press, dozens go untold.

On May 28 of last year, Lalita Rao was walking home from Elmhurst Hospital, where she worked, when she was hit by a school bus driver making a turn. Lalita got up from the pavement and, believing she was not seriously hurt, was prepared to continue on her way. The bus driver, too, was about to leave the scene before a neighbor intervened. Responders arrived, and Lalita was taken back to Elmhurst, where she would undergo emergency brain surgery to save her life.

Lalita, who spoke at the Elmhurst pedestrian injury summit in December, suffered two brain hematomas. "The fact that I am alive is a miracle," she said. "I never thought my life would change totally like this."

Before the crash, Lalita ran every day -- she's run the New York marathon. She was a gardening enthusiast and loved to cook. She traveled a lot. After the crash, Lalita had to relearn how to walk, and how to use her arms and hands. She uses a walker now, and even so needs help keeping her balance. She suffered a seizure and may be on seizure medication the rest of her life.

Lalita can't cook anymore because of her unstable balance. She can no longer tend to her garden. "Instead of going to work," she said, "I go to rehab twice a day."

According to Lalita, the driver who hit her was talking on a cell phone. Because of this, and since there were children on the bus at the time of the crash, she said the bus driver lost his job. But he was not arrested for hitting Lalita, and she does not know if he got a traffic ticket. Lalita and her family members said they didn't hear much from NYPD after the crash.

"Because of a distracted driver," said Lalita, "I need help for everything. I went from being independent to total dependency."

Her insurance would not pay for a home aide, so Lalita's daughter moved from Atlanta to help take care of her. Her sister came to NYC from India. Her children are looking for a house so she can live with them.

Amazingly, Lalita considers herself luckier than many people who are injured by motorists. Insurance companies don't take injuries seriously, she said, but she at least has family to rely on. "What happens to those with brain injuries and no one to help them?" she said.

Lalita believes there should be stronger penalties for negligent drivers, especially those who drive distracted. "I had a very active lifestyle, despite being in my early sixties," she said. "Because of a careless driver, my life looks a lot different than before."

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