Tears Flow as Council Ponders Speeding Bill

There was not a dry eye in the room Thursday morning as the parents and sister of a 12-year old boy killed by a van in Brooklyn testified in favor of a bill reducing speed limits in New York City's residential areas to 20 mph. The chair of the City Council's transportation committee, reporters, even the taxi owner lobbyist who'd come to testify against the bill -- couldn't stop crying. We were sobbing too.

12-year old Sammy Cohen Eckstein was crossing Prospect Park West at Third Street on October 8 at around 5 pm. "As best we understand it," his mother Amy Cohen testified before the Council transportation committee, "he crossed into the intersection from Prospect Park West, with the light in his favor, to get a soccer ball. While he had the light when he entered the intersection, it quickly changed and he slipped and was hit by a van approaching the intersection at full speed."

Sammy's death came just a month before his Bar Mitzvah. 

"Our family has suffered an unspeakable loss," Cohen said, her voice trembling and breaking. "Every day is filled with pain so deep we are not sure we can bear it. But the world too has suffered a great loss, for Sammy could have really made a difference. He would even have been an excellent Council member had he had the chance."

Sammy's death jolted the tight-knit Park Slope community. Almost a month later, there's still a memorial at the intersection and a second at his nearby middle school. Someone tied teddy bears to every lamppost along Prospect Park West.  

The bill at hand would reduce speeds in residential areas to 20 mph, as has been done in London, Paris, and Tokyo. But Eckstein and Cohen also decried the lack of enforcement.

"Just yesterday morning, Amy used a borrowed radar gun to clock the speed of vehicles traveling in front of our home on Prospect Park West where Sammy was killed," said Gary Eckstein, Sammy's father. "Although the bike lane and reduction to two lanes has slowed traffic somewhat (and you would think the large memorial to Sammy in the intersection would make drivers aware of the need to drive slowly), in a span of approximately 15 minutes, 25 vehicles -- many of them large commercial vehicles -- exceeded the 30 mph limit." 

Sammy's sister, Tamar, 14, somehow managed not to break down while reading a letter she'd written for her brother's funeral. "You made me so happy when you wrote me a letter from camp," she read. "Even though it was short and you didn't really say much."

No one, including us, could stop crying. (Andrea is a friend of the family.)

When Amy Cohen finished,  there were multiple sniffs and a smattering of applause. The chair of the committee, the Bronx's James Vacca, could barely compose himself.  "I -- I'm very upset by this," he struggled to get out. "I'm sorry." After a long shakily inhaled breath, he said: "You know, I'm a father. To hear your daughter talk is very moving, and both of you are very moving. You know, I'm here four years, and there's no greater commitment that I have than speeding, there's no greater feeling that I have when I hear something like this. So I know it's not really reassuring, because you've suffered this loss that's incredible. Unbearable. So I just want you to know that we're committed to do more. And I'm going to remember this day as long as I live. I can't say anything more than that."

But he was able to muster the words to make a promise: "The letter you gave concerning speeding on Prospect Park West and the speed limit violations. I will personally give that to (NYPD) Commissioner Kelly. And I will insist on enforcement. We can do at least that."

As of the end of September, there were 203 traffic fatalities in New York City -- just 39 fewer than the number of homicides in the same period.

Mayor Bloomberg and his Transportation Commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, have reduced vehicular deaths to their lowest levels since record-keeping began, but the NYPD's Ray Kelly has frequently been charged with lax enforcement, issuing far more tickets for things like tinted windows than for speeding.

"Death by traffic is the leading preventable cause of death for children under the age of 15," said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, who was also emotional throughout his testimony. Even before Sammy's death, Cohen and Eckstein had been members of the group.  

Even taxi lobbyist David Pollack, whose group opposes the bill, couldn't keep the quaver out of his voice  "Although we applaud the intent of the bill, the Committee for Taxi Safety believes the bill needs further review and discussion. This bill will not allow us to build on gains in traffic safety. It will instead create confusion for drivers on the road. The bill does not define with sufficient clarity what is a residential neighborhood. In addition, we're concerned the proposed bill would become another excuse for NYPD traffic enforcement officials and TLC enforcement agents to use fines to justify financial goals."

But at least one council member objected to his testimony: David Greenfield, who represents Boro Park, Brooklyn.

"You represent the Committee for Taxi Safety?" he asked Pollack. "What exactly does that mean? Taxi safety?"

Pollack replied: "It's the name of uh -- our association, we represent the owners, the agents, and the drivers."

But Greenfield interjected: "The name taxi safety -- does that relate to the mission of what you folks are doing, in terms of trying to engage in safe taxis, or is it just an industry name?"

Pollack responded "anything that's detrimental to our drivers, or our owners, we advocate for."

Ah, Greenfield said. "So you're not really focused on safety, you're focused on the perspective of the owner or driver, is that fair?"

That's fair, Pollack replied -- before Greenfield interjected again: "If you're a committee dedicated to safety, you know, lowering the speed limits would keep your drivers safer."

Pollack has raised over $21,000 for the presumptive mayor, Bill de Blasio.  But a de Blasio spokesman says he supports expanding the 20 mph speed limit to more residential areas, and that he supports more vigorous enforcement of traffic laws.  

This will almost certainly be an issue for the next mayor to sort out.