Girl’s Death Renews Call For Safe Streets Around Schools As Kids Start In-Person Learning

Thanks to cars, children in New York are never really safe. And that is the mayor's fault, advocates say. File photo: Bess Adler
Thanks to cars, children in New York are never really safe. And that is the mayor's fault, advocates say. File photo: Bess Adler

The mayor has failed to keep school kids safe as they return to public schools this week amid an epidemic of speeding and reckless driving, advocates bellowed on Tuesday, one day after a 7-year-old girl was killed by an armored truck driver — a chilling reminder of the dangers children face every day.

“There’s been so much focus on getting kids back into the classrooms … but when we see tragedies like what happened yesterday, you have to wonder if safe streets around schools is even on the mayor’s radar at all,” said Transportation Alternatives spokesman Joe Cutrufo, whose first-grader is back in a classroom today for the first time since March. “We’ve figured out how to repurpose space on the street for restaurants. Let’s figure out how to repurpose space on the street for kids, too.”

The comments came in the wake of Monday’s death of little Sama Ali, who was crushed by the driver of a Garda truck as she rode her scooter inside the crosswalk on Bay 23rd Street near Bath Avenue in Bath Beach. The Florida-based armored truck company has a history of negligence on the road that’s led to a spate of fatal crashes around the country, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

A law enforcement source told Streetsblog that the driver was heading straight through the Bay 23rd crosswalk when he struck Sama, before making a left turn onto Bath Avenue. But cops already attempted to absolve the driver by telling the Daily News that the 40-year-old motorist “didn’t see the little girl as she crossed.”

The intersection — right next to PS 200, an elementary school, and Benson Playground — is notorious for double-parked cars, which obstruct drivers’ views. The street is also just one block from the 62nd Precinct station house, where cops are known to park illegally with impunity, including on sidewalks, in crosswalks and bike lanes.

But just hours following Sama’s death, one local wrote on Twitter that the intersection was clear of double-parked cop cars for the first time in years.

An Assistant District Attorney with the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office responded to the scene, and the office’s new Street Safety Bureau, which was created in July, is assisting the NYPD’s investigation, a spokesman for the DA said. For now, the killer driver remains uncharged, even for low-level summonses for failure to exercise due care or failure to yield.

Sama’s death renews calls for the city to protect kids walking to and from school, especially since earlier this summer, Mayor de Blasio told parents to drive their kids to school, while fully recognizing that that would mean exposing school-bound kids to even more road carnage. The city’s School Reopening plan released in July recommended that families “help reduce the number of students in need of busing by either transporting their children to school on their own, walking, or biking.”

But with the rise of speeding on city streets, and the city’s failure to build out a safe, protected bike lane network, parents don’t want to send their kids out into that killing field anymore.

“Impl[ying] that more families should drive to school [is] a non-solution for a city where most households (including mine) don’t own cars,” parent and journalist Kendra Hurley wrote in an op-ed in the Daily News on Sept. 29. “Increased congestion and pollution are among the last things we could hope for during this time. … If schools and parents can pave the path for outdoor classrooms in a matter of weeks, we should surely be able to help create safer, more convenient options for getting to school.”

Even before COVID-19, and the uncertainty over whether kids would have a seat on the school bus this year began, de Blasio refused to ban cars in front of elementary schools — a basic safety initiative used abroad that saves lives — or provide really any other protections to keep kids safe from reckless drivers near schools.

Last year, after six children under the age of 11 were fatally struck by drivers in New York City, Hizzoner chalked up his excuse to the parents who, he claimed, need to rely on their private automobiles to take their kids to school.

“We do not have on the agenda right now — there’s a whole lot of parents in this town who need to drop their kids off or pick up their kids from school so I do not believe a car ban is the way to do things,” de Blasio told Streetsblog in January.

And School Chancellor Richard Carranza famously told Streetsblog last year that he has never brought up the issue of safe routes to schools with the mayor.

“We have 1,300 school buildings, 1,800 schools, so it’s more of a logistical concern that is outside my purview,” he said. When Streetsblog followed up, he added, “We [he and the mayor] talk curriculum and instruction. Never schools and streets.”

Garda has a history of safety problems on its own — drivers for the truck company, which has 233 trucks and 80 drivers, have killed at least 19 people since 2008, including three in just the last year, the Tampa Bay Times’s found.

A review of seven of the company’s New York-only plates listed on the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration show its drivers have racked up a total of 358 violations since 2017, including 11 red light tickets and 13 speeding tickets, according to How’s My Driving. And its drivers have racked up a slew of violations for unsafe driving and vehicle maintenance, including for “using a hand-held mobile telephone while operating,” “inoperative turn signal,” “failure to obey traffic control device,” and “speeding 15 or more miles per hour over the speed limit,” according to the FMCSA.

After initial publication of this story, a spokesman for the mayor declined to provide specifics on how the city plans to make streets safer around schools, other than touting its expansion of the speed camera program, and saying that it was “a horrifying tragedy and we mourn together as a city with Sama’s family.”

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Safety City: Where Cars Rule!

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As part of our back to school coverage, and in light of news from the past week, we thought it would be a good time to report on programs aimed at keeping kids safe on city streets. In addition to its ever-so-slowly evolving Safe Routes to School effort (three years in, improvements are soon expected […]