NORWALK, Conn. – A new approach to Norwalk traffic safety aims to reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries to zero, activist Audrey Cozzarin said at an organizational meeting Saturday, where she sought volunteer support.
Cozzarin, standing in front of more than 70 people in the Norwalk Public Library, said she was motivated by her “utter sadness” over the loss of her friend, Mike Hefferan, who was hit by a car in late March while walking across a street in Westchester County, with a traffic light that was green for the direction he was going.
“It will take all hands-on deck to deal with some of the issues that we are facing in the city. So, Mike this is for you,” she said. The activist later noted that she “almost got hit” while leaving Hefferan’s funeral by a driver who legally made a right turn on red, into the path of pedestrians in a crosswalk.
Cozzarin said she has spent the months since Hefferan’s death researching traffic issues and talking to many people about it, including the Police Commission, the Bike/Walk Commission, the Coalition of Norwalk Neighborhood Associations and even the Office of Traffic Safety in Alberta Canada.
“What I am hoping for is that we can create a committed, well-informed group, that we can foster continuous engagement with officials, not just officials but other organizations, committees, coalitions… to create neighborhood solutions,” she said.
After she spoke, Norwalkers shared 40 minutes of complaints ranging from speeders on Hospital Hill to an account of a young man in a large pickup truck endangering others by regularly cutting through parking lots and blasting through red lights. Some shared stories about bad driving or assailed Norwalk Police, while others urged positive action and offered perspective. Listening through it all were Director of Transportation, Mobility and Parking Kathryn Hebert, Norwalk Police Lt. Terry Blake, Common Council President Tom Livingston (D-District E) and State Rep. Chris Perone (D-137). Mayor Harry Rilling attended the presentation but left before the avalanche of complaints and did not address the crowd.
Cozzarin, in her lively talk, attempted to psychoanalyze drivers and their behavior. There are anger issues, she said.
“We don’t know psychologically where that’s coming from,” she said. “I feel like drivers are reacting to something and then bringing that to the road. So it’s not just the act of driving but our whole societal way of life that is huge, it’s almost unfathomable.”
Norwalk is taking a Vision Zero approach, she said.
“We want to ask ourselves, how do we want to live?” she said. “The mayor asked ‘who are we as a city, as a people?’ Sen. Bob Duff asked the same question recently at a town hall. First, I thought these questions were kind of trivial but I think they’re so essential so fundamental: Who are we? How do we define ourselves as Norwalkers, as members of Fairfield County?”
Vision Zero, on its website, promises to take a “proactive, preventative approach that prioritizes traffic safety as a public health issue.”
Vision Zero states:
“Vision Zero is a significant departure from the status quo in two major ways:
“Vision Zero recognizes that people will sometimes make mistakes, so the road system and related policies should be designed to ensure those inevitable mistakes do not result in severe injuries or fatalities. This means that system designers and policymakers are expected to improve the roadway environment, policies (such as speed management), and other related systems to lessen the severity of crashes.
“Vision Zero is a multidisciplinary approach, bringing together diverse and necessary stakeholders to address this complex problem. In the past, meaningful, cross-disciplinary collaboration among local traffic planners and engineers, policymakers, and public health professionals has not been the norm. Vision Zero acknowledges that many factors contribute to safe mobility — including roadway design, speeds, behaviors, technology, and policies — and sets clear goals to achieve the shared goal of zero fatalities and severe injuries.”
“Right now, it seems – it’s not just Norwalk, in our American society – that the car is at the top and everybody else be damned. We just get around the best we can. So, the Vision Zero is a vision. I think it’s a lovely vision for Norwalk,” Cozzarin said.
John Einstman kicked off the venting, noting that there have been many close calls in proximity to the hospital. Some states now allow cameras in stop signs so police can issue tickets without being present, he said, complaining that he’s reached out but “You call the police department, they say, ‘Call City Hall.’ City Hall tells me to call the police department.”
“I hear your concern,” Blake said. “… The buck stops here.”
Einstman said he wanted to join Cozzarin’s task force.
Jeff Poruban said he was cycling in June 2011 on East Avenue by Fort Point Street when he was hit by a car and permanently injured. The driver got a ticket for driving an uninsured vehicle and Poruban was left with an $11,000 hospital bill.
“Do we know the most dangerous intersection in the city?” a speaker asked.
“Not off the top of my head,” Blake replied.
Norwalk High School parents are complaining about unsafe drivers, Diana Carpio said. Carpio sat at a County Street red light recently and watched as six vehicles made U-turns, in spite of signs announcing that it’s illegal.
“There’s no police officers,” she said.
The Complete Streets legislation that was passed 10 years ago has a blind spot, Perone said.
“I don’t think it drilled down enough on public safety and I think that what you are talking about here is very important because we need to have this conversation,” Perone said. Police, City Hall, the legislature “do what they can do, with the resources they have” and “getting all involved to make this happen, I think is the thing.”
Mark Albertson said he remembers when there were 42,000 people living in Norwalk and there were three working farms.
“Now we’re approaching 90,000 and yet many of the roads and the sidewalks haven’t been changed,” he said. “…Much of the town is obsolete. So that is going to lead to traffic problems and… some of (the sidewalks) have been around since the Olmstead Act.”
“I feel like we have a tendency to be traffic engineers ourselves,” Brian Brown said. “When you go to implement a solution, a lot of times it’s simply not feasible. Putting a police officer at a certain place over and over again is expensive. Police officers aren’t free. Traffic corrections aren’t free.”
A stop sign might stop a driver but then they might speed up to make up the time, he said.
“All of these situations need traffic engineers to intelligently put things in place,” he said.
“We are venting,” said Serafino Carri, Cozzarin’s husband, as he helped lead the meeting to a conclusion. “It’s about cooperating with law and political leaders because we can change the law as citizens. It take time, there’s a process, but if we do that, as an example, the remote surveillance piece could be real. But right now, officers are in charge of following the law, not creating the law.”
“We have to change the paradigm of it’s this up-down chain, it’s not an up-down chain, its a circle. We need to change the way we think,” Cozzarin said.
Afterwards, Steve Mann said it was “good to know so many others are bothered. Sadly the people who are the problem did not attend.”
Many of those who spoke out were long time Norwalkers, he said. “All need to realize that this city has changed dramatically from the good old days. Becoming a community of apartment dwellers has added a transient element that couldn’t care less for our safety or comfort. One commenter got it right – it all starts with enforcement. … in typical fashion the Mayor left before the comment period. Funny how that works.”
Unaffiliated Mayoral candidate Lisa Brinton also slammed Rilling for leaving, and said Norwalk’s infrastructure is not up to the increased density.
Rilling later told NancyOnNorwalk that he had a typically busy Saturday morning and left for another event. He’s spoken to Cozzarin and is “well aware of what is being planned and how we are going to go about it,” he said.
“As the former police chief I am well aware of the need for enforcement of motor vehicle laws,” he wrote. “However there are three components to motor vehicle safety, first being engineering, second being education and third being enforcement. We have a comprehensive effort in Norwalk and monitor motor vehicle conditions on a regular basis and we place our resources where they are most needed. Our police officers work hard and provide a tremendous service to our community.”
Steve Mann is a Chapman Hyperlocal Media Inc Board member.