Pedestrians on the move (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)
Blake Gary was 22 for only seven days.
His room was still filled with birthday streamers and balloons when he left to celebrate with friends. Later that night, he was killed in a car crash, the blue Toyota Corolla twisted around a fire hydrant, flipped upside down, and snapped in two in Hollis, Queens.
At the morgue at Queens County Hospital, we were forced to identify Blake, our family’s oldest child and only son, from just a picture. It’s been almost six years, and we’re still waiting for his belongings — his clothes, shoes, and bag from that night, trapped somewhere in the bureaucracy.
The crash unstitched a community and unraveled a family, but it wasn’t an accident: the street is steep, and consistently and routinely dangerous. Crashes happen here, and across the five boroughs, regularly — someone is killed in a crash on New York City streets every 33 hours. Four years before Blake’s crash, 12-year-old Sammy Cohen Eckstein was killed by a speeding driver on a similarly deadly street. Sammy was just two months shy of his birthday, preparing for his Bar Mitzvah and studying for high school entrance exams – until October 8, 2013.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can design and build streets and intersections that strengthen our communities — and we can start by passing Sammy’s Law, named for Cohen Eckstein, allowing New York City to control its own speed limits.
Right now, Albany lawmakers decide how fast New York City drivers can travel on New York City roads. New Yorkers have no control over our own speed limits through our local government, even on roads we know are dangerous.
The status quo is deadly. Across the five boroughs, speeding is a major factor in four out of every five crashes that kill people in cars — 30% of pedestrians struck by motor vehicles at an impact speed of 25 MPH will sustain serious injury, and about 12% will die. Even just slightly lower speeds can make a big difference: a pedestrian is four times more likely to be killed by a car going 30 MPH than one traveling 25 MPH.
Fortunately, safer speeds work. Slowing from 30 to 25 MPH reduces the chance of a fatal crash by 78%, and lowering speeds from 25 to 20 MPH has led to a 14% reduction in injurious crashes and a 31% reduction in injuries for both drivers and passengers. Lower speed limits in New York City have already contributed to a 36% decline in pedestrians killed.
New Yorkers support local control for city speed limits, and 72% of New Yorkers believe the City, not Albany, should have the authority to set its own speed limits. The majority supports slower, safer speeds — 68% of voters said they would support seeing the speed limit lowered from 25 to 20 MPH on residential streets near their homes.
We can make this a reality — and all eyes are on Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and his colleagues to make it happen. Both Governor Hochul and the State Senate have shown leadership on this, and included legislation for lower speed limits in their proposed budgets, but we need Albany to step up as a whole and include this critical bill in the final state budget — which is being negotiated right now and due by or around the April 1 start of the new state fiscal year.
Safer speeds could have saved Blake’s and Sammy’s lives – but if you drive by 100th Avenue near 205th Place in Queens, you’d never know. We can’t put anything down to keep Blake’s memory alive; the crash happened on someone else’s private property, so there’s no sign, no cross, no memorial, nothing tangible to remind the world Blake Gary existed. The street itself remains deadly — bent and steep, without even a speed bump, a lower speed limit, or a speed safety camera.
It’s said often because it’s true: losing a child is the worst thing that can happen to a parent. The darkness and the suffocating grief is crushing and all-encompassing; it feels impossible to breathe, eat, sleep, survive. Slowly, we began to focus on remembering Blake and Sammy. We joined Families for Safe Streets support groups, where we built lanterns and jewelry boxes and fridge magnets covered in our children’s likeness, their favorite color, their memory. It was here where we met each other and other parents with pain shaped like ours, and we started to demand better, together.
Our children’s deaths were preventable. We can stop this compounding pain, and instead protect other families from losing their children in the same way. The State Assembly must join the State Senate and the Governor in honoring our children by passing Sammy’s Law and allowing our city to control its own speed limits.
Denyze Gary and Amy Cohen are two members of Families for Safe Streets and mothers who lost their children to traffic violence. On Twitter @NYC_SafeStreets.