On Sunday night, a young couple’s leisurely stroll up Fulton Avenue in Fort Greene turned into a nightmare. An SUV careened onto the sidewalk, purportedly to avoid hitting a bus, and struck Victoria Nicodemus, 30, her boyfriend, and a 75-year-old woman. Nicodemus, an art curator, athlete, and lover of Christmas, received the brunt of the blow; she was pronounced dead at Brooklyn Hospital shortly afterward. An upsetting video posted by DNAinfo shows the vehicle jumping onto the sidewalk; it materializes recklessly and without warning. Walking peacefully in the center of the pedestrian pathway, the couple didn’t have a moment to get out of the way.
After the tragedy, Gothamist reported outraged tweets from neighbors—this was the second tragic pedestrian death in the neighborhood in two years due to reckless SUV driving—and a letter from Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White, demanding that Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson use “the full extent of the law” to hold the unlicensed driver, 39-year-old Marlon Sewell, accountable for Nicodemus’ death. The DA must “send a strong message that reckless driving will not be tolerated,” wrote Steely White. Yesterday, collective outrage was left unanswered, and the law’s “full extent” failed to live up to Steely White’s hopes: Sewell was charged with two misdemeanors.
As a followup to the charges—third degree aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle, and driving without a license—Gothamist reported another note from local Councilmembers Laurie Cumbo and and Stephen Levin. The tone was muted, and its focus was not on lawmakers or the NYPD, but rather on pedestrians and drivers, urging them to, please, be more careful. “Safe and responsible driving methods are vital to ensuring the health and safety of pedestrians, motorists and all members of the community,” the note reads. Plus, it informed the Nicodemus’ family, they were sending thoughts and prayers. Gothamist followed up, asking if the council members wouldn’t also send a request to the NYPD to ramp up speed and reckless driving patrol. A spokesperson responded, “We have not made that request, but hope to engage in conversation with NYPD to increase pedestrian safety.”
The toned-down response is depressing, not only considering the death of Nicodemus, but moreover, in this broader context: Sunday’s fatality was the twentieth death this year due to “an out-of-control driver careening onto a sidewalk,” according to Transportation Alternative’s Steely White.
Rather than sending out the impotent wish that people try to be more careful, Steely White suggests something stronger: different legislation. First and foremost, he says, people who kill when unlicensed, like Sewell, should, as a matter of course, face tougher penalties. State Senator Michael Gianaris’ current speed legislation, he says, must be toughened. But even more immediately, the number of speeding and reckless cars can be curtailed through more pragmatic, very achievable measures. Namely, writes Steely White, the NYPD must make speed-enforcement a priority and the number of automated enforcement cameras allowed under state law should not only be increased, they should also operate 24-7 and exist in areas outside school zones. Currently, per the law overseen by Gianaris, cameras are required to be within a quarter mile of schools. He is however reported to be working on legislation to toughen penalties for anyone who drives with a suspended license.
I happened to have been one block up the street from Habana Outpost, the restaurant outside of which Nicodemus was killed, on Sunday. I walked outside 20 minutes after it happened to another local restaurant, as dozens of people lugged their freshly bought Christmas trees home, around the periphery of the crime seen. It became immediately apparent that what happened to Nicodemus could happen to anyone. It is only within our power to keep our eyes open and do what we’re told, but this is proving to be not enough. The power bestowed to legislators and law enforcement exists to address just this type of crisis; they need to start using it.
Follow Natalie Rinn on twitter @natalierinn