By Carlotta Mohamed
Dressed in Madeline Sershen’s favorite colors of yellow and purple, hundreds of protesters bearing signs returned to the Whitestone crosswalk Monday at 16th Avenue and Utopia Parkway where the teen died, urging the DMV to change its license renewal policy for senior drivers.
It was yet another emotional gathering as elected officials, family, friends, and supporters chanted “We want change” by PS 209 near the makeshift memorial dedicated to Sershen adorned with flowers, candles, posters and other mementos.
“We want to see change, and we’re demanding the DMV change their driver renewal policy,” said Rita Barravecchio, Sershen’s aunt. “Their current policy just requires individuals to pass a vision test, and that vision test is straightforward. It doesn’t test their peripheral vision, their reaction time, it’s simply testing their vision.”
Sershen, 17, a Flushing honors student at St. Francis Prep, was crossing the intersection by 16th Avenue and Utopia Parkway June 25, when 88-year-old Sheila Kahn-Prager allegedly blew a red light and hit the teen. Sershen was rushed to New York Presbyterian Hospital in Flushing, where she was pronounced dead.
The tragic incident occurred three months after the death of 9-year-old Giovanni Ampuero, who was also struck by an older driver while crossing 70th Street on Northern Boulevard in Jackson Heights with his mother in April.
The spate of pedestrian deaths by elder drivers has advocates pushing for senior driving reform policies.
Martha, 75, a Whitestone resident, and owner of a gray 1996 Toyota Camry, said she supports the retesting of seniors.
“I’m all for it. They should be retested…at what age I don’t know, maybe 75 or 80,” said Martha. “I don’t feel any different than when I was 20 years ago. I take the driving defense course every three years from AARP, and see my doctor every six months.”
Maria, Caprdja, 65, who witnessed Sershen’s accident, said she has seen a lot of elderly drivers bypassing stop signs in the streets while she is driving.
“Everyone has to stop and take a breath, and realize what is going on around them, said Caprdja. “A good driver is watching out for what other drivers are doing and proceeds accordingly.”
State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside) encouraged the community to remain consistent in their efforts to change the law, and announced his commitment to introduce a new bill in Albany.
“We’re going to work together to make sure that we make change, and when we introduce the bill at the state level in the Senate and Assembly, the first thing I’m going to do is call it Madeline’s Law,” said Avella.
Avella along with other elected officials and the families will be meeting soon with the Automobile Association of America and the American Association of Retired Persons to discuss the issue.
City Councilman Paul Vallone (D-Bayside) said the city Department of Transportation will rename the corner of the site “Maddie’s Way” and has promised to redo the slow zone around PS 209.
“Everybody has a street or corner or block they care passionately about and it’s always around a school,” said Vallone. “This entire block is going to be re-stripped and redone, prepared for entry of school.”
Julian Ho, a Whitestone resident, who started an online petition in June for stricter driver’s license renewal policies in partnership with Barravecchio, said the law needs to be changed to ensure the safety of the community.
“I can’t keep passing by and seeing bouquets and candles — something needs to be done” said Ho, whose bus route passes by the site where Sershen and Ampuero died. “It’s fine to rename the street but we can’t keep renaming the streets of dead children. That doesn’t make sense.”
The online petition has amassed 21,871 signatures since it was posted a month ago.
“We are not looking to take licenses and independence away from those who are fit to drive,” Olivia Sershen, Madeline’s sister, said in a statement. “Instead we are trying to weed out those unsafe drivers by mandating periodic retesting. We are looking to make our community safer and attempting to prevent future tragedies.”
In a show of support, Raul Ampuero, father of Giovanni Ampuero, said “enough is enough.”
“How many more kids do we have to lose?” said Ampuero. “We’re losing our children and future. 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 was referring to the speed camera program that went dark July 25, as a result of Senate Republicans’ failure to reconvene in Albany to pass the bill to protect schoolchildren. John Flanagan, the GOP majority leader of the Senate from West Islip, and Martin Golden of Bay Ridge were among the culprits.
To share updates with their supporters, Barravecchio created the Facebook group “Maddie’s Move” to motivate change and keep the move “fresh.”
“The support has been beyond empowering. We are so grateful for all of the support we’ve received,” said Barravecchio.
Reach reporter Carlotta Mohamed by e-mail at cmoha