Sunday, October 12, 2014

Step by Step: Moving Forward After the Death of Anna Hendren Schwalb

In the last two weeks, we lost two children. Today's post is dedicated to the memory of Anna Hendren Schwalb, and the next post is dedicated to the memory of Christian Lorinczy.

Anna was a kindergarten student at the Hebrew Day School, and a member of my synagogue, and a friend of many of my friends. She was killed tragically while crossing Geddes at dusk, and at first I thought of it as a very rare occurrence.

And pedestrian deaths are rare--but not that rare, I realized as my friend Danny said to me,
"That's just like what happened to Lauren's niece." And then I remembered. He was referring to the niece of my sister's friend Lauren. Maya Hirsch was four years old when she was killed while crossing a street in Chicago in 2006.

It is rare--but not that rare, I realized when my husband said to me,
"That's just like what happened to David and Sally's neighbors." He was referring to our college friend David, whose neighbor Samuel Cohen-Eckstein was killed on a road in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, shortly before his bar mitzvah last year, in the fall of 2013.

It is rare--but not that rare, I realized as I thought about Jimmy Amico's son Jarrid. Jimmy was a high school classmate of mine, and his ten-year old son Jarrid was killed by a van while he was riding a bicycle in my hometown of Rye, NY in 2006.

That's just the kids, and that's just the deaths. That doesn't count my friend Cara's close encounter with a car while she walked through a crosswalk (broken leg, but her daughter in the stroller was fine); or my friend Wendy's colleague, who was hit--and killed--by a bus. Or the Ann Arbor child who was recently hit by a car on the way to school--and luckily, escaped with scrapes.

When you start to think about it, you too may remember a friend, or a friend of a friend, whose child was killed by a car.

The obituaries called each of these "tragic accidents," and they are. As a person who spends my days thinking about public health, though, I know that these deaths are preventable. Preventable.

And I know I am not the only person who occasionally drives above the speed limit. Who has gotten aggravated by traffic. Who occasionally is distracted by my thoughts, by a story on the radio, by a phone call. Just the other day--while thinking about what I would write for this blog post (ironic, but not in a good way)--I had to brake really hard to stop for a crosswalk, where a pedestrian was waiting on the side.


One Passover, for the Seder (the dinner event where Jews tell the story of the Israelite's Exodus from Egypt and from slavery), we asked our guests to bring symbols of liberation and symbols of slavery. One guest brought car keys as a symbol of liberation. Another brought car keys as a symbol of slavery.

Yes, cars can free us, and cars can enslave us.  But we also need to remember--cars can be weapons, too.


The death of Maya Hirsch triggered a lot of activity. 

A new law, dubbed "Maya's Law," increased the penalties for people who drive through stop signs. At least one police officer started handing out stickers with tickets--stickers that read:

REMEMBER MAYA! Maya was killed by a driver who failed to stop at a stop sign & yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. STOP AT STOP SIGNS! YIELD TO PEOPLE IN CROSSWALKS!

After being sued by the Hirsch family, the City of Chicago paid a $3.25 million lawsuit settlement, and as Grid Chicago writer John Greenfield wrote in 2012, The Maya Hirsch Settlement Will Help Save the Lives of Other Chicago Children.

Maya’s family eventually sued the city after it was discovered that, at the time of the crash, the signs and markings at the intersection weren’t up to the city’s official standards...Under Mayor Emanuel and Chicago Department of Transportation commissioner Gabe Klein, the city has taken many steps to improve pedestrian safety, demonstrating the city’s changing transportation priorities. The transportation department has repainted hundreds of crosswalks with high-visibility zebra-stripe markings. New leading pedestrian interval traffic signals give walkers a head start over turning vehicles. Existing red light cameras and incoming speed cameras will discourage dangerous driving. Recently the city began installing hundreds of “Stop for pedestrians within crosswalk” signs to remind drivers of the new state law. And the city’s Chicago Forward action agenda states the goal of reducing traffic fatalities to zero.The $3.25 million settlement underscores the importance of continuing these improvements. It’s unfortunate that taxpayer money has to be spent this way when the same amount could have paid for 8,125 “Stop for pedestrians” signs, which are purchased, sited and installed for $400 each.
After the death of Samuel Cohen-Eckstein, the speed limit was dropped on the street where he was killed, and the timing of traffic lights was altered to slow drivers down.

It took Jarrid Amico's parents several years--and in the meantime, another child was hit by a car in the same spot--but eventually, they got a stop sign placed on the street near the site of the accident.


After Anna's death, my son and I were discussing street crossings.
He described a scene from a couple of years ago, when he was in eighth grade.
He and his friend were leaving the County Rec Center, and rushing to catch the bus on the other side of the street. So they ran across Washtenaw. (Now, there is a traffic light there--but at the time there was none.) "Standing in the middle of the road," he told me--"That was scary."
Why, I asked him, didn't he walk to the crosswalk?
"Because it was two blocks away."

Moral: distances that are short by car, seem much longer by foot. We need to think about scale, not just from the point of view of cars, but also from the point of view of pedestrians and bicyclists.


As a community, we have a chance--and a responsibility--to improve pedestrian safety.

As walkers, we have a chance--and a responsibility--to improve pedestrian safety.

As drivers, we have a chance--and a responsibility--to improve pedestrian safety.

May the memories of Anna Hendren Schwalb, and Jarrid Amico, and Maya Hirsch, and Samuel Cohen-Eckstein, be blessings. In their memories, let's advocate for safer streets, and work to make our own driving more careful.

Taken from the World Health Organization's
First Global Pedestrian Safety Campaign

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your musings on this, Ruth. As always, your thoughtful discussion helps pull the single incident into a greater perspective. This is especially timely here in Ann Arbor, since we have an increased focus on pedestrian safety and public debate about measures to ensure it.