Sunday, Feb. 5, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Today would have been my son Jonny’s 16th birthday. Instead, this month marks the fourth birthday I have spent without him.
In March of 2019, Jonny was killed by a speeding driver while walking home from school. As Jonny crossed the street at an intersection that lacked a crosswalk or stoplight, he and a friend were hit by a driver going 67 mph. The speed limit was 35.
Since Jonny’s death, I have become a fervent advocate for safer roads and safer infrastructure generally. These days, I regularly volunteer for UNLV’s Vulnerable Road Users program and speak at public safety events hosted by Las Vegas Metro. I share my story in the hopes that it will make an impression on drivers and hopefully save lives.
I don’t remember much from the week that Jonny passed. But I distinctly remember what happened at the candlelight vigil we held for Jonny two days after his death. Justin Jones, the county commissioner for our district, approached me and asked what he could do to help ease my pain. I told him, “Put a stoplight and a crosswalk at that intersection.” He promised me he would get it done. And within a year, the stoplight and crosswalk were there.
When the intersection where Jonny was killed became safer for other children, it restored some of my hope, both in our government and in people generally. This hope was strengthened in late 2021, when President Joe Biden signed into law the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which is investing over $13 billion dollars to make roads safer in the United States. The funds from this legislation are building safe, sustainable infrastructure that will save lives, create over 700,000 new jobs and fuel the American economy.
These investments could not come at a more critical time. The first half of 2022 saw a big jump in traffic fatalities across the United States, hitting the highest rate in 20 years. During that period, the number of traffic fatalities in Nevada increased by 24%. Every one of those persons killed was someone’s child. No parent should ever have to lose their baby to reckless driving and bad infrastructure.
The new funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will more than double the amount of money that the Department of Transportation invests in the safety of our nation’s people and surface vehicles. Much of this funding will go directly to local governments in the form of grants that community leaders and construction experts can use to prioritize projects that will make local road infrastructure safer, especially for pedestrians and cyclists.
Local governments will be vital in implementing these improvements, which are guided by new federal standards for stoplight and crosswalk safety. Between these monumental investments from the federal government and the specialized expertise of local leaders, Americans nationwide will soon be able to count on a safer commute with their families.
As I mark Jonny’s 16th birthday, I like to imagine the two of us sitting on the couch together as he opens a few gifts. He loved to golf, so maybe I’d get him some new clubs. Or perhaps a book on science to stimulate his curious mind; he wanted to become an engineer when he grew up. Today, Jonny would no doubt be taller than me and excited to use his new driving privileges to take us to dinner.
Sadly, I will never know how Jonny and I would truly have celebrated. Jonny’s birthday is a difficult and tragic day for me, but I don’t want it to be; I want to turn it into a day of joy for others. Every year on Feb. 5, I use the money I would have spent on Jonny’s presents to buy toys for the children at Sunrise Children’s Hospital — a place that is special to me, as it’s where my daughter Emily received excellent care when she was diagnosed with diabetes as a child.
Over time, friends, family and members of the community have joined me in donating to the hospital. Last year, we filled up two SUVs and were able to provide the children at Sunrise with over $3,000 worth of toys, from baby dolls to coloring books to race cars.
I know what it’s like to lose a child. That is why I am so committed to making sure no other parent has to spend a birthday mourning their baby. And now that the Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act is making the largest federal investment in road safety in American history, that hope is closer than ever to becoming a reality.
That is the best gift I could hope for on Jonny’s birthday. Happy birthday, my baby boy.
Suzan Smith lives in Las Vegas, where she works as a server, student and advocate.