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Thread: In the Land of Four Wheels, Immigrants Walk in Peril

  1. #1

    Default In the Land of Four Wheels, Immigrants Walk in Peril

    February 29, 2004

    In the Land of Four Wheels, Immigrants Walk in Peril


    Miguel Mayorga, 36, walks home every night after work at the Pancake Cottage on Long Island. He said he enjoyed the exercise he gets walking to and from work.

    Mario Rivas, 28, was struck by a Jeep in 2003. "Sometimes I don't know why I'm still alive," he said.

    When a craving for cigarettes struck him one January night, Jose Cortes leaped onto his black mountain bike and sped away to the gas station down the street from his home in Hicksville, N.Y. He told his family he would be quick.

    But like scores of Hispanics who try to navigate the automotive jungle of Long Island on two wheels or two feet, Mr. Cortes, 23, never returned home. At 10 p.m. on Jan. 6, a 1993 Ford Taurus slammed into Mr. Cortes, killing him.

    In that instant, Mr. Cortes became not only the object of his family's outpouring of grief but also a disturbing statistic. In a region where almost everyone drives, Hispanic residents, many of them poor and without cars, are victims of pedestrian and bike fatalities in disproportionate numbers.

    About 10 percent of Long Islanders are Hispanic, according to census data, though demographers say they now make up closer to 15 percent of the population. But Hispanics made up 43 percent of Nassau County's 35 pedestrian deaths in 2002, and 35 percent of the fatalities last year, according to statistics from the New York State Department of Health and the Nassau County Medical Examiner. In neighboring Suffolk County, Hispanics accounted for 21 percent of the 28 fatal pedestrian accidents in 2002 and 30 percent of the 44 deaths in 2003, according to the State Health Department and Suffolk's medical examiner. There was no breakdown on Hispanics involved in fatal bike accidents.

    Those statistics get at an evolving suburban truth: As more and more Hispanics move into the suburbs, they risk injury or death because they walk and ride bicycles in a place where the roads are often dark, the sidewalks scarce and traffic menacing. Daily commutes and trips to the grocery store have become perilous dances with oncoming traffic.

    It is a pattern found in suburbs across the country, from Atlanta to Washington, to Los Angeles, where the percentage of Hispanics struck by vehicles and killed is two to three times as much as their representation in the population, according to Michelle Ernst, an analyst for the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a traffic safety advocacy group.

    "It's a huge part of the problem," Ms. Ernst said. "We're seeing a lot of communities being built without the pedestrian in mind, and we expect it's going to be more and more of a problem."

    On Long Island, some are killed as they walk to bus stops. Some die as they bicycle down four-lane highways. Others are recent immigrants unaccustomed to the pace and rules of New York traffic, and they are struck crossing against a traffic signal. Still others walk home drunk in the middle of the street, and never notice the headlights behind them.

    "I hear all kinds of stories, oh my God," said John Vanegas, 22, who works at a recycling plant in Westbury. As he walked home on Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Vanegas, an immigrant, described how a friend had slipped on his bike and skidded into the street and how a co-worker's cousin was killed by a drunk driver. "Every single day, we do the same thing," Mr. Vanegas said. "We walk. It's really dangerous."

    Some deaths, like Mr. Cortes's, result in arrests, but a survey of newspaper clippings over the past two years shows that the majority of Hispanic pedestrian fatalities do not. (The Nassau and Suffolk Police Departments said they do not keep data broken down by ethnicity.) Sometimes, the person disobeys a traffic signal, or runs in front of oncoming traffic, the police said.

    Often, though, victims' relatives say, the victims are blameless. In October, Maria Elana Espinosa was crossing Clearmeadow Drive in Hempstead when a GMC Suburban stopped at a red light, turned right and hit her, according to a police accident report. Ms. Espinosa lingered in the hospital with head injuries and died a month later, and the driver was never ticketed or charged, according to the Nassau County police.

    Ms. Espinosa, 58, a Colombian immigrant, lived a lonely life that revolved around the Catholic church, baby-sitting jobs, and fending off the effects of lupus, her niece, Nurian Robert, said. Because she had endured so much, her death carried a special sting, Ms. Robert said.

    "It's very unfair," said Ms. Robert, who wants the driver to face some legal penalty. "She was just trying so hard. The last month of her life was just dreadful."

    According to Nassau's data, the accidents are clustered by time and place. Most occurred in Hempstead and West Hempstead, where Hispanics make up 12.5 percent of the population, according to census figures. Most happened between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m., and on clogged thoroughfares like the Hempstead Turnpike or Northern Boulevard. Suffolk County did not provide similar data.

    The families and stories left behind after these crashes are scattered across Long Island. In a small home in Far Rockaway, a man named Walter Garcia recalls the way he lost his wife, Marta, and mother, also named Marta, in a car accident on Dec. 1.

    "It's like losing your life," Mr. Garcia said.

    The women, both Salvadoran immigrants, had spent the day cleaning a home in Hewlett and were walking toward a bus stop when, despite a red light, they stepped into an intersection and the path of a Mercury station wagon, according to a Nassau County Police report. The report said an inactive streetlight had left the intersection dark.

    Life was hard for Mr. Garcia's wife, who was hobbled by diabetes. She leaned on her mother-in-law for companionship, Mr. Garcia said. The women rose early three times a week and slowly made their way to the bus that took them to Long Island.

    According to 2000 census data, Hispanics on Long Island are twice as likely as whites to walk to work, and six times more likely to ride a bike or take the bus, a trip that usually involves a few blocks' walk to and from the bus stop. "This is part of their desperate situation," said the Rev. Allan Ramirez, who works with Hispanic immigrants on Long Island. "They have no choice but to walk to many of these places. If they're lucky, they get a bicycle. They're on the road, they're on the street."

    Many immigrant men and women who walk to and from bus stops or to jobs cleaning houses or cooking at restaurants during warmer months pile into a friend's car during the winter.

    But in Farmingville and Southampton, Great Neck and Westbury, a few still hike along the sides of the roads, their hands and heads sheathed in gloves and scarves. Some said they wanted driver's licenses, but were not eligible; others said they wanted cars, but could not afford them.

    Miguel Mayorga, 36, is one of the few who enjoys the foot commute. At 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Mr. Mayorga walked home down Montauk Highway after finishing work as a cook at the Pancake Cottage, smoking a cigarette in the frigid air. Reflective stripes on his black pants glinted in the moonlight.

    Cars flew by, and Mr. Mayorga said in Spanish that he enjoyed the 20-minute walks to and from work, and the quiet and exercise they provide. As he spoke, a pickup truck pulled up alongside him, and his friends beckoned: "Miguel! Miguel! Come on!" He walked on.

    Roads like the Montauk Highway and the very layout of the suburbs pose a danger to the people who travel on foot, said Luis Arteaga, director of the Latino Issues Forum in San Francisco.

    Mr. Arteaga said that there are problems with the way the roads are laid out, and a lack of crosswalks, sidewalks and streetlights. They are dangerous arteries between city centers and outer suburbs, he said. Early suburbs, now heavily populated by Hispanics and other minorities, are squeezed in the middle.

    For the Hispanic immigrants who survive a crash, the physical trauma is mere prelude. Many, like Mario Rivas, 28, have few relatives and friends in the United States. Once agile and strong, they adjust to weakened bodies in an unfamiliar country.

    Mr. Rivas mowed lawns for a living before he was struck by a Jeep in September 2003 in East Hampton.

    He had just finished loading lawnmowers onto a trailer on the side of the road when he was hit. His legs were nearly sheared off below mid-thigh. When he woke up two days later in the hospital, his legs felt like they were burning. Now, he says he has no clue how to make a living in America.

    "Sometimes I don't know why I'm still alive," Mr. Rivas said, in practiced English. "I always thought I was going to work and save some money and go back to Mexico. Now, I don't know."

    His brother lives in the Hamptons, and his mother flew to New York two weeks after the accident. He wonders if he will ever have a girlfriend again.

    People have donated much to Mr. Rivas to help his recovery, and during a physical therapy session, he stood on a new pair of prosthetic limbs and paced a white linoleum corridor. It was hard work, and sweat beaded on his forehead.

    "How are you feeling today?" asked his therapist, Ed Wormold.

    Mr. Rivas took a shallow breath.


    Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

  2. #2


    Roads not pedestrian-friendly


    May 3, 2004

    With two fatal pedestrian accidents on Sunrise Highway and another on Suffolk Avenue in the past two weeks, a grim reality about Long Island's roads is again evident - that they are among the deadliest in the country for walkers.

    One in four of those who die on the roads here is a pedestrian - more than double the national average, according to a Newsday analysis of traffic deaths in 2000. That year, 72 pedestrians died on Long Island.

    "To put it in the simplest possible terms, our entire highway system is not designed with the pedestrian in mind," said Lee Koppelman, executive director of the Long Island Regional Planning Board. "It's been totally vehicular-oriented."

    Last Sunday, Elias Puluc, a day-laborer returning from a bathroom break, was hit by a car as he crossed Sunrise Highway in Islip Terrace. Puluc, 25, of Speonk, died the next day.

    Last Monday night, Antonio Guardado, 45, of Brentwood was struck and killed by a passing car on the shoulder of Suffolk Avenue as he got out to examine damage after rear-ending another car.

    And on Saturday night, a popular Lindenhurst High School 11th-grader was killed and a classmate critically injured as they tried to cross Sunrise Highway, east of Wellwood Avenue.

    Sunrise Highway, a state route that is policed by highway patrols in the two counties, is one of the worst roads for pedestrians on the Island, Koppelman said, partly because, since the 1960s, it has become a "limited-access highway." That system, which allows cars to enter and pedestrians to cross only at specific locations, is designed to keep traffic moving fast. It has the side effect, however, of increasing the temptation for pedestrians to cross between crosswalks or overpasses, Koppelman said.

    "If you're a pedestrian, and for whatever reason the store you want to go to is across the highway from where you live, you don't want to walk a mile and a half to get to a safe crossing," Koppelman said. "The only way you could improve it in terms of pedestrian safety is you'd have to build a series of well-spaced overpasses."

    But in the meantime, Koppelman said pedestrians should "stay off the limited-access highways. Is your life worth the 10 minutes you save?"

    Copyright © 2004, Newsday, Inc.

    I hate driving on the Sunrise Highway.

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