Victims’ Families Optimistic About Change After Meeting Albany Lawmakers

During yesterday’s trip to Albany, members of Families for Safe Streets not only won over a key new backer of legislation to set the city’s default speed limit at 20 mph, they met with more than 30 legislators to ask for lower speed limits and more automated enforcement.

“It was absolutely exhausting, emotionally and physically,” said Mary Beth Kelly, whose husband was killed by a tow truck driver in 2006 while the couple was riding their bikes on the Hudson River Greenway. “It’s very hard for us to keep telling our stories over and over again.” But Kelly said that more than ever, she thinks now is a time when victims’ families will make a difference. “I’ve been doing this seven-and-a-half years,” she said, “and the sense of hopefulness that I have right now is probably greater than it’s ever been.”

In their meetings with lawmakers — including Speaker Sheldon Silver and the staff of Assembly Transportation Committee Chair David Gantt — Families for Safe Streets focused mostly on lowering the city’s default speed limit to 20 mph, but also talked about the importance of expanding automated enforcement.

“The speed camera program is only operational during school hours,” said Transportation Alternatives general counsel Juan Martinez on the bus ride to Albany. “That’s a big problem, because 77 percent of people who are killed in speeding crashes are killed after school hours — in the evening and on weekends.”

The State Senate’s budget proposal includes a nine-fold expansion of the existing school-zone speed camera program, but Assembly Member Joe Lentol said it was unlikely to survive to the final budget. “It was a tremendous lift to get just 20 speed cameras last year,” he said.

Despite the challenge of making progress in Albany, the families remain undeterred.

“Since I’ve become a member of this group, I’ve spoken to a few family members on my side,” said Marian Geocos, whose daughter Amelia was killed by a van driver on First Avenue in 2008. Geocos’s brother-in-law is a retired police officer with young children who lives on Staten Island. “I was surprised by his response. He said, ‘I am terrified of driving on Staten Island,'” Geocos said. “It’s very different when you become a parent.”

Yesterday, Geocos met with legislators, including Assembly Member Matthew Titone of Staten Island. “It left an impression on them,” she said. “They seemed to really listen to us.”

“We’re not only legislators, we’re parents,” said State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky of Queens. “This could happen to anybody. Driving is a very dangerous situation where people have to be careful, and you see the consequences when people don’t think.”

Dan O’Donnell is the lead Assembly sponsor of a bill to lower the city’s default speed limit to 20 mph. “As a person who does have to drive in New York City, I now drive 20 miles per hour,” he said. “And you know what I’ve learned? You can get where you need to go by going 20 miles per hour.”

Families for Safe Streets will be back in Albany later this session. “It is emotionally exhausting, that’s for sure, but I would definitely do it again,” Geocos said. “If it does make a difference, I would do it again.”