“This is our city,” Cohen told the massive crowd at the July 14 rally in Union Square. “This is happening on our streets. And it is our collective responsibility to come together and eliminate so much unnecessary and preventable suffering.”
Just two years ago, Cohen never would have envisioned herself as a safe streets advocate, let alone the leader of a group that has played a pivotal role in the progress of Vision Zero in the nation’s most iconic city.
But on October 8, 2013, the unthinkable happened. Her 12-year-old son, Sammy, was waiting for a friend to head to soccer practice when his ball bounced into the street — and he was killed by a Chevrolet van. For Cohen, Sammy’s death wasn’t just a crushing loss. It was a call to action. She knew Sammy wasn’t a victim of carelessness but a casualty of an inherently flawed transportation system.
When she borrowed a radar gun, she found that drivers on her street in Park Slope Brooklyn were consistently exceeding the speed limit of 30 miles an hour. The social worker started attending City Council committee meetings and vigils for others killed on NYC streets — and working with local advocacy group, Transportation Alternatives, to advance Vision Zero.
“I wasn’t involved in traffic safety efforts before Sammy was killed,” Cohen says. “I hadn’t even heard of Vision Zero, though it was a campaign platform for [Mayor Bill] de Blasio. But the most significant thing about Vision Zero as a construct is that it presumes crashes are not accidents. Instead, the Vision Zero paradigm operates under the presumption that crashes are preventable and that with a comprehensive approach, fatalities can be averted.”
For Transportation Alternatives, working with Cohen and other families shifted their paradigm, too. In 2014, Families for Safe Streets (FSS) was established as a group embedded in and aligned with TA’s campaign for Vision Zero, but led by those who had lost a loved one.
“From the traditional transportation or bike advocate’s perspective, it’s a real change in how we incorporate voices of victims,” says Caroline Samponaro, TA’s Deputy Director. “Rather than speaking on their behalf, we created a framework in which they can do that for themselves.”
“Really early on, when we met and decided to form this group, the families and TA were clear that we had a lot of technical experience and relationships, 501(c)3 status and [organizational] infrastructure — and none of the members of the group wanted to take on duplicating that,” Samponaro says. “They wanted to put every minute they spend fighting for safer streets into that actual fight. At TA, we really invested time and resources into creating a platform for them. Early on, I worked with them to develop a leadership structure with a steering committee voted on by the group. The steering committee meets regularly with me and they set priorities for the group. They really trust TA’s opinion but they definitely do make their own decisions and have their own voice.”
For those who have lost children or parents, spouses or friends, stepping into that advocacy space can be heartwrenching. In a sense, being an advocate asks that they relive the most traumatic moments in their lives over and over.
“None of us came to this work voluntarily,” Cohen says. “It’s not easy to speak out so soon after a loss. It’s hard just to get out of bed each day. Our group was successful because we started with individuals who had lost loved ones at different times — some recent and some less so. It created a very supportive environment, where those whose loved ones were lost more recently received support from those who were further along this painful journey. We’ve since decided to formalize the support and guidance aspect of our work, since it’s often the first thing someone needs after losing a loved one or suffering from a life-debilitating injury.”
“Sofia Russo, whose five-year-old daughter was killed several months before Sammy, recently sent the quote below to our listserv,” Cohen adds. “She captures well what most of us feel: I’m so grateful to know all of you. The work that we’re doing inspires me to keep putting one foot in front of the other every day, and to keep fighting for change in honor of Ariel and all of the loved ones we’ve lost to traffic violence.”
Through Families for Safe Streets, victims like Sammy and Sofia have, indeed, changed the conversation about safe streets. Since its formation, FSS has focused on policy changes that are central to Vision Zero, including reducing speeds and ensuring justice for victims of traffic violence.
“Our first effort focused on lowering the speed limit and getting speed cameras.” Cohen recalls. “Both require approval from the New York State Legislature, which was more of a challenge than I initially realized. It’s apparently not unusual that legislative change in Albany can take a decade. But, several factors came together to push through the change in a single legislative session. A key was the formation of our group. The Mayor’s Vision Zero agenda didn’t originally include lowering the speed limit, likely because he didn’t think it was politically possible. But, after we made it our key priority, the City joined with us and together we were able to get it passed.”
How has FSS tipped the scales? By showing in the grief-stricken faces of families the untenable human cost of our current transportation decisions.
“Our members provide a different perspective, a sense of urgency and a moral authority on the issue,” she explains. “It’s hard for an elected official to say ‘No’ to a change that will save lives when speaking to a parent who has paid the highest sacrifice because a driver didn’t want to be slightly inconvenienced. Like me, many of our members who went to Albany had children who would be alive if the speed limit had been lower. It’s hard for someone to argue that getting to one’s destination is worth the loss of life that comes with our reckless driving culture — when the person making the request is a parent who’s lost a child.”
The group also played a pivotal role in passing — and preserving — a new NYC law that makes it a criminal misdemeanor if a driver kills or seriously injures a pedestrian or cyclist with the right of way and is leading an already viral campaign to change our collective vocabulary by urging individuals and officials to refer to incidents as crashes not accidents.
“The [right-of-way] law builds upon the basic Vision Zero premise that crashes are preventable and that more careful driving is required if we’re going to save lives,” Cohen says. “Sadly, many people still think of these crashes as accidents and there has been some push back on the new law. We’ve had to fight to ensure that no driver is exempt from this new, minor measure of accountability. The goal of the law is to change the culture of driving on NYC streets — and it’s already working.”
While there’s still much work to be done, fatalities and injuries are down in New York City and, in a new report card released last month, Transportation Alternatives gave high marks to the Mayor, City Council and Department of Transportation.
But, as Families for Safe Streets have been so effective in emphasizing, Vision Zero isn’t about numbers. It’s about lives.
“We’re a year out from the speed limit change and a little boy was hit on the same street as Sammy Cohen,” TA’s Samponaro says. “But the driver was going slow enough that the little boy could walk away. That’s an incredible testament to the work of Amy and Gary [Sammy’s dad] and Tamar [Sammy’s sister]. And they’re just one of the families. There are dozens and dozens who have been so courageous in becoming part of the advocacy community.”
“As a community organizer, one of the basic principles is if you had the coalition you needed to win, you already would have won,” she adds. “So I think the big lesson for me has been not only [engaging] these voices of survivors and victims, but thinking about who else don’t we have in the conversation who can bring a reality check to our city and help us make better choices?”