The New Suburbanist: L.I. needs vision to limit pedestrian fatalities

Last month, I dialed 911 on Middle Neck Road.

During a morning and evening rush hour one day, stoplights and walk signals on Middle Neck road were malfunctioning.

In the morning, several people walking to the train station noticed the light was not turning red, traffic was not stopping and, after 10 minutes of waiting, there was no chance to get across the street.

That same afternoon, while walking home, the lights were still malfunctioning.

Some of us ran across the street because we had no other choice. We had to get home.

I saw one woman nearly get hit by a car.

When traffic did stop briefly, a few of us were halfway across the street when red lights abruptly changed to green again.

We scampered across. Horns honked. Pedestrians yelled.

Then I called the cops on the faulty traffic light. Now, it seems to be fixed.

This incident reminds me of the issues some of us started raising after 43-year-old Oren Bennaiem was struck and killed by a hit and run driver at that very intersection on Middle Neck road on Sept. 30, 2016.

“My husband died needlessly,” said Jivanna Bennaiem, the widow of Mr. Bennaiem, in an email exchange. “I want something to happen so it doesn’t feel so senseless.”

In February, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Nassau County Police Department, asking for records of accidents where a vehicle hit a pedestrian in the nine villages of Great Neck for the last five years.

The NCPD did send over a data set, which I crunched and learned that injuries to pedestrians have been trending downward (in the five villages that report data to NCPD).

In 2016, the department reported 26 injuries to dedestrians by vehicles in Great Neck, Great Neck Plaza, Thomaston, Saddle Rock and University Gardens, down 30 percent from a peak of 37 such injuries in 2014.

Nassau County reported seven fatalities to pedestrians in Great Neck between 2012-2017 (three in Great Neck, two in Great Neck Plaza, one in Thomaston and one in Saddle Rock).

We know another 22-year-old woman was hit on Middle Neck Road on June 19 at 8:10 a.m. and was in serious condition.

In the process of reporting this data, I made a phone call to the other villages with their own private police departments: Great Neck Estates, Kensington, Kings Point and Lake Success.

Astonishing to me was that every one of those villages said they would leave a message for a police officer, chief or someone to respond to my data request.

I never heard back from any of them.

That is fascinating when Kings Point’s police department is the highest paid in the state and nation according to the Empire Center for Public Policy.

The think tank reported that, as of August 2016, King’s Point’s 21 police officers received an average salary of $222,394.

Despite that pay rate, the department is unable to either track data and respond to citizen or journalist requests for such data?

And none of those four departments make such records or crime statistics available on their village web sites? Great Neck citizens should demand better transparency.

They deserve more for their money.

Assuming the data from Nassau County captures an accurate picture of death and injuries to pedestrians in Great Neck, should we be self-satisfied that pedestrian injuries have started to decline?

Jivanna Bennaiem points to the Vison Zero traffic safety program that started in Sweden in 1997.

It re-imagines the approach to road safety by starting with the statement “No loss of life is acceptable.”

The Swedes suggest that humans will make errors but a road system should not.

They incorporate the concept into how they design traffic and road systems, how they train drivers and educate the public.

After driving in Sweden this summer, I can attest their system is smart and safe. It works.

The Vision Zero concept has spread to dozens of cities in Europe and the United States, including New York City in 2014.

Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced the program after 732 pedestrians were fatally struck between 2011-2013 across NYC, Long Island and five counties north of Manhattan.

We do have a Vision Long Island office in Northport involved with this effort. But Nassau County police say Long Island is currently not part of Vision Zero.

For the legacy of Oren Bennaiem and other neighbors killed by cars while walking in their communities, we should not be satisfied with slight declines in accidents or fatalities.

Vision Zero is the just, ethical and human response.

Great Neck resident Paul Glader is a professor of journalism at The King’s College in New York City and will be a visiting professor at Columbia Journalism School in Spring of 2018.

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