The Advocacy of Grief

This is the story of how a group of families who lost loved ones in traffic crashes fought to change the speed limit in New York City, and won

After her son was struck and killed by a cab driver, Dana Lerner became an activist to lower New York City’s speed limit. Her work has continued since that campaign succeeded, including (pictured) fighting to stop New York City’s speed camera program from being dismantled. Photo by Scott Heins

Families for Safe Streets is an advocacy organization made up of crash survivors and loved ones of people killed in traffic, founded in New York City. Six years ago today, with the help of activists and organizers from Transportation Alternatives, Families for Safe Streets convinced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign into law a bill that would reduce the New York City speed limit from 30 to 25 miles per hour. Backed by research that proves the fatality rate of crashes directly corresponds to vehicle speeds, their campaign was as sensible as it was arduous.

To commemorate the sixth anniversary of the campaign, and the official reduction of the speed limit in America’s most populous city to a safer pace, Transportation Alternatives sat down with Dana Lerner, a member of Families for Safe Streets, to hear what it was like to be a part of this historic activist undertaking.

How did you get involved with the campaign to lower New York City’s speed limit?

When Families for Safe Streets first launched, my son had just died after he was hit by a cab driver. When I joined the group, I started learning about the traffic violence epidemic, something that I didn’t know about until my son was killed. I learned how important a factor speed is when determining the likelihood that a pedestrian will survive a crash, and how even a change from 30 miles per hour to 25 miles per hour could save so many lives. The campaign was a matter of real diligence and consistency on everybody’s part. It took a willingness to commit to getting out there, going to Albany, getting in touch with the mayor and the governor. It was a collaborative effort taken on by a lot of people who were suffering greatly, all of us had been injured or had lost loved ones.

That sounds unimaginably difficult. What was it like to work on the campaign?

I was very much in the beginning of my grief, and it was overwhelming. I also felt very angry at what had happened. Getting involved with the campaign was a very good way to channel my anger and frustration. But I was really surprised by the resistance that we encountered — that there were people that didn’t want this. Isn’t a person’s life more important than getting somewhere fast? As pedestrians in the city, we’ve learned to defer to drivers. Despite the law, in practice pedestrians don’t have the right of way. If you cross the street and there’s a car coming, the driver will turn and they might not look. You accept it, on some level, until somebody you know dies. And then you realize that the car culture is killing people. I had no idea about the number of children who are killed in this city every year. Learning the statistics opened my eyes to this massive problem.

What were the biggest obstacles to your campaign to lower the speed limit in 2014?

The main obstacle was the way that car culture takes precedence. The laws, and the politicians who make those laws, favor drivers. This campaign, which one would imagine is a no-brainer, had some real opposition. It blew my mind, having a child who was killed, and then encountering people that care more about speeding and going fast than about children dying. The way we had to talk to people and convince people, the amount of pressure that we had to leverage, was revelatory.

How has the landscape shifted in the last six years?

One really positive development has been a renewed focus on creating more space for pedestrians. New York is a walking city, right? Walkability is really one of the great things about being a New Yorker, so seeing more pedestrian spaces has been great. Also, there has been some street redesign, although more is still needed. On the other hand, I’m discouraged that most district attorneys in our city seem to lack commitment to this issue and continue allowing drivers to evade responsibility for their actions. Our district attorneys are pivotal in helping to prosecute people who break the law. There needs to be punishment for a crime in order to make people more aware of why certain behaviors are harmful to society.

What next steps should the city take to make our streets safer?

Redesigning streets need to be a priority for New York City, especially in places where there are a lot of crashes. When my son died, the crash took place on a very busy corner. I didn’t realize the extent of what was happening, but people were being injured there left and right. Two days later, the Department of Transportation started to put in a median, trying to change the traffic flow. That is the kind of thing that should be happening all the time. It should not take a death for the City to act.

What are the main challenges for this movement today?

One challenge is that traffic violence is a silent epidemic. It has been going on forever. We don’t hear about traffic violence even though people are being killed every day. We also don’t seem to have Mayor de Blasio’s support anymore. Vision Zero seems to have become less important to him. He’s cut funding, he seems to have checked out, and that’s very disheartening. But what we do have is a very committed group of people who want to get things done. We are not going to throw in the towel. We will keep doing this for as long as we need to. Right now we are planning an event: World Day of Remembrance, which is coming up on November 15th.

Your activism was able to lower New York City’s speed limit. How did the campaign and your success inform your future advocacy?

It taught me that there is strength in numbers, and that a group of people with strength of conviction can make a change. Having this tragedy in common united us, and it has given us a really strong bond. I was so impressed by people’s determination and willingness to put their heart and soul into this cause. Now, I think to myself, “Wow, we can make things happen. We can do it.”

Transportation Alternatives is your advocate for bicycling, walking and public transit in New York City. We stand up for #VisionZero & #BikeNYC.