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Demanding Change in Philadelphia: Latanya Byrd’s Unstoppable Advocacy in Her Loved Ones’ Honor

    by Latanya Byrd

    July 16th 2013 was a cool evening after a very hot day. A good evening for a family walk after a gathering with relatives. 

    My niece Samara and three of my nephews had traveled this route many times. This was their neighborhood. Families should be able to walk in their neighborhood.

    Samara and her children: Saa’mir, Saa’sean, Saa’deem

    The path home – though it was their only walking route – wasn’t designed for people, but for fast-moving cars. Roosevelt Boulevard in Philadelphia is a treacherous, fast, and chaotic roadway that is really a highway that cuts right through a neighborhood where a lot of people live.

    The route that took my family home had no crosswalk and no light. The baby, Saa’mir was strapped to Samara’s chest in the carrier, and my nephew Saa’sean was in his stroller, while Saa’deem held onto the stroller, huddled close to Samara, their mother, as they crossed. They were about six feet from the other end of the street. A drag-racing driver took their lives in an instant. Samira’s eldest, 5-year-old Saa’yon, walking just ahead of the group with Samira’s sister, turned around to see his mom and brothers perish. 

    When my loved ones were taken I didn’t know what else to do but dedicate myself to changing the situation on Roosevelt Boulevard and throughout the city.

    I co-founded the Greater Philadelphia chapter of Families for Safe Streets with Laura Fredricks, whose daughter Emily was killed by a reckless truck driver. I’ve become very familiar with the commute to the state’s capital in Harrisburg, and I’ve shared my family’s story more times than I ever could count. We have so much work to do.

    In 2019 we began fighting for speed safety cameras, and in 2020 we won State approval for a pilot program and the first cameras were installed on Roosevelt Boulevard. There are now 40 cameras along Philadelphia’s most dangerous road. Not even a year after the speed safety cameras were installed on Roosevelt Blvd, speeding dropped 92% – and between 2020 and 2022, fatal crashes dropped 57%. Crashes are down 36%.

    Some people push back about the cost of these tickets – but I have to say the things that no one wants to hear. These cameras are not a money grab – the funds go back into street engineering, and they are helping the people who need it most. Roosevelt cuts through many underserved neighborhoods. Our most vulnerable need to be protected – because when they are protected, we all are.

    World Day of Remembrance (WDoR) has been and continues to be a critical platform for our community. We held last year’s WDoR at Butler Triangle, another area of Philadelphia in desperate need of attention. Pennsylvania State Senator Sharif Street stood with us and spoke – and he later helped to fund safety fixes at Butler, including public spaces, extended pedestrian medians, and signal changes.

    Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney signs legislation to bring speed cameras to Roosevelt Boulevard. June 19, 2019

    But the challenges keep coming. This year our World Day of Remembrance will once again focus on ensuring that evidence-based safety strategies such as speed cameras can be used to save lives. The pilot program that has saved so many lives is sunsetting and we just can’t let that happen. We’ll be supporting HB 1284 and SB748. 

    SB748 requests elimination of the sunset clause, but doesn’t expand automated enforcement to other dangerous roads in Philadelphia. We want permanent automated speed enforcement throughout our city to keep everyone safe and alive.

    Samara was my first niece. She was such a great Mom. She loved her children and made all of our lives fun and beautiful. There are too many political layers and we’re trying to save lives – it shouldn’t take that long. We know that life-saving strategies exist to help save lives on our streets – including speed safety cameras and redesigning roads like Roosevelt Blvd. to be slower and safer. It should not take so much effort for loved ones like me to work for safety, but I will continue, because I need to know Samara and her children did not die in vain. 

    Long-hoped-for news came in January when Latanya and fellow advocates learned that the city had received a $78 million dollar Infrastructure grant to address the perilous conditions on Roosevelt Boulevard, where Latanya’s loved ones and more than 100 others lost their lives between 2012-2021.