Pedestrian and cyclist safety bill inspired by Oscar Zanoni’s tragic death is expected to be signed into law

A planned outdoor celebration of Oscar Zanoni’s inspirational life was abruptly transformed into an indoor event, but inclement weather could not dampen the spirit of the bittersweet occasion.

The tragic passing of the beloved Metuchen resident, who was fatally struck last year by a tractor trailer while riding his electric bicycle on Route 27 in Edison near Vineyard Road, inspired legislation designed to ensure the safety of pedestrians and cyclists on state roadways.

A commemorative walk and ride to honor Zanoni’s life and the state legislature’s bipartisan approval of the safe passing bill, which the full Senate (S2208) and Assembly (A5570) advanced to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk last month, was scheduled to precede a memorial outside Metuchen’s borough hall late Thursday afternoon.

The threat of severe storms, however, canceled the prelude and forced attendees inside the two-story brick building on Main Street, where the bill’s Senate sponsor evoked a thunderous round of applause with some breaking news.

Senator Patrick J. Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex) told those gathered – including friends and family of Zanoni, as well as safety advocates and relatives of other unsafe passing victims – Murphy will be signing the bill into law.

“That was one of the most incredible moments that I personally got to experience in a long time,” said Metuchen councilman Jason Delia, who was among the bill’s lead advocates. “This is something people in that room have been working on for many years, so to see it come to a culmination in real time was a fantastic experience for us.”

The memorial, which Zanoni’s life partner, Wendy Kukowski, and siblings, Carla and Lee, attended, was held on what would have been Zanoni’s 46th birthday.

The bill, which Assemblymen Robert Karabinchak (D-Middlesex) and Sterley Stanley (D-Middlesex) sponsored in the Assembly, will require motorists to take certain safety precautions upon overtaking pedestrians, bicyclists, or scooter riders.

Those precautions include:

  • When possible, motorists should make a change to a non-adjacent lane.
  • If a lane change is impossible, drivers should leave a distance of at least four feet while approaching and maintain that distance until the motor vehicle has safely passed.
  • When it is impossible to make a non-adjacent lane change or maintain at least four feet of distance, the driver should reduce the speed of the motor vehicle to 25 miles per hour or a lower posted speed and be prepared to stop.

Any individual who commits a violation of the provisions that results in bodily injury or harm would be fined $500 and assessed two motor vehicle points. Otherwise, the violator would be fined $100.

Forty-one other states have enacted some form of a safe passing law, none of which are believed to be as comprehensive as New Jersey’s bill.

“I’m proud to be a sponsor of legislation that makes New Jersey the leader in putting in place protections for bicyclists and pedestrians,” Diegnan said. “What it shows is Oscar’s tragic death has been the impetus to put in place a law that’s going to save the lives of others.”

Debra Kagan, Executive Director of the NJ Bike & Walk Coalition, said a boom in the last year of road use by those walking, bicycling, and using scooters, and the increased risk of serious injury or death, spotlighted a need for the safe passing bill.

“On behalf of all the partners involved in this effort,” Kagan said, “we want to thank the senators and assembly members who recognized the urgent need for what will now be one of the most comprehensive safe passing laws in the country.”

According to data from the New Jersey State Police Fatal Accident Investigation Unit, a total of 197 pedestrians and cyclists died in 2020 on state roadways, accounting for 34 percent of New Jersey’s fatal crashes that year.

“Unfortunately, 34% of those killed on the roads are our most vulnerable users, who are also more likely to be people of color, the elderly, people without access to a vehicle and from low-income neighborhoods,” said Janna Chernetz, Deputy Director of Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

“New Jersey’s rate of pedestrian fatalities increased 9% more than the national average last year as 197 people in the state lost their lives walking and bicycling. In fact, New Jersey had the eighth highest number of pedestrian deaths in the country in 2020. The state must act proactively to prevent crashes from happening. This law is an effective and necessary step towards that goal.”

The safe-passing bill, according to Jim Hunt, a volunteer legislative coordinator for the New Jersey Bike and Walk Coalition, provides motorists with clear, enforceable guidelines about when and how to pass the most vulnerable on roadways by slowing down, moving over if possible and – if not – passing no less than four feet from walkers, wheelers, and bicyclists.

“Cyclists share the same right to the road as other vehicles,” Diegnan, Karabinchak and Stanley – who represent New Jersey’s 18th legislative district – said in a joint statement.  “New Jerseyans’ safety is a top priority and the goal of this legislation is to protect citizens on the road and ensure they are safe.”

Assemblywoman Lisa Swain (D-Bergen), a triathlete who also sponsored the bill, spoke during Thursday’s memorial about having the ability to make a difference. The irony of the occasion was not lost on the lawmaker.

“It is unfortunate that we are here today on Oscar’s birthday celebrating this and cheering that the governor is going to sign (the bill into law),” Swain said, “because so many of us have been working on this for years and maybe we could have prevented what happened to Oscar.”

Hunt said the legislation’s passage follows more than a decade of education and advocacy from the NJ Bike & Walk Coalition, Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Tri-State Transportation Campaign and the grassroots TEAM4 the NJ Safe Passing Law.

“Sometimes the stars align for whatever reason,” Swain said. “All of a sudden, there was a movement between the senator’s office and the assembly, Wendy, (rising Ridgewood High School senior and four-time New Jersey youth road racing cycling champion) Michaela (Tsapatsaris), the advocates, the activists. And we all came together to make this bill a law.”

Karabinchak said the bill will forever be a part of Zanoni’s legacy, leaving an indelible imprint statewide that will “never go away.”

Delia said he and the entire Metuchen community were “devastated” upon learning “Oscar was struck and killed while riding his bike by a tractor trailer passing too close.”

“Everyone seemed to know Oscar because of his big, friendly personality, and how he rode around town on his bike,” Delia said. “Due to a childhood illness, Oscar was unable to operate a car, so he rode his bike everywhere. You could always count on seeing Oscar and his bike at one of our downtown events, the Farmers Market, or riding through town on an errand.”

According to his obituary, Zanoni was a dog lover who “lived his life at full throttle.” He was always quick to lend a hand to those who needed help, whether that meant walking their pets or shoveling a sidewalk.

A GoFundMe page established to assist Kukowski with funeral costs and living expenses said Zanoni survived a brain aneurysm at the age of 9 that left him with physical and neurological impairments.

“He went from a coma to a vegetative state to learn how to walk and eat and talk again,” the page stated. “Oscar felt truly blessed that he was alive and shared that with everyone.

“Oscar was truly a very inspirational, special man who shared his story and heart freely.”

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