September 23, 2009 started like any other day. I put on a black dress and heels and walked my eldest daughter to school before heading to the office. My 3-year-old daughter Elle stayed home with her babysitter until her noon preschool class would start. On the way to school, crossing the street next to our Manhattan apartment, the worst thing a parent could imagine happened: Elle was struck by a car. She was in the crosswalk on a green light. The driver was rushing parallel to her on a busy boulevard when he spotted a parking spot on a side street, so he threw his car in reverse and backed through the crosswalk, the wrong way down the one way street. There were many pedestrians in the crosswalk that day, but Elle was the smallest and the least visible. In the emergency room, the doctors said the impact was well over 20 mph.
Elle should not have survived the impact, but miraculously she did. The day after the accident, one of the blood clots in her brain, caused by the skull fracture she suffered on impact, erupted and caused a stroke. The stroke destroyed 2/3 of the left side of her brain. While she lay in a coma for two weeks, the neurologists warned us that if she woke up she would likely never speak again, never walk again and would probably not be able to move her right side.
The agony of hearing those words is almost indescribable. It was worsened when we discovered that the man who hit Elle was given nothing more than a simple traffic citation. While my daughter was fighting for her life, he paid a small fine. The police said if he'd been drunk he would have done jail time, but because he was sober and actively decided to drive illegally, he received a traffic ticket -- as if he had rolled through a stop sign. "The law is the law," the police sergeant explained politely but firmly. If I wanted, I could pursue the driver in civil court.
Accidents like this happen every day in New York and around the country. While Elle was in Pediatric ICU at New York Presbyterian Hospital, the nurses told me that at the start of each school year they see a rush of accidents involving children being struck by cars. After looking into the issue further I learned that 15,000 pedestrians are struck each year in New York, 10,000 of them in New York City. Only two percent of those accidents involve drugs and alcohol, and yet half of them are caused by driver error.
As I sat by Elle's bedside, I was determined to focus my energy on her recovery and on looking forward rather than backward. With the help of some wonderful friends and supporters, we set out to change the law, imposing tougher penalties on those who strike pedestrians while violating traffic codes. In April 2010 I traveled to Albany to tell Elle's story and to secure support for a bill we called Elle's Law. Two months later an amended version of the bill passed both houses unanimously, and on August 13, 2010, it was signed by Governor David Paterson. My hope is that Elle's Law will make drivers behave more responsibly, and ultimately reduce the number of pedestrian accidents that occur each year.
New York is now one of only 13 states with laws specific to pedestrian safety (a list of states without pedestrian safety laws can be found at Elleslaw.org). Hopefully it will not take more tragedies for lawmakers in the other 37 states to realize that the issue of pedestrian safety is one that affects every one of us, young and old. We are all pedestrians.
As for Elle, she has made an astounding recovery and continues to progress every day. She spent a total of eight months in the hospital and endured 11 surgeries, including a craniectomy to remove half of her skull after the stroke, and months later a cranioplasty to rebuild it with a prosthetic plate. She walks with the help of a splint, and attends daily therapy sessions to regain full use of her right arm and hand. But most amazing, her personality, language and mind are intact: cognitive tests show her to be a normal 4 year old. This September, nearly a year after the accident, Elle returned to school with the rest of her pre-K class, just as the law named for her went into effect.