It's been two months since 12-year-old Sammy Cohen Eckstein was struck and killed on Prospect Park West when the driver of a van failed to see him chasing his soccer ball into the road. Now his grieving family is imploring the community, police and public officials to work together to lower the speed limit on neighborhood streets to 20 miles per hour, in hopes that doing so will prevent such a tragedy from befalling anyone else.
"Every time a driver gets behind the wheel of a multi-ton vehicle, they are taking on a tremendous responsibility—a responsibility that we fear many drivers no longer recognize," Sammy's mother, Amy Cohen, told a packed house at the Park Slope United Methodist Church last night. "We need to teach everyone to drive like other people’s lives depend on it."
More than a dozen children have been killed by drivers on city streets this year, and 2012 saw a spike in pedestrian deaths after several years of decreases. Holding drivers accountable for crashes is one piece of the puzzle, supporters say, but lowering speed limits and making the streets more inhabitable for pedestrians and cyclists is the only way to ensure that such deaths and injuries abate for good.
A coalition of Park Slope neighborhood organizations have banded together in favor of a movement called Vision Zero, a concept initially developed in Sweden—and endorsed by Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio— that asserts that all traffic injuries are preventable, and strives to prioritize safety over speed. In de Blasio's terms, this entails improving at least 50 dangerous corridors and intersections each year, quadrupling the number of 20 mph zones across the city over the next four years, ramping up enforcement against dangerous behavior—particularly speeding and failing to yield to pedestrians, and empowering the city to take control of traffic cameras away from Albany.
But one of the most fundamental components of Vision Zero is recognizing that mistakes—whether on the part of drivers, pedestrians or cyclists—will always happen, and that the key to safer streets is implementing a system that acknowledges that.
"Pedestrians and cyclists do occasionally make mistakes, but they should not have to pay for that with their own lives," said Gary Eckstein, who said the driver who killed his son admitted that he saw the ball rolling in the street, as well as other cars stopped, and continued to hit the gas anyway.
Councilman David Greenfield recently ratcheted down a bill seeking to lower the speed limit to 20 mph on neighborhood streets, citing opposition from Albany and settling instead on 25 mph on one-lane, one-way streets.
"New York State micromanages New York City's traffic regulations," Greenfield told WNYC. "As a result, despite the fact that we would like to lower it to 20 miles per hour, we don't have the ability to do that."
Despite setbacks, the revised bill is expected to pass by the end of the year. More importantly, supporters hope to use the bill to leverage increased home rule, giving the city more authority to dictate its own traffic regulations.
"Together we need to press to make our streets safer and more forgiving," Eckstein said. "Where there is political will and pressure from voters, change happens."