A proposed law allowing New York City to set speed limits on its own streets, named for a child who was tragically killed by a speeding driver, is once again hitting roadblocks in the State Legislature, and advocates plan to go on a hunger strike this week to showcase the bill’s urgency.
Sammy’s Law, which advocates have been trying to pass through Albany for years, would allow the Big Apple to reduce speed limits on its own streets from 25 to 20 miles per hour; the city’s speed limits are presently controlled by the state. The bill is named for Sammy Cohen Eckstein, who was just 12 years old when he was killed by a speeding van driver in Park Slope, Brooklyn in 2013, as he went into the street to fetch a soccer ball.
Since that tragic day, 98 more children have lost their lives in traffic collisions on city streets, according to advocacy group Transportation Alternatives. Sammy’s mother, Amy Cohen, launched Families for Safe Streets with others grieving the loss of loved ones in crashes; the group’s members often say it’s a club no one should want to join.
Cohen confirmed to amNewYork Metro that she will lead the hunger strike in Albany starting Tuesday, describing as “unconscionable” the legislative morass in which the bill has been stuck for years.
“It shouldn’t be a deadly act to walk our streets, as a child, a senior, any age,” Cohen said. “It is unconscionable that it takes so long to pass a proven life-saving measure.”
Studies show that the risk of death for pedestrians decreases dramatically when motor vehicles are traveling at lower speeds. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found pedestrians face a 10% risk of death when hit by a car traveling 23 miles per hour; the rate climbs to 25% at 32 mph, 50% at 42 mph, 75% at 50 mph, and a horrific 90% at 58 mph.
The bill has wide support, counting among its backers Governor Kathy Hochul, Mayor Eric Adams, and a supermajority of the City Council, which passed a “home rule” message calling on Albany to pass the legislation. The State Senate included Sammy’s Law in its budget proposal this year, and advocates believe it has enough support in the upper chamber to pass this week.
A poll of New Yorkers last year, commissioned by Transportation Alternatives and conducted by Emerson College, found 72.5% of respondents support giving New York City control over its speed limits, while 68.4% back lowering speed limits to 20 miles per hour on residential streets in their neighborhoods.
But the measure has hit a roadblock in the State Assembly, where it is not expected to pass before this year’s legislative session ends on Thursday. Advocates say that’s squarely on Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Democrat from the Bronx, who has declined to bring the matter up for a vote.
“We believe we definitely have support in the Assembly, but it just needs to be brought to a vote,” said Alexa Sledge, a spokesperson for Transportation Alternatives. “Which, obviously, only Heastie can do.”
The bill was first introduced back in 2020, and passed the Senate in 2021, but has never passed the Assembly. It’s unclear why Heastie is not bringing the bill up for a vote, or if it’s on behalf of other members, but Cohen said the bill has the support of most Democratic Assembly members from the city, and suspects it would pass if brought to a vote.
“We need transparency from the Assembly and we are demanding that Speaker Heastie bring the bill for a vote,” Cohen said. “We have not heard any concerns. If there are concerns, debate them on the floor and let the public know! I am sick and tired of the lack of transparency in Albany, that it takes three years to pass a no-nonsense bill, with politics getting in the way of action that is required to save lives.”
Reps for the Speaker’s office did not return a request for comment from amNewYork Metro, nor did reps for Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.
On Monday, Streetsblog cited legislative sources contending Heastie was putting his “thumb on the scale” to keep support for the bill low among his conference.
At least one of Heastie’s fellow Bronx Democrats, Chantel Jackson, who reps the South Bronx, said she’s undecided on the bill despite listing herself as a co-sponsor, Streetsblog reported. The Bronx Democratic Party continues to hold considerable sway over its members even as other boroughwide parties decline in influence. Heastie was the former boss of the county party and continues to hold considerable clout within it.
Families for Safe Streets members rallied outside Heastie’s district office in the Bronx on Monday, calling for a vote on the bill ahead of their trip up to Albany this week.
The city’s speed limit has been 25 miles per hour since 2014, when the de Blasio administration persuaded state lawmakers to allow the city to lower it from 30 mph, where it had been since 1964. The city is not allowed to set speed limits below 25 mph, nor is any other municipality in the state.
Hunger strikes have a mixed record in recent years as a political tactic in New York. Brooklyn Assembly Member Marcela Mitaynes led a hunger strike in 2021 calling for the state to launch a fund for undocumented immigrants excluded from federal COVID benefits; the state ultimately did launch such a program, which it says has distributed $2 billion to 128,000 New Yorkers.
Later that year, taxi drivers launched a hunger strike outside City Hall in protest of a city debt relief proposal they deemed insufficient; they won more favorable terms after two weeks.
On the flipside, Brooklyn Assembly Member Latrice Walker has gone on two unsuccessful hunger strikes during the last two state budget negotiations, in the hopes of preventing rollbacks to the state’s bail reform law.
Such a tactic is necessary given Cohen’s urgency in preventing other families from facing the tragedy she has lived with the past decade. Ninety-three people have died in traffic collisions on city streets this year, according to NYPD data.
One of them was 7-year-old Dolma Nadhun, who lost her life after being hit by an SUV driver who blew a stop sign in Astoria in February. Amid anger and grief among local community members and elected officials, the city’s Department of Transportation promised to add traffic lights and install traffic-calming “daylighting” infrastructure at the intersection where she was hit.
Sammy would have turned 23 this year, but Cohen says the passage of time hasn’t made losing her child any easier.
“I don’t think people realize how hard it still is every day. No one should ever have to bury their child. There’s so many milestones he missed out on,” Cohen recounted as she fought back tears. “It’s just so unfair, especially because this is a preventable public health crisis, and we need our elected officials to act with the urgency this crisis requires.”