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The State of New York

State Lawmakers From NYC Are Poised to Block NYC From Setting Lower Speed Limits

"Some people don't want to lower the speed limit."

3:59 PM EDT on May 31, 2023

Amy Cohen testifies at a City Council hearing in 2014, holding a photo of her son Sammy, who was killed by a speeding van driver in 2013 (Photo: City Council)

Amy Cohen testifies at a City Council hearing in 2014, holding a photo of her son Sammy, who was killed by a speeding van driver in 2013 (Photo: City Council)

The New York State Assembly is waffling on passing legislation that would allow New York City to lower its speed limit below 25 mph, a move that would likely save countless lives.

That bill—known as "Sammy's Law" in honor of 12-year-old Sammy Cohen-Eckstein, who was killed by a speeding van driver in Brooklyn in 2013—has the support of Governor Kathy Hochul, Mayor Eric Adams, and the New York City Council, which earlier this month passed a message of "home rule" support for the legislation, a necessary step for the bill to become law.

The bill is ready to be voted on by the entire State Senate, but has failed to get out of the Assembly's Transportation Committee. According to a person familiar with the deliberations, some lawmakers from New York City are wavering in their support—including Bronx Assemblymember Kenny Burgos, who despite being a co-sponsor of the bill, is among those raising questions about it behind closed doors.

"Normally I would not speak on distasteful leaks from our conference but seeing as colleagues want to misconstrue my comments it would be helpful to note I mentioned major traffic improvements since Vision Zero’s implementation in 2014," Burgos wrote in a statement to Hell Gate, when we asked him whether he was quietly opposing the bill. "My support for expanded speed cameras, speed bumps, bike lanes, pedestrian bump outs and [sic] simply stated we should see what impact these improvements have made in addition to lowering speed limits."

We asked if this statement meant that Burgos still supported the bill, and he replied, "Yes."

"We are still discussing this with our members from NYC," a spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told Hell Gate in an email. Heastie is a cyclist who also hails from the Bronx, whose neighborhoods have seen more traffic fatalities than most other regions of the city. 

Hell Gate asked the bill's main sponsor in the Assembly, Linda Rosenthal, if her colleagues were getting cold feet. "I think we're still attempting to garner the support of everyone," Rosenthal replied, diplomatically. "As the sponsor of the bill I don't understand why someone would oppose it. But what I've heard is, some people don't want to lower the speed limit."

The chair of the Assembly's Transportation Committee, William Magnarelli, did not respond to our requests for comment.

Study after study shows that lowering the speed limit prevents crashes and injuries and saves lives. According to the International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group, crash rates decrease by four to six percent for every one mile per hour reduction in speed, and fatal crash rates go down by 17 percent. In designated Slow Zones across New York City, where the speed limit has been lowered from 25 mph to 20 mph, the Department of Transportation has noted fewer crashes. A sizable majority of New Yorkers—72 percent, according to an Emerson College poll commissioned by Transportation Alternatives—want New York City to have the power to lower its own speed limits, and 68 percent supported lowering the limit from 25 mph to 20 mph in their own neighborhoods.

Lowering the speed limit is especially important for children, who cannot correctly judge how fast a vehicle is traveling once it exceeds 20 mph, and thus fail to respond quickly enough to a speeding vehicle.

Traffic deaths across the City remain high. According to the DOT, as of Tuesday, 86 New Yorkers have died in crashes so far this year, including 36 pedestrians and 13 cyclists, which is eight more cyclists than at this point in 2022, and six fewer pedestrians. Five more people have died on e-bikes, motorcycles, or mopeds, and 22 vehicle occupants have died as a result of car crashes. 

In the years since her son Sammy was killed, Amy Cohen helped form Families for Safe Streets, which has been advocating for traffic calming measures in New York and across the country. This is the third year that Sammy's Law has come up for a vote in Albany. The legislative session officially ends on June 9.

"Lowering the speed limit is a common sense measure that works," Elizabeth Adams, the deputy executive director for Transportation Alternatives, told Hell Gate. "That extra five miles per hour is not going to get you anywhere faster. It's not gonna make the difference in whether you're late to work or not, but it is the difference in whether someone lives or dies."

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