On the eve of Yom Kippur, Orly Ohayon and her mother stood at an intersection in suburban Jacksonville, Fla., on their way to synagogue for Kol Nidre services.
As they crossed eight-lane San Jose Boulevard, the pair was struck by a Toyota Camry, killing Esther Benzohar Ohayon, 57, and leaving Orly, 16, with several broken bones and torn ligaments.
This was no ordinary tragic traffic accident. Jewish residents and safety advocates say the prohibition against observant Jews like the Ohayons pushing the “walk” button on Shabbat and holidays made it virtually impossible for them to cross the busy road safely.
At the Jacksonville intersection, pedestrians have 42 seconds to cross if they push the ‘walk’ button — but less than half that time if they don’t.
“It’s terrible [and] it’s confusing,” said Rick Block, an attorney. “We teach people to obey traffic lights and they do and they die.”
The heartbreak of the deadly crash is compounded by the knowledge that it might have been prevented in many different ways.
The driver, Michael Fortunato, 66, was not charged by police, apparently because reports said he had a green light at the time of the crash. But Fortunato also has a long history of traffic violations dating back to 1996, including a crash that killed a 6-year-old girl in 2009 less than a mile away from the spot where the Ohayons were struck.
Jon Mitzmacher, head of the Jacksonville Jewish Center’s Galinsky Academy, where Esther Ohayon taught pre-school, said that “there have been a lot of near-misses” over the years at the corner.
“Even if they get the light, they’re not getting the full light,” Mitzmacher said. “You’re pushing strollers and you get halfway at the median.”
Esther Ohayon’s body was returned to Israel, where her other three children live. Orly Ohayon is slowly recovering and has been released from the hospital to a physical rehabilitation center.
The accident reflects a problem that is not unique to Jacksonville or even Florida. In many car-friendly states, traffic signals are designed first and foremost to move traffic smoothly, not necessarily to allow pedestrians to cross safely.
Florida has the second highest pedestrian fatality rate in the nation, with 420 deaths in 2011, according to National Highway Transit Safety Association statistics. California is first, with 625 pedestrian deaths.