Losing a Son, Starting a Movement

Amy Cohen, holding a photo of her son Sammy Cohen Eckstein, stands next to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio at a Families for Safe Streets rally. Photo:  Families for Safe Streets
Amy Cohen, holding a photo of her son Sammy Cohen Eckstein, stands next to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio at a Families for Safe Streets rally. Photo: Families for Safe Streets

The last words Amy Cohen ever heard her son Sammy say were “I love you mommy.”

She had kissed him goodbye that morning as he headed out to walk to his middle school, four blocks down from their house in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Later in the day, she got a call: Sammy had been hit by a driver. He died a few hours later. She was blindsided.

“I really never imagined that this could happen,” Cohen said. “I don’t think anybody can even put it into words. You never recover.”

Every day, more than 100 people are killed in traffic crashes on American streets. Their families receive that unimaginable phone call. And for the people who endure this trauma, there’s remarkably little in the way of institutional support. They read headlines in the papers blaming the loved one they lost, and they try to soldier on, often alone with their grief.

But that is starting to change, as victims’ families and crash survivors connect with each other and set out to prevent other people from feeling the pain they’ve gone through.

Sammy Cohen was 12 when he was killed walking to middle school in Brooklyn. Photo: Amy Cohen
Sammy Cohen Eckstein was 12 when a driver struck and killed him near his home in Brooklyn. Photo: Amy Cohen

After Sammy was struck, Cohen decided she couldn’t stand idly by and while other people got injured and killed in traffic crashes.

Days later, she was testifying for traffic safety measures in New York. At the time, the city was trying to reduce its default speed limit from 30 to 25 mph and needed votes in the state legislature to make it happen.

Through that advocacy, Cohen met other people who had lost children, spouses, brothers, and sisters. Though they crossed each other’s paths, they weren’t organized as a distinct and coherent group.

“My background is as a social worker,” Cohen told Streetsblog. “I said, ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this by myself.'”

With help from Transportation Alternatives, Cohen and a small group of other New Yorkers who’d lost loved ones in traffic crashes founded Families for Safe Streets. It was the first group of its kind in the country, devoted specifically to supporting people in grief due to traffic violence, and to advocating for policies that prevent collisions, injuries, and the further loss of life.

The organization launched in January of 2014, a few months after Sammy’s death.

And in the past four years, Families for Safe Streets New York has helped launch chapters in Oregon, New Jersey, Austin, Southern California, San Francisco, and Alexandria, Virginia. A few more chapters are in the works, says Cohen. Streetsblog will be profiling members of these chapters in a series of articles about this emerging movement.

Today, the New York chapter of Families for Safe Streets has about 200 members. All of them have lost a loved one to traffic violence in New York City.

FSS operates by the social work principle “meet people where they’re at.” Modeled to some extent after Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Everytown for Gun Safety, FSS offers peer support groups and one-on-one mentoring.

“You get incredible support knowing that you haven’t been singled out by the universe for this horrific tragedy,” said Cohen. “There was literally a member of the group that I would say saved my life. She was there in a way for me that we tried to formally replicate.”

FSS also offers advice on what can feel like overwhelming tasks following a death or serious injury: getting an attorney, filing an insurance claim, and gathering evidence to support a legal case.

What the group is best known for is advocating for public policy changes. Families for Safe Streets encourages people who have endured a tragedy to “push back.”

Just before Sammy’s death, Cohen, her husband Gary Eckstein, their daughter Tamar and Sammy took a trip to London, where there were signs everywhere telling drivers not to go faster than 20 miles per hour.

“I said to my husband, ‘If we had [this] in New York city, Sammy would still be alive.'”

Cohen and other bereaved families testified before state lawmakers in the campaign to lower New York’s default speed limit from 30 to 25 mph.

In New York, the general rule with new state legislation is, “It never happens in the first year,” said Cohen. But the members of Families for Safe Streets conveyed an urgency that lawmakers hadn’t been exposed to before. The bill passed the same legislative session.

“We can cut through some of that red tape,” said Cohen. “We give them moral authority.”

Members of FSS also appear at public meetings where street designs are reviewed. In New York, the city often defers final decisions to community boards — groups of appointees who are supposed to represent the neighborhood, but often consist of a much higher share of car owners than the general population.

“We still live in a driving culture,” Cohen said. “We don’t change everyone’s mind, but we do change many more minds than I think advocates were able to do before we came along.”

The next campaign for FSS is expanding automated speeding enforcement in New York City. Again, it will require state approval. Right now state law caps the number of speed cameras in New York to 140 school zones — for a city with 6,000 miles of streets and more than 2,000 schools. Legislation endorsed by the Assembly, but not yet the State Senate, would double the number of speed cameras and loosen restrictions on where and when they operate.

To support the legislation, Families for Safe Streets built a coalition of 300 supporting groups, including unions, hospitals, schools, and most of the City Council. The campaign is mobilizing this spring to get the bill passed in time for the next school year.

Becoming an advocate won’t be the right choice for every family affected by traffic violence. “It’s not an easy road,” Cohen said.

She still tears up when she thinks about Sammy and what happened to him. But through her involvement with Families for Safe Streets, Cohen says she’s found a meaningful way to channel the anger and pain to help overcome a “public health crisis that goes unacknowledged.”

If you would like information about starting your own Families for Safe Streets chapter, you can call 844-FSS-PEER/844-377-7337 or email info@familiesforsafestreets.org.

17 thoughts on Losing a Son, Starting a Movement

  1. I’d start with focusing on basic enforcement. Too many people, especially in NYC, simply drive too fast for the conditions.

    I read somewhere that people think 79% of drivers are jerks. I often think that I am one of the people considered a jerk as I am routinely the slowest car on the road. Even driving right at the speed limit (which in some cases may even be too fast for the area – after all, it is a “limit” not a recommendation), I find myself tailed, flipped off and passed even in a no passing zone.

    While I admittedly rarely drove in the city (we didn’t own cars), I often took cabs or uber, and was constantly amazed at how fast they drove. Attempting roads in North Jersey is like a nascar race. While people drive much slower where I live now, even here speeds by many are just way too high.

    Slow down. Put down the phone and stop eating or putting on make-up. Such simple things can save countless lives.

  2. your right, a big problem is people drive to fast, one of the best solutions for this when studied is to build streets with fewer, narrower lanes, roundabouts and other things that encourage people to drive slower and more safely, wide, multi lane streets encourage people to speed and enforcement has considerably less impact upon this, but I agree is still a useful tool.

  3. Those ideas are great, but I view them as much more long-term given the time it would take to have such items budgeted for and constructed on a large scale. We can’t wait decades, and in the meantime, enforcement is a stop gap.

  4. The World Health Organization defines violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation,”

    Merriam-Webster defines it as “the use of physical force so as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy”.

    This SJW push to define roadway crashes as “traffic violence” simply alienates potential allies. We’ve gone from trying to cease using the term “accident” and framing these are preventable deaths and injuries, to framing them as acts of violence, which by definition are intentional acts. This kind of hyperbole becomes nauseating. This kid chased a ball into the street in front of oncoming traffic.

    “…London, where there were signs everywhere telling drivers not to go faster than 20 miles per hour. “I said to my husband, ‘If we had [this] in New York city, Sammy would still be alive.’”

    Really? At the site of the crash it is effectively a T-intersection, signalized, with high vis crosswalks, protected bike lanes on the larger street, a park entrance, a narrow one-way street that can only turn right, along with a bike lane, and an intersecting one-way street which limits movements and intersection complexity. But if only there was a 20 MPH limit.

    I’m left shaking my head. As a parent I truly feel for this woman, but the constant assertion that if only a sign said to drive slower, or some other simplistic element were in place, everything would be fixed is maddening.

  5. The term “violence” does not necessarily denote intention. Example: “a violent storm.”

  6. Except driving is an intentional use of physical force that has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.

    Our ground transport system by design causes tens of thousands of preventable deaths a year, and untold numbers of life-altering injuries, and it’s “hyperbole” you find nauseating.


  7. I highly doubt a SPEED camera should ticket something that is not moving. How can people advocate for speed cameras? Sadly, this is not rare. The Maryland Drivers Alliance has a whole section on speed camera errors. The National Motorists Association has also raised this issue.

  8. Auto accidents kill about 34,000 people a year. That sounds horrible, and it is, but unlike light-rail numbers, auto fatalities have been declining. More important, light rail carried just 26.7 billion passenger miles in all the years between 1995 and 2012. By comparison,

    highway vehicles traveled nearly 3 trillion vehicle miles in 2012 alone. At an average occupancy of 1.67 people per car (see page 33), that’s 5 trillion passenger miles.
    In other words, light rail kills 12.5 people for every billion passenger miles carried, whereas buses kill just 4.5 people per billion passenger miles. Urban roads and streets, by comparison, kill about 8.2 people per billion vehicle miles, which works out to 4.9 per billion passenger miles. Yes, more people are killed by cars than by light-rail trains, but that’s because the latter are so rare.

  9. The MV mortality rate is declining far faster in the rest of the developed world than the US. Your argument would be more persuasive had you acknowledged that. Nice numbers, but you miss the point. Everybody else is doing more than we are here.

  10. It is a bad thing if you understand the idea of freedom, due process and the 4th amendment. It’s also a bad thing if you understand that there is even more of a reason to use technology to take rights away from people who don’t drive for whatever reason. I realize I’m wasting my breath on you, so I’ll stop now.

  11. Cars have become dramatically safer over time for *car occupants,* who are the majority of victims of car collisions in this country despite pedestrians being the more vulnerable road users. We’ve added so many safety features to protect you when you drive your car. Seat belts and multiple airbags and lane detection, auto-braking features, all becoming standard features designed to keep drivers and passengers safe. We haven’t done nearly as much to keep pedestrians safe from cars. They don’t benefit from airbags becoming mandatory by law. They benefit from lower speed limits and roadway designs that discourage speeding. This is the work that needs to be done.

    Outside of the densest city centers like New York, most Americans don’t spend a ton of time as pedestrians other than in the very low traffic environments of strip mall parking lots. The statistics on overall auto collision deaths reflect this.

  12. But that’s just dumb…an arbitrary “passenger mile” in a car is not commensurate to an arbitrary “passenger mile” in light rail, because these modes of transport are so much different with different goals.

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