How tragedy transformed David Shephard into a safe streets champion

December 14, 2017

On the night after Thanksgiving in 2009, as David Shephard and his fiancée Sonya Powell were walking home from Black Friday shopping, a speeding driver plowed through the Baychester Avenue crosswalk they were using. Sonya was struck and killed before David’s eyes.

Sonya and Dave color adjusted
David Shephard and his fiancée Sonya Powell

“I was devastated,” David says. “And I was angry. I was angry not just at that driver but at the culture of reckless driving, particularly what I noticed in the Bronx. Two days later, crossing at that same crosswalk, I was almost hit by another driver, and a few months prior to the accident there had been a huge vigil for some other people who had died in traffic – it was just out of control.”

Then David was referred to Transportation Alternatives by friends, and he saw an opportunity to give meaning to his anger.

The same weekend that Sonya had died, two other New Yorkers had been killed by drivers with suspended licenses. Less than two weeks later, David joined their families and Transportation Alternatives on the steps of City Hall and called for the city to take steps to prevent future deaths. "Sonya was a kind and loving person who touched the lives of thousands of people,” he said at the time. “She would have wanted any legislative action possible to ensure that this type of tragedy doesn't happen to any other family."

David began appearing with TransAlt at other high-profile news conferences, calling on the city and state legislature to take action to prevent further deaths. His first big win with TransAlt was the passage of the Saving Lives Through Better Information Bill of 2011, which compelled the NYPD to release its data on traffic crashes and traffic summonses to the public on a monthly basis. “Before that, if you asked, for example, ‘How many people got killed on Baychester Avenue this year,’ it was very difficult to get those statistics from the NYPD,” says David. He testified before council members at City Hall in favor of the bill, drawing on his professional expertise as a system administrator as well as his position as the fiancé of a traffic violence victim. “We compelled the City to pass that law,” he says, despite strong opposition from the NYPD. By then, David was a committed TransAlt activist.

It was around this same time that TransAlt began a major push to get Vision Zero adopted as official New York City policy. The Swedish-developed approach to road traffic safety is based on the principle that every traffic death is unacceptable, and that transportation system designers can reduce traffic deaths through better design. Once he learned about Vision Zero, David was on board immediately. “I attended some workshops and seminars with TransAlt on it and I just really bit into the concept,” he says.

first press conf 2009 3
David speaks at his first TransAlt press conference, weeks after Sonya was killed.

Inspired, David worked intensively with TransAlt in 2012 to establish a Neighborhood Slow Zone in his neighborhood, one of the first in the city. The Slow Zone program, which was first established in 2011 after a year of TransAlt advocacy, allows communities to apply for a reduced 20mph speed limit and other traffic safety measures within a select neighborhood area. After months of hard work by David and other TransAlt advocates, the application was finally approved, and the street where Sonya had been killed three years before was made safer.

The next year, 2013, was a mayoral election year. TransAlt took this opportunity to launch a major Vision Zero push, seeking to secure a commitment from all mayoral candidates that they would treat traffic violence as a serious problem. After receiving more than 4,500 letters from Transportation Alternatives activists and personal pleas from crash survivors and members of victims’ families, including David Shephard, mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio announced that, if elected, his administration would launch a citywide Vision Zero initiative. Shortly after taking office, de Blasio announced his commitment to Vision Zero – and the DOT asked David Shephard to be a part of it.

“The DOT asked to use my voice and image to announce the Vision Zero initiative,” says David. He was featured in the Reckless Driving Kills campaign, which launched in May 2014 and was featured throughout the city on bus shelters, billboards, online, on the radio, in taxis, in movie theaters, and at Yankees, Nets, and Mets home games. In the print ads, he was shown holding a photo of Sonya, along with the text ‘A driver’s choice killed my fiancée. Your choices matter.’ “I can’t say how many times I’d be out somewhere and see my face or hear my voice,” he says. “It was always so surprising.”

In early 2014, David joined with other TransAlt activists to found Families for Safe Streets, an advocacy and peer support group comprised of traffic violence victims and their families who seek to eliminate traffic deaths and injuries in New York City. In their first year, they worked with TransAlt on a historical campaign to lower the city’s speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph, an unprecedented change which required winning the support of both houses of the State Legislature. “No one thought we could do it,” says David – but they did. By the end of 2014, the lower speed limit had been signed into law. Today, Families for Safe Streets has hundreds of members, and the group is currently fighting in Albany again to win speed cameras in front of every school in NYC.

David attributes the effectiveness of Families for Safe Streets to the way it humanizes the impact of traffic violence. “When we put a face to the family member that was lost, how these devastating crashes affect family members and loved ones,” he says, “I think when people see that, it’s stronger than one assemblyman talking to another.”

2014 with MBK
David and another FSS member, Mary Beth Kelly, hold photos of their loved ones.

Despite the many victories he’s helped win, David, who recently became a member of TransAlt’s Advisory Board, says humbly, “It’s been a pretty decent eight years. I just wish we could have done even more. And I hope to god we can continue to do more – I want us to pass the speed camera bill, I want to get more minorities involved with our mission.

“We know that a thousand police officers writing a thousand tickets a day will not make streets safer,” he says. “And we know what will make them safer – we have evidence, we have case studies from other countries who have implemented Vision Zero. TransAlt has done a great job over the years recognizing the importance of that, demonstrating it to the public, getting elected officials on board, and they’re behind so many of these changes we’ve seen in New York.

“If you doubt that this mission is important,” he says, “look at the statistics. Look at the number of people hurt and killed by traffic violence. Compare that to gun violence – they’re almost exactly the same in New York City. We have got to stop this culture of reckless driving. That’s why we’re here. We’re here to make the streets safer, and we’re here to send a message to drivers that these things are important because these are people.”

David still finds it difficult to speak about Sonya. “She was a loving person who gave service to other people,” he says. “She worked as a nurse, and she loved her patients – she cared for her patients more than she cared for herself.”

“You know, it’s not always easy to do this work and relive what happened,” he says. “After eight years, it just feels like it was yesterday. But I always tell people, if we save one child’s life, if we save one mother from having to go through the grief of losing a child, then it’s worth it.”


Stand with David today in supporting Transportation Alternatives. You can help us empower traffic violence victims and their families to turn their grief into change – and you can help us ensure that, someday soon, their numbers stop growing. (From now until the New Year, every dollar you give will be matched by an anonymous local foundation up to $600,000.)