Hundreds gathered for a rally in Whitestone on July 30 to call for senior driver reform in the wake of Madeline Sershen’s untimely death.
The family and friends of the 17-year-old student were joined by elected officials and supporters at the corner of Utopia Parkway and 16th Avenue, the site of the June 25 crash, to advocate for changes to better assess New York’s current driver laws for senior citizens. Many held signs bearing Sershen’s face with words that plead for reform.
“Through all the pain, tears and heartache for Maddie’s death, one thing was abundantly clear: there are individuals on the road who should not be driving. This is not age discrimination, it is simply about ability,” said Rita Barravecchio, Sershen’s aunt.
“We are not gonna stop until change is made. So DMV, you better watch out,” Barravecchio said.
Last month, Sershen was struck by 88-year-old Sheila Kahn Prager, who blew through a red light and crashed into the teen. The teen’s tragic death added to the pattern of older drivers killing pedestrians, including 9-year-old Giovanni Ampuero who died this past April.
Currently, New York state does not have special driving provisions for seniors and they are subject to a standard vision test every eight years. Just 33 states and Washington, D.C., have special renewal guidelines in place for seniors.
“I think that’s absolutely insane. When you take a state like New York, with our population, as big and as great as our state is, the only thing that we’re requiring individuals to do to renew their license is to pass a vision test that’s right in front of them? Just one line? That’s insane. There needs to be more,” Barravecchio said.
At the rally, Senator Tony Avella announced his commitment to advocating for change and new legislation in Albany.
“I’ve already set up a meeting with the Automobile Association of America (AAA),” Avella said. “We also have, in two weeks, a meeting with AARP. They’re the key to passing legislation in this respect. We are gonna work together to make sure that we make change, and when we introduce that legislation, the first thing I’m gonna do is call it ‘Madeline’s Law.'”
Barravecchio added that at the meetings with AAA and AARP, they will be asking what the opposition is and what new ideas the companies have come up with in their research
Congressman Paul Vallone announced that the Department of Transportation (DOT) agreed to rename the corner of the crash “Maddie’s Way” in honor of the 17-year-old. The congressman added that the DOT also promised to redo slow zones and other traffic features around P.S. 209.
“Everybody has a street or a corner or a block that they care passionately about, and it’s always around a school. So we gotta have that promise from DOT to relook and don’t tell us ‘no’ when we ask for a speed bump or a slow zone or a flashing sign or a stop sign or any type of device that will slow down traffic,” Valone said.
Raul Ampuero, the father of Giovanni, emphasized that politics should be set aside when dealing with this issue.
“What’s wrong with the senators, playing politician games? What’s the matter with you? And I’m talking about Senator Flanagan and Senator Golden,” Ampuero said.
He told QNS that there are several things that need to be done to increase safety in the streets.
“The first thing we need is support. We need all the senators, Republican senators, Democratic senators, to get together,” he said. “Every three, four years [for retesting] is not gonna help. We’re asking at least once a year or once every two years.”
The father also said that the speed camera program that went dark on July 25 needed to be brought back and expanded.
“It changes drivers’ behavior, so you know that you gotta slow down.”
Others like Whitestone resident Julian Ho started a Change.org petition in support of retesting senior drivers over the age of 80 every two years.
“I didn’t know Maddie, I didn’t know Maddie’s family. I’m just a concerned citizen. This is my neighborhood. We live in Whitestone. We love Whitestone. We wanna keep this street safe,” said Ho, whose petition has over 21,250 signatures. He added that in his bus route to work on the Q20, he passes by the sites where Ampuero and Sershen died.
“This can’t keep happening,” Ho said. “I can’t keep passing by and seeing bouquets and candles. Something needs to be done. And it’s fine to rename the street, but we can’t keep renaming streets of dead children, it doesn’t make sense. We need to change the law.”