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Hit-And-Run Driver Kills 4-Year-Old in Front of Bensonhurst School

File photo: Dave Colon

Updated | One child is dead and another was seriously injured after a driver slammed into them before fleeing the crash site near two schools in Bensonhurst on Monday morning — the latest crash to highlight the lack of safe, car-free routes to schools for hundreds of thousands of city kids.

According to the NYPD, at around 9:15 a.m., the driver of a van hit 4-year-old Yoshi Balaban and a 6-year-old on 67th Street between 20th and 21st avenues. Both children were taken to Maimonides Medical Center, where Balaban died. The other child remains in critical condition.

A police spokesperson said that the driver of the van later returned, and that the crash remains under investigation. An NYPD spokesperson later said that the driver was not arrested, but that charges against him were pending.

There are two schools in the area of the hit-and-run. The entrance to P.S. 205 Clarion School is on 20th Avenue between 67th and 68th streets, and Yeshiva Ketane of Bensonhurst is in the middle of the block. Between 2018 and 2020, there were 39 crashes on the blocks surrounding the schools, that injured six pedestrians, two cyclists and two motorists.

The latest fatal crash in front of a school is a reminder that the city has never considered the idea of turning streets in front of elementary schools into car-free zones. In 2019, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza admitted that he's never spoken to Mayor de Blasio about schools and streets, much less banning cars from in front of schools. New York would hardly by the first city to institute this policy, as journalist and former London resident noted that cities in the United Kingdom have "launched dozens of School Streets" that restrict cars and everything has worked out fine with them.

But many advocates see car-free zones as a safety imperative. In 2019, at least six kids under the age of 10 were killed by drivers. That number appears to have dropped to five school-age kids in 2020, but most likely because virtually all city school children were no longer regularly going to their buildings every day.

"My heart aches for these children’s families and their community," said Families for Safe Streets Co-Founder Amy Cohen. "Nobody should fear death on our streets, especially children on their way to school. The time is now for Mayor de Blasio to turn talk into action, learn from past crashes, and make life saving changes to our streets that will prevent more tragedies across the five boroughs."

Other advocates pointed to this and other deaths to start the year as a worrying trend coming out of last year's rise in traffic deaths.

"Four days into 2021 and drivers have killed four New Yorkers on our streets, including one child," said Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Danny Harris. "Three are dead in fatal hit-and-run crashes. Two children are injured. Traffic fatalities rose last year, and this deadly trend seems to only be getting worse as Mayor de Blasio enters his final year in office."

Indeed, there was plenty of carnage last year.

In late February, an unlicensed driver hit and killed 7-year-old Payson Lott at an intersection just 100 feet from Thomas Jefferson High School in East New York. A child was killed by a driver in Jamaica in October, and the killing of a young girl in Bensonhurst in September briefly renewed the fight for safe routes, though the mayor's office did not say whether de Blasio was reconsidering establishing car-free school zones.

"The mayor’s office has been in touch with this family’s faith leaders, and we’ll continue doing everything to can to support them through this unthinkable tragedy," said de Blasio spokesperson Mitch Schwartz. "We mourn with the victim’s family together as a city, and we wish them peace and strength."

Other elected officials also shied away from taking a stance on car-free school zones. City Council Member Mark Treyger, who represents the district where the crash took place, also drew a connection to last year's rise in traffic deaths. Treyger did not comment on the idea of creating car-free zones in front of schools, but said he was "trying to understand" what could have prevented today's crash.

"This senseless death is sadly not unique in our city, and comes on the heels of one of the deadliest years of traffic violence in recent memory," said Treyger. "I have been in contact with the 62nd Precinct and with Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez’s office to learn more about the details of the crash, and try to understand what measures could have been taken to prevent this tragedy and others like it from occurring. My thoughts are with the families of the children and this school community."

State Senator Andrew Gounardes suggested his proposed bill on vehicle safety ratings for people outside of cars and trucks could have an impact on how people bring kids to school in the future.

"With a tragedy like this one, all options need to be on the table," said Gounardes. "In addition to passing the school zone speed camera expansion, I have introduced a comprehensive package of street safety bills designed to end the culture of reckless driving and introduce consequences when a driver kills or seriously injures a fellow New Yorker. That includes rating the safety of vehicles based on how dangerous they are not just to the driver but those outside the vehicle to reduce the use of large cars on city streets like this one."

This story was updated at 10 p.m. to reflect additional information provided by the NYPD, including the victim's name.

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