Flushing teen’s death sparks online petition to enforce stricter license requirements for senior drivers

After 17-year-old Madeline Sershen was struck and killed by a senior driver, Queens residents are calling for stricter driver’s license requirements and frequent renewals for elderly drivers in New York.
AP/Damian Dovarganes
By Carlotta Mohamed

After the tragic death of a Flushing teenager struck and killed by an elderly driver in Whitestone, Queens residents have signed an online petition amassing over 10,000 signatures demanding New York State impose stricter driver’s license requirements and frequent renewals for senior drivers.

Julian Ho, a Whitestone resident and father of a 2-year-old son, started the online petition June 30 on Change.org, titled “Urge New York State DMV to introduce retesting every two years once a driver turns 80.”

The petition will be sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the New York State Legislature.

On June 25, Ho’s wife, Rachel, was taking their son to the park when she saw a police officer trying to revive 17-year-old Madeline Sershen, a St. Francis Prep junior, who was crossing Utopia Parkway, when 88-year-old Sheila Kahn-Prager allegedly blew a red light striking the teenager. Sershen was pronounced dead at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Flushing.

Police arrested and charged Kahn-Prager with running a red light, failing to yield to a pedestrian, and failing to exercise due care. But the Queens district attorney’s office said it was not pursuing criminal charges against Khan-Prager. Khan-Prager was arraigned in Queens Criminal Court.

According to Ho, after hearing about the accident from his wife, he was prompted to start an online petition and research New York’s standards governing license renewals for aging drivers, which do not exist.

“We pass by that intersection all the time,” Ho said. “It was Maddie that got hit that morning, but that could have been anyone.”

According to the Department of Motor Vehicles website, New York state requires a driver’s license to be renewed every eight years. Additionally, most senior drivers in New York who renew their license in person will be asked to undergo a basic vision test to ensure they are able to safely operate a motor vehicle.

Ho wants the state to shorten the renewal cycle and add a memory or reaction test for drivers over 80 years old to prove they can “continue to remain safely on the road.”

“I would like for Gov. Cuomo and other decision makers in Albany to reconsider the standards for driver’s license renewals as drivers age,” Ho said.

The Sershen family was notified about the online petition and contacted Ho.

“My initial thought was that I am so grateful he got this started,” said Rita Barravecchio, Sershen’s aunt. “It was something my family was discussing for a week. He got the ball rolling and after that we started sharing the petition. It just had a snowball effect.”

At the bottom of the petition, Sershen’s sister, Olivia Sershen, wrote:

“My beautiful baby sister’s death shall not be in vain…drivers should be retested periodically starting at age 65.”

Barravecchio said they have received 10,000 signatures in less than a week after Maddie’s death.

“These are signatures from people throughout New York state, and people in other states who have expressed a need for change,” Barravecchio said. “We’re fighting for change in New York, but this is a widespread issue.”

According to Barravecchio, an older driver does have more experience than a younger driver, but motor skills, cognitive abilities, and reaction time change.

Barravecchio said plenty of research shows that a person’s ability to react to changes slows down with age.

“Our next step would be to gain support from local politicians who believe in this need for change, as well as hearing from the public details they’d like to see in this reform,” Barravecchio said. She described her niece Maddie as “beautiful, fierce, authentic, real and brilliant.”

“There’s nothing we can do to bring Maddie back, but if we can save this from happening to someone else, then for us it’s a victory,” Barravecchio said.

Reach reporter Carlotta Mohamed by e-mail at cmohamed@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4526.

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