Nearly two years ago, this time of year, three kids were killed in traffic in a two mile radius around Jackson Heights, Queens. Miguel Torres, Luis Bravo, and Jahair Figueroa were lost not only to their friends and loved ones, but they were taken from our community- their schools and social groups. Neighbors lit candles on dirty intersections and elected officials joined in vigils and pledged change.
Roughly two months after that, another bunch of children were killed in traffic violence. Imagine those happy faces at school arrival time, backpacks dangling, bright colors wagging towards another school day. Lift any three of them up and out of the picture.
That’s basically how traffic violence strikes our children. Any time, any place. Sidewalk, restaurant, crosswalk- there isn’t a place a kid can feel protected. I used to say that kids can’t feel protected ‘on our streets’ but children are killed on our sidewalks by reckless drivers at a rate that should have us all stopped in our tracks.
2013 marked the beginning of a deadly time for children in northern Queens, as the borough was also rocked by the deaths of Drudak Tenzin, Allison Liao, and Noshat Nahian by year’s end. Imagine a kid, eagerly heading to school, with a Christmas gift in his hand for his teacher; now lift him up and displace him somewhere. Noshat Nahian.
Outside of Queens, Sammy Cohen Eckstein, 12, Lucian Meriweather, 9, and Ariel Russo, 4, were also killed in traffic during 2013, and January 2014 began with the devastating death of Cooper Stock, whose sister said at his funeral, “I believe you were put on this earth to help people.”
That’s 11 kids. All of them honored, loved, and stopped in time. There were other child fatalities throughout NYC. In the years previous, 2003–2012, there were 188.
In January 2014, Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced the Vision Zero initiative to reduce traffic injuries and fatalities and mandated four agencies to meet this goal: The Department of Transportation, The Taxi & Limousine Commission, the NYPD, and the Department of Health.
In the summer of 2015, Ervi Secundino, 12, was killed in Harlem, right outside Frederick Douglass Academy, where he was in the sixth grade.
According to the NYC Department of Health, motor vehicle injuries are the leading cause of injury death for children in the city. And, over 71% of children killed were pedestrians. There’s no safety on the sidewalk. There are no crash-test dummies, no research and development that pasengers in a vehicle have. A child pedestrian is helpless against the 1,500 pounds of metal of a car, even at a speed of 25 mph. There is just a body and a crush of often unsuspected impact. Then there are witness accounts, family statements, and vows from elected officials for a change, amidst the uncertainty of whether a driver will be charged with a crime. More often than not, they aren’t.
2014 ended with the death of eight-year-old Rylee Ramos, 8, who was killed by a driver on the sidewalk outside P.S. 307 in the Bronx. Ten people were hurt by this driver, four went to the hospital, and Rylee was killed. Despite a Daily News report that stated driver Sonia Rodriguez hit a chain-link fence, a wrought-iron gate, and a parked vehicle before pinning little Rylee to a pole, the driver wasn’t charged, not even with the $50- $100 summons for failure to exercise due care.
Writing Vision Zero on the Chalkboard- the case for a schools initiative
“That’s a no-brainer.” says Stephen Melnick, a Forest Hills, Queens resident. “With one million students, Vision Zero and the Department of Education can reach a potential 2–3 million residents through its classrooms”.
Empowering children and educating them is the mandate of the DOE. Since the appointment of Chancellor Carmen Farina, there has been a broader focus on the whole school environment, including parents as partners in urban education. The new focus includes “community schools”. They serve to empower entire families with resources outside education, including health, job training, nutrition, and community partnerships.
Sadly, poverty, which challenges a childs ability to thrive, also affect a childs risk of traffic violence. According to the April 2015 Department of Health Vital Signs report:
The intentional injury death rate among children from high and very high poverty neighborhoods was more than four times the rate among children from low-poverty neighborhoods.
Since the education component of Vision Zero has failed to change dangerous behaviors of drivers, pedestrians and cyclists, the DOE could step in with lessons and outreach that can make families aware of driving dangers such as aggressive driving, speeding, and distractions as well as pedestrian dangers of crossing against the traffic light at an intersection or crossing midblock, such as emerging from between parked cars, which accounted for 61% or 19 of the children killed between 2009 and 2011.
Here are some of the ways that existing Vision Zero partners can benefit from a Department of Education Vision Zero Czar.
The NYPD is in charge of school crossing guards. Yet, as it stands, there is no policy on informing the public where the guards are located. Knowing where the crossing guards are could help parents guide their children on the safest routes to school. An organizer for Local 372, the crossing guard union, was unable to provide that information and by union law, is not authorized to speak publicly. “While most members have an assigned post, the NYPD determines how long they can work and where to be positioned” she said, “they also can change their location at any time”.
The NYPD could make injury and collision data available in school reports to the principals and PTA’s, as well as ensure that the school safety plan includes information on safe school arrival and dismissal policies for caregivers and students.
The Department of Transportation
The Department of transportation visits over 600 schools a year and has safety programs and curricula for all ages. They even have safety presentations in multiple languages that they can give to parent communities at the schools. Yet, educators are often unaware of these services, and at least two-thirds of schools receive no safety education.
The DOT has safe routes to schools programs, which entail traffic safety studies and improvements to the physical street design, but there is a disconnect, and often the school community isn’t aware that these studies have been done, or of the timelines for completion. DOT safety redesigns often need the approval of the local community board, and if schools were aware of the need for advocacy, they would be able to participate.
Thirdly, the DOT is the agency in charge of the speed camera program around schools. After intense advocacy for Families for Safe Streets, the NYS Legislature approved 140 cameras for use around school zones, during school hours only. Though it was a great success of advocacy, NYC has over 1,800 public schools that do not have access to cameras. With the addition of private schools, there are about 2,500 schools in the city. A Vision Zero Cordinator could keep track of where the cameras are, and help facilitate requests for them at individual schools.
The Department of Health
According to the city’s official webpage, Vision Zero initiatives for the department of health included surveillance of traffic-related hospitalizations, engaging community health partners in Vision Zero goals, and promoting research on multi-modal transportation (cars, bikes, pedestrians) in the city. Its second year goals include creating new partnerships with schools and priority neighborhoods.
A 2012 report titled, “Getting to School” was a project of the District Public Health offices and surveyed three areas, North-Central Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx. It revealed that over 60% of school children walk to school and surveyed students on their safety concerns.
These studies should be done with wider participation of the Department of Education, and then merge them with existing mandates for more exercise and phsyical education that are children are desperate for.
The Department of Education Vision Zero Coordinator
Sample job responsibilities:
Ensure that mandatory school safety plans include information on safe routes to schools and best practices for care givers who drive children to school.
- Have a contact at the Office of Safety and Youth Development to address issues of traffic safety that go unreported by the NYPD. This important contact information should available to parents and caregivers.
- Incorporate traffic collisions and injury as a part of the school environment under the command of the NYPD School Safety Division.
- Institute language in the District Wide Parent Guide to School Safety to address traffic safety.
- Ensure that traffic safety is included in Chancellors Regulation A-414 that addresses individual school mandatory safety meetings. (annually and monthly)
Create a channel of information from agencies to DOE Adminsitrators and Parent Organizations
Gather news updates, neighborhood data and spotlight traffic safety at individual schools to share with and unify educators.
- Create a resource for administrators and school communities to share best practices, school policies and highlight actions that students have been involved with around traffic safety.
- Organize resources such as grants from agencies, non-profits and elected officials that can help individual schools connect with partners to improve their built environment.
- Provide District Family Advocates tools and resources to respond to parent queries about traffic safety around their schools.
Develope a master plan for traffic safety programming
- Work with Department of Transportation office of Safety Education to ensure that individual schools receive safety education and relevent curriculum which DOT has created.
- Ensure that parent groups have been addressed either in assembly or by mail of standards and practices at individual schools, to end an atmosphere of aggression at school arrival and dismissal. Create an overall recommendation from the Vision Zero Coordinator which will address respect for school crossing guards, and an abidance of traffic laws around schools.
Facilitate clear channels of communication with NYPD
- Create a city-wide map of school crossing guard locations and have schools direct children on routes that include crossing guards.
- Have a dedicated NYPD coordinator to work with school communities regarding traffic issues at their schools.
- Create a city wide map detailing collision records within 15 blocks of a school, to be used as a tool for children and caregivers for advocacy and safe route recommendations.
A meeting of all partner organizations should be convened to discuss this new role, and all the essential elements that are not included here.
Nine children have been killed in motor vehicle collisions this year. Nyanna Aquil, 10, was killed on a Bronx sidewalk on Halloween. Ethan Villavicencio, 7, was killed while he ate ice cream at a restaurant. Tierre Clark, 5, was killed as she waited at a bus stop with her mom.
None of these kids would have been served by more safety education in schools. But each of them, school aged, left behind angry and frustrated classmates who have to live without them. To ignore this loss where their peers feel it most, is blatently wrong.
There are over 21,000 people injured in traffic violence each year in New York City, but nothing done so far has made it resonate with all of us.
We have to honor those lost, and severely injured in traffic and integrate our approaches to the key elements of Vision Zero…enforcement, engineering and education. We haven’t done enough until we dig into that last bastion of diversity and class our city has. Our schools.