Maya Hirsch with her father, courtesy of the Stop for Maya foundation.
On Wednesday Chicago City Council approved a $3.25 million settlement with the family of Maya Hirsch, a four-year-old girl who was killed by a hit-and-run driver in Lincoln Park, possibly due to poorly placed signs and faded crosswalks. Under the Emanuel administration the city has ramped up its efforts to improve pedestrian safety, but the settlement highlights the need to continue these efforts, which will help prevent similar tragedies.
On the afternoon of May 20, 2006, after visiting the Lincoln Park Zoo, Maya and her mother and older brother were crossing the intersection of Belden Avenue and Lincoln Park West to catch a cab when Michael Roth, 57, driving northbound, ran the stop sign. Roth, who had worked as a driving instructor in the early 1980s, but had his driver’s license revoked for several years after two DUI convictions, had a valid license at the time of the crash.
When Roth’s car struck the three pedestrians, Maya’s mom and brother went over the hood, sustaining minor injuries, but the little girl went under the vehicle and was dragged about four car lengths. Although witnesses shouted for Roth to stop and chased his car, he continued driving and disappeared into traffic. Maya was taken to nearby Children’s Memorial Hospital where she died from her injuries. When the police tracked down Roth via his vanity plates and arrested him at his home, he claimed he hadn’t even driven that day.
Two days after the crash the city repainted the faded crosswalk lines at the site and installed new traffic signs, including oversized stop signs. City records show that one year later the intersection was reconfigured with curb bump-outs that shortened the pedestrian crossing distance by several feet, and slightly raised crosswalks that make the striping more visible.
Bump-outs at the Belden and Lincoln Park West intersection reduce the crossing distance by about half.
In June of 2007 Roth pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of a fatal accident but claimed he hadn’t seen the stop sign before the crash. Two witnesses at his trial testified that they had regularly seen motorists running the stop sign at the intersection. Roth was sentenced to eight years in prison but died of natural causes after less than a year behind bars. That year City Council passed “Maya’s Law,” imposing stiffer fines on those who run stop signs: $100 for the first offense, $500 for the second and $1,000 for the third.
Maya’s family eventually sued the city after it was discovered that, at the time of the crash, the signs and markings at the intersection weren’t up to the city’s official standards. The stop sign Roth claimed he didn’t see was two inches lower than the seven feet required by city ordinance.
A “No Parking – Tow Zone” sign was only 11.5 feet from the stop bar instead of the required thirty feet, which meant that cars parked close to the intersection made it harder to see the stop sign and pedestrians entering the street. [Steven notes that “daylighting,” the prohibition of parking within thirty feet of the stop bar to improve sight lines, in Chicago is often not marked with no parking signs.] And the faded crosswalk lines had been last striped six years before the crash with paint that was only formulated to last for one year.
The crash site intersection has been “daylighted” with parking moved about 20′ behind the stop bar, still less than the officially required 30′.
Under Mayor Emanuel and Chicago Department of Transportation commissioner Gabe Klein, the city has taken many steps to improve pedestrian safety, demonstrating the city’s changing transportation priorities. The transportation department has repainted hundreds of crosswalks with high-visibility zebra-stripe markings. New leading pedestrian interval traffic signals give walkers a head start over turning vehicles. Existing red light cameras and incoming speed cameras will discourage dangerous driving. Recently the city began installing hundreds of “Stop for pedestrians within crosswalk” signs to remind drivers of the new state law. And the city’s Chicago Forward action agenda states the goal of reducing traffic fatalities to zero.
The $3.25 million settlement underscores the importance of continuing these improvements. It’s unfortunate that taxpayer money has to be spent this way when the same amount could have paid for 8,125 “Stop for pedestrians” signs, which are purchased, sited and installed for $400 each.
But hopefully the settlement will help bring a sense of closure to Maya’s family. It’s fortunate that they had the wherewithal to pursue the lawsuit, which has done much to raise awareness of safety issues. The traffic deaths of all children, from all backgrounds and economic levels, in all parts of the city, deserve the same attention as this high-profile case.
While the settlement will never bring Maya back to her family, I’m guessing that some of the money will be used to create change for the better. After her death, the Stop for Maya foundation was created to promote “harmony and awareness among pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers on Chicago’s busy roadways,” according to the nonprofit’s website. The organization has also raised thousands of dollars for the Children’s Memorial Hospital Bereavement Program, which offers support to families coping with the death of a child. And I hope that it’s some solace to the Hirsch family that part of their daughter’s legacy will be safer conditions for all pedestrians in Chicago.