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Deadly Yom Kippur Crash Spurs Safety Push for Observant Jewish Pedestrians

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.

Observant Jews are particularly vulnerable because of the religious prohibition against using electrical devices on Shabbat and holidays.

“Observant Jewish pedestrians must exercise every possible precaution while walking to and from synagogue, or while visiting friends, on Shabbat,” Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, Executive Vice President Emeritus of the Orthodox Union wrote in an email to the Forward.

Weinreb said Orthodox Jews are forced to wear light-colored clothing or even reflective belts when walking to services in his hometown of Monsey, N.Y., where many neighborhoods have no sidewalks and poor street lighting.

“More needs to be done,” he said.

According to Yaakov Fisch, rabbi at Etz Chaim Synagogue, the Orthodox congregation that the Ohayons were set to attend, roughly 250 people brave the dangerous intersection every week to get to services.

“In general, Florida is not a state that’s friendly to pedestrians,” said Fisch. “You see that from the top down: the way the roads are made, what considerations are given to sidewalks — it’s just not a place that encourages people to walk.”

Mitzmacher noted that both the Conservative and Orthodox synagogues are across the highway from where most of Jacksonville’s Jews live. The problem is not as acute for Reform Jews, who mostly take a more flexible approach to using cars or electricity on Shabbat.

“Most people who are walkers are not willing to push the button,” Mitzmacher said. “So you have a situation where you have families of Conservatives and Orthodox jaywalking every holiday.”

Block represented the family of 6-year-old Kaitlin Springer after she was struck and killed by Fortunato. He says traffic safety systems shouldn’t assume that pedestrians, Jewish or not, will push the “walk” button to cross busy streets.

“We all watch the traffic lights,” he said. “Most people… follow the green light.”

Scott Bricker, director of America Walks, an organization promoting walkable communities, says a number of longer-term options exist to mitigate risks for those who cannot press crosswalk buttons or other timer-engaging mechanisms.

One option raised by Fisch is to construct a pedestrian bridge, similar to those at other intersections around Jacksonville.

Another is an automated pedestrian detection sensor system, initially developed in the United Kingdom and already in place in a number of American cities — including San Francisco, Tucson and Las Vegas — to accommodate slower pedestrians. This device senses when a pedestrian is waiting at a crosswalk, sending a signal to engage a “walk” sign and keep the light red for oncoming cars. In some cases, the system can determine whether or not a person needs more time to cross, altering the timer accordingly.

According to the pedestrian safety guide and countermeasure system put out by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration, the cost to install a pedestrian hybrid signal system ranges from $50,000 to $120,000, and costs roughly $4,000 a year to maintain.

In Tucson, Ariz., where over 100 such devices were installed, statistics showed a 70% reduction potential in pedestrian crossing crashes.

Tova Rosenbloom, senior lecturer in the department of management of Bar-Ilan University, who has studied the compliance of ultra-Orthodox Jews to traffic regulations, noted that similar sensor-based traffic devices have been installed at some intersections in Israel, with some success.

Of course, none of these solutions come without political pressure, especially given their cost.

In 2002, the Shaarey Zedek congregation in Valley Village, Calif. outside Los Angeles filed suit against the Metropolitan Transit Authority to halt the construction of a busway that would cross the community.

The congregation claimed the project would create a dangerous obstacle to residents needing to cross the street on their way to shul. Though the project eventually went through as planned, the congregation’s current rabbi said that behind-the-scenes negotiations with people in power have improved the walking conditions for pedestrians.

“It only can work if you have the relationship with the city government,” said Rabbi Jonathan Rosenberg of Shaarey Zedek. “If they don’t hear from us and we don’t have anyone to connect with, then they’ll do what we have to do and we’ll be ignored.”

Roughly three months ago, Fisch reached out to Republican U.S. Rep. Charles McBurney of Jacksonville, Fla., to push for a longer crossing interval at the intersection on Shabbat. His request went unanswered until after the fatal accident involving the Ohayons.

After the crash, McBurney met with Fisch last week. Representatives from both Etz Chaim and the neighboring Conservative Jacksonville Jewish Center, are scheduled to meet with Florida Department of Transportation and city officials on September 30.

Despite the newfound impetus, any permanent solution will depend on a compromise between what the state can provide and what fits into Jewish religious law.

Rabbis said there are questions about whether observant pedestrians would be permitted to cross the intersection if they know that their presence triggers the electronic sensor system.

“This has been gut-wrencher,” said Mike Goldman, public information officer for the Jacksonville office of the state Department of Transportation, who is a Reform Jew himself. “We can tell [them] what we can do but we also need to know what is acceptable. For example, [would] solar power technology be acceptable to the rabbi?”

For Fisch, the issue runs beyond the Jewish community — and any solution should accommodate the needs of anyone who walks for religious, social or economic reasons.

“We feel that this is not a Jewish issue even though it happened to one of ours,” he said. “This is a public safety issue.”

Though change seems to be underway in Jacksonville, pedestrian advocates like Bricker note that whatever action is taken will simply mark the beginning of a larger struggle.

“A city like Jacksonville will continue to be very challenged with the safety of citizens trying to walk across the street until the community and its leaders get serious about this issue,” Bricker said. “How many deaths will it take?”

Contact Anne Cohen at [email protected]

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