Tears Flow as Council Ponders Speeding Bill

Thursday, October 31, 2013 - 12:55 PM

Gary Eckstein, Tamar Cohen Eckstein, and Amy Cohen, testifying at a 10/31/13 City Council hearing (Kate Hinds)

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. 



Comments [13]

Natalie Burrows from Cobble Hill, Brooklyn

Much more needs to be done to protect all pedestrians. Bike laws must be enforced. They are responsible for many accidents that could be otherwise avoided. Cars must be prevented from parking in or obstructing crosswalks. In addition to enforcing speeding rules, this city must stop worrying about 32 oz bottles of soda and make adjustments that can be immediately enforced.

Nov. 27 2013 07:17 PM
HM from Woodside

We need to start with enforcement of current speed limits in the city, as well as traffic lights, stop signs, and the manner in which people make turns. I live on a street in western Queens that is a main thoroughfare from Queens Blvd to the BQE. The last two long blocks (completely residential) before the BQE entrance ramp (about 1/3 mile) has only one traffic light. Drivers routinely exceed the speed limit, by 10-15 mph, by my rough estimate, to get to the highway, often not slowing down for the changing traffic light, and running the red as a result. Drivers making the turn at the same light not only often don't yield to pedestrians, they cut the corner at a 45 degree angle, rather than pull out into the intersection before beginning their turn, putting them in direct risk of hitting crossing pedestrians. Not once in 6 years have I seen the police monitoring the intersection, or having pulled someone over. I'm sure every neighborhood has at least one location like this. There is not enough police accountability on this issue. Will the next commissioner address this? We can only hope.

Nov. 03 2013 12:29 AM
Irvin Dawid from California

Commenting on the absence of speeding tickets - this points to the need for speed cams. If other states and cities can do it, why not NY? See "Speed Cameras" on

Nov. 02 2013 07:01 PM
Craigs Cyst from Staten Island

Am I mistaken in believing that had this child correctly interpreted the crossing signals he would be alive?

Nov. 02 2013 06:07 PM

Plenty of people have pointed out the fatuous stupidity of Donald Matteson's comments, so I don't need to add much on most points. But one thing's gone unaddressed. I was looking the other day at how to get safely to and from a number of appointments and/or stores by bike in Park Slope and I realized that the great point about the PPW bike lane was that pretty much every street between Grand Army Plaza and 15th street opened onto it. Quite obviously, this would never be possible if the lane were in the park instead.

But then I'm assuming that he and his chums in Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes are indeed interested in bike lanes and in people's ability to get about by bike, which might well be an assumption too far.

Nov. 01 2013 03:13 PM
Eric F

Liberals have imposed a no new highways policy in NY for going on 50 years. Ideally, a rational Brooklyn transportation network would have some underground pocket roadways that would route through traffic away from residential blocks and parks. But you can't have that, because cars are bad. And so, this kid takes one for the team and eventually I suppose you'll pedestrianize the entire borough. But please don't pretend this a choice of going back to a 1920s transportation system or having on-street carnage. There should be limited access roads even in most precious Brooklyn.

Nov. 01 2013 02:41 PM

"One can just as easily make the argument that it is more dangerous as a result."

No, Mr. Matteson. That is patently false. Fact: Lower speeds correlate with lower accident rates. Fact: Accidents are down on Prospect Park West. And I use that road frequently on foot, on my bike, and in my car and I have absolutely no idea what congestion you are referring to. In fact, regardless of the mode I'm using, I find it much more pleasurable to use PPW. Yes, driving included.

Also, no one claims that traffic calming will eliminate these incidents completely. Sadly, terrible things will happen no matter what we do. But that in no way means we shouldn't do everything we can to reduce them. Using the death of this poor 12-year-old boy as a catalyst for getting your precious third lane for your personal car back is shameful and embarrassing. And I for one will not allow hollow and callous arguments like yours to stop us from reclaiming our streets and making everyone safer.

Nov. 01 2013 02:22 PM
Eric McClure from Park Slope

While scores of rational people in Park Slope are calling for a lower speed limit, better speed enforcement and additional traffic-calming measures on Prospect Park West in the wake of the tragic death of Sammy Cohen Eckstein, Donald Matteson seems to think this is his opening to call for the return of the days when vehicles averaged 37 MPH on PPW.

Nov. 01 2013 02:10 PM

I welcome Donald Matteson to read his theories on traffic engineering to the family of this poor boy, who at least had the courage to confront the city's leaders in person.

Nov. 01 2013 02:09 PM
PPW Reality from Park Slope

NBBL member Donald Matteson's version of Prospect Park West bears zero resemblance to its reality. Leave it to Donald and his bike-lane-suing comrades to try to exploit the death of a 12-year-old (who loved bicycling and whose parents, who are Don's neighbors, advocated for the PPW redesign) for their own abhorrent purposes.

Shame on him.

Nov. 01 2013 01:58 PM
Donald Matteson from Brooklyn

I have lived on Prospect Park West near Grand Army Plaza for 20 years, and am also a life-long bike rider who strongly supports the expansion of our city's cycling infrastructure. While no one will ever be able to say with certainly what caused the tragedy on Prospect Park last month that killed this young boy, one thing is for sure: since we lost a lane of traffic in the process of installing the new, two-way bike lane, though average speeds may have gone down (of course they have, when you average the new a.m. and p.m. rush hour crawl with the drivers still speeding in excess of the 30 mph limit when traffic actually moves), "traffic calming" seems to be a euphemism created by DOT for "congestion" as if it's a good thing simply because it slows the traffic down. But this doesn't mean the street is any safer. One can just as easily make the argument that it is more dangerous as a result. Prospect Park West has gone from 3 lanes of well-moving traffic to two, and when one factors in the regular double parking of commercial and city vehicles: Fresh Direct, UPS, FedEx, the handicap transports at #1 PPW and the school at 1st Street, Prospect Park West has one functioning lane and is a virtual parking lot every morning and afternoon with the attendant horn noise, fumes from idling motors, tempers and erratic manoeuvrings by frustrated drivers that did not exist prior to the installation of the two-way protected bike lane. And almost without exception, pedestrians are at greater risk crossing not only the street but the bike lanes despite the DOT's efforts with signage and islands. As Transportation Sam said, putting up a sign (in this case alerting bikers and pedestrians) doesn't do much to force people to be cautious or follow the rules. I am convinced, as are many of my neighbors, that Prospect Park West is a far less safe space since the new bike lanes were installed. Building cycling infrastructure is a good and necessary process, but the city administration and the DOT ought to be open to the real possibility that even so called 'experts' can make mistakes that lead to injury and even death when an idea, no matter how laudable, turns out to be flawed, as it is in this case. While I"m at it, I would like commend DOT for their work in making Grand Army Plaza a much less dangerous place to drive and walk with the changes completed last year. And the same goes for the elimination of parking on Union Street between 8th Avenue and Prospect Park which used to be backed up all the way to 6th Avenue in the afternoons. Flatbush Avenue is also a much faster trip now that left turns have been banned. Bravo. So why is it so hard for them to admit they have created a bad, even dangerous situation on the park with the new two-way protected bike lane? Put it in the park where is belongs and make everyone safer."

Nov. 01 2013 01:04 PM
Jacob from Brooklyn

It speaks volumes that no one from the NYPD even bothered to show up for this hearing.

Nov. 01 2013 10:17 AM
Angela from Brooklyn

I'm all for a reduced speed limit but how about enforcing the limits already in existence? If you want to see reckless drivers come to Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Drivers turn the corners at full speed it really is scary.

Oct. 31 2013 07:57 PM

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