Pedestrian safety advocate turns tragedy into action

Pedestrian safety advocate turns tragedy into action
Jivanna and Tristan Bennaiem pose with local officials who attended the first Safe Streets 5K and Fun Run in memory of Oren Bennaiem. (Photo by Jessica Parks)

Jivanna Bennaiem turned tragedy into action by coordinating the first Safe Streets 5K and Fun Run in Great Neck, held on Sunday.

Bennaiem’s husband, Oren Bennaiem, was struck by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the intersection of South Middle Neck Road and Barstow Road on Sept. 30, 2016, and he died six days later.

While coping with her loss, Bennaiem channeled her energy into advocating for safer roadways and, with the help of North Shore Action and Long Island Families for Safe Streets, organized the event at Grace Avenue Park.

Beth Friedmann of North Shore Action was mobilized after reading Bennaiem’s story and speaking with her. As a Great Neck resident and a commuter who walks to the train every day, she was able to relate to the cause because she’s had “way too many close calls.”

She is hoping this can be the beginning of “a public education campaign focusing on safe streets and distracted driving.”

Attendees and local officials took a safety pledge to refrain from using their phones and other distractions when behind the wheel.

Town of North Hempstead Supervisor Judi Bosworth applauded Bennaiem for “harnessing her energy into making a difference in countless lives.”

She admits that she is guilty of checking her phone when sitting at a red light, but said she will quit the habit after hearing what Bennaiem had to say.

A number of local businesses lent a hand, including the UPS Store, More than Paper Inc., Northshore Prosthodontics Associates, and Equinox and Planet Fitness, who supplied bagels and water for the event.

One hundred sixty-two people registered for the race, which went through the villages of Great Neck Plaza, Kensington and Great Neck.

Seth Kurpiel, a Great Neck resident, was the first-place male finisher with a time of 20 minutes,17.17 seconds.  

He participated because “safe streets are a benefit to everyone” and he hopes his children will feel comfortable riding their bikes in the village.

The top female finisher was 16-year-old Netta Mualem, who completed the course in 23 minutes, 3.15 seconds.

Frank Cilluffo, a commissioner for the Great Neck Park District, volunteered at the event.

Bennaiem’s son, Tristan Bennaiem, used to play on his hockey team and Cilluffo sprang into action motivated by the kind-hearted person he had known Oren Bennaiem to be.

“He was a supporter of life,” he said. “He had such a great appreciation for everything he had.”

Vision Long Island, a nonprofit group focusing on smart growth for Long Island communities, identified Middle Neck Road as one of the most dangerous roads in Nassau County for pedestrians.

On Sept. 28, almost two years after the hit and run and nine days before the 5K event, another pedestrian was struck when crossing Middle Neck Road near Station Plaza.

The 71-year-old man is in serious condition.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued a grant in June for $330,000 to extend the curbs at the intersection of Barstow Road and South Middle Neck Road.

County Legislator Ellen Birnbaum encouraged residents to contact her office if they notice any signs or crosswalks that can be installed or relocated to make streets safer for all users.

Bosworth proclaimed Sunday a day of special recognition in North Hempstead for the 5K Safe Streets and Fun Run.

“May next year be even more successful,” she said.

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