By Tien-Shun Lee
Police said the two suffered minor injuries: the mother broke her arm and the daughter was bruised. A report on the accident will be kept in the 110th Precinct, where the accident occurred, for 30 days. Then the incident will become a number – one of the statistics on traffic accidents that the New York Police Department compiles every month.
“I got a call from a young fireman who was struck on Queens Boulevard around the time that young Sofia was killed while crossing at 67th Avenue,” said Estelle Chwat, 79, the co-president of the Forest Hills Action League recently. “He was in an upstate facility in New York, paralyzed from the neck down.”
The fireman, Derek Kuhland of Bayside who worked for Flushing's Ladder Co. 167 before his accident in 2000, is one of an unknown number of people who never recovered after being struck on Queens Boulevard.
Chwat and her husband, Norbert, 79, have fought to make Queens Boulevard safer ever since eighth grader Sofia Leviyev was killed in their Forest Hills neighborhood in 2000 while crossing at 67th Avenue. They have organized numerous demonstrations and vigils for victims of the so-called “Boulevard of Death”.
The Chwats estimate that at least 1,000 are injured on the boulevard every year. Nobody knows how many of those have died from their injuries or are permanently crippled. Estelle Chwat said she filed a Freedom of Information Act request for police records kept for 30 days after each traffic accident, but her request was denied.
According to the city's Department of Transportation, there were 2,907 accidents, ranging from fender-benders to fatalities in 1994; 2,856 in 1995; 2,628 in 1996; 2,755 in 1997; 2,902 in 1998; 2,846 in 1999; 3,333 in 2000; 2,776 in 2001; 2,539 in 2002 and 2,223 in 2003.
Michelle Ernst, a senior analyst for the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a group that evaluates pedestrian safety, said accidents do appear to have declined steadily since the DOT began installing safety measures along Queens Boulevard in 2001. But there is not enough data to conclusively say whether or not the improvements have had a permanent positive impact on the number of accidents and fatalities, she said.
Ernst looked at accident numbers year by year and also used a three-year moving average to evaluate the numbers over a longer period of time. Plotted on a graph, the average shows a smoother trend over time, taking into account anomalous years, when an unusual incident may have resulted in a spike.
“I think if you had five years worth of data, post-DOT's actions, you might be able to say more conclusively if (safety measures) have had any effect,” said Ernst. “Traffic accidents do appear to decline steadily from 2001 on, but as you can see with the fatalities, there is a pretty significant uptick in the number of deaths in 2003. We can't know what will happen in 2004.”
The DOT started making safety improvements to Queens Boulevard after the number of deaths and accidents on the thoroughfare began attracting a lot of attention from the media.
The agency installed four-foot-high fencing along medians from Eliot Avenue to Union Turnpike to discourage jay walking and lengthened traffic signals to give pedestrians more time to cross. In addition, it reduced the speed limit to 30 mph along the boulevard's entire 7.2-mile stretch, put up no-U-turn signs and pedestrian warning signs and eliminated a row of traffic on the left side of the boulevard's service roads.
This year the DOT plans on initiating some major engineering projects along the boulevard, which might include an overpass bridge, DOT spokesman Tom Cocola said last month.
“It sounds like they did one important thing, which is to reduce the speed along service roads by narrowing the dimension,” said Allen Jacobs, a professor emeritus in the urban planning department at the University of California at Berkeley who studied boulevards throughout the world, including Queens Boulevard in 1995.
Since 1993, 83 people have died from traffic accidents on Queens Boulevard. There were 17 fatalities in 1992; six in 1994; seven in 1995; six in 1996; 18 in 1997; eight in 1998; four in 1999; six in 2000; four in 2001; two in 2002 and five last year.
“The DOT did put in some traffic calming on Queens Boulevard, which is meant to slow traffic down, but there's still tons of accidents on Queens Boulevard,” said Kate Slevin, the associate director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a pedestrian advocacy group.
The Chwats accuse their elected representatives of not pursuing funds necessary to make a major overhaul of Queens Boulevard, similar to what was done to the Grand Concourse in the Bronx five years ago.
“We are vehemently very, very upset and we are blaming the elected officials,” said Estelle Chwat. “That boulevard is for everyone. They've studied and studied that boulevard and there's been a total neglect, a total disregard of what the engineers have said.”
Reach reporter Tien-Shun Lee by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 718-229-0300, ext. 155.