The police scanner blared out an alert last Tuesday evening: on Roanoke Avenue, a taxi had collided with a van while pulling into a driveway. From her home a few miles away, Amanda Byrnes, a single mother of three and office manager at East End Transmissions, listened in.
It’s her habit to monitor ambulance calls on the scanner. But last Tuesday’s call was different. As rescue workers reported the injuries — including a pregnant 27-year-old and her 4-year-old son, who had been ejected from the taxi — Ms. Byrnes’ heart raced.
“Where was the car seat?” she wondered. She knew that taxis aren’t required by law to provide car seats for young fares. The young mother, Estela Ortiz-Casia, and her son were both hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries, as were the drivers of both vehicles. But Ms. Byrnes was sure a car seat could have prevented some of the injuries.
As she went to get an iced coffee, Ms. Byrnes thought about the missing car seat. When she spoke to her mother that night, she still wondered about the seat, and continued thinking about it as she tried to fall asleep.
Finally, she got up, got dressed and drove to the nearby Toys “R” Us. She bought a car seat, then another and another.
“There was nothing that was going to stop me,” Ms. Byrnes said in an interview this week.
One week after the accident, a mountain of car seats — more than 30 in all — towers over the furniture in Ms. Byrnes’ living room. Tables, shelves and even the Christmas tree have been moved to make space for the pile of boxes.
Ms. Byrnes spent her last paycheck, her Christmas bonus and money she’d saved for a winter trip to buy the seats, which she plans to donate to needy families and taxi companies to prevent a recurrence of what took place last week.
She also wants to organize car seat safety classes for the public. And friends, neighbors and businesses around town are saying they’re willing to pitch in, too.
“This program will help everybody,” she said. “It’s rewarding how many people have offered to help … People don’t realize there’s people out there who will help.”
While the car seats alone may not solve every problem involving taxis and the largely lower-income families that use them, local advocates said the donations are welcome.
“I’m sure it’s going to help and I’m sure they’re going to use it,” said Sister Margaret Smyth, who runs the North Fork Spanish Apostolate to assist the local Hispanic community, many of whom use public transportation and taxis.
Riverhead police Lt. Sean Egan said it was worrisome that a mother and child had been ejected from the vehicle, but said the department hasn’t received safety complaints about taxis in the past. He also noted that the taxi involved was operating with proper permits.
Every taxi driver who works in Riverhead is required by local law to have a town permit, Lt. Egan said.
“We randomly conduct inspections on them throughout the year and we’ve found that most of them are in compliance,” he said.
Sister Margaret said Ms. Ortiz-Casia and her son have both been released from the hospital. The boy suffered only cuts.
“She got a little more of a banging up,” Sister Margaret said of the mother. “She’s using a walker just temporarily.” Her family had feared the victim’s pregnancy might be in jeopardy, but so far, there have be no complications, she said.
Sister Margaret added that the taxi company involved in the crash was simply following the law.
“They don’t have to have car seats,” she said. “It becomes very complicated for their business.”
Lower-income families are also unlikely to own car seats, she said.
“If a parent doesn’t have a car, which many don’t, then they don’t have the car seats,” she said. “They wouldn’t spend the money that they don’t have.” Providing car seats would require a combination of booster seats and other types of car seats for kids of various ages, as well as commitments from taxi companies to use the devices, Sister Margaret said.
So far, Ms. Byrnes said she’s contacted five taxi companies and found they were receptive to accepting the seats and participating in classes.
The owner of Quick Latino Taxi said he’s eager to receive the seats and educate his drivers on their use.
“I tell my drivers to take their time and secure the kids,” said Nolberto Cruz. “That’s not a problem.”
Mr. Cruz said he had provided a car seat for his taxi company, but it recently broke. Families with several young children also pose a challenge, he said.
“It’s hard because sometimes they have five kids or four kids,” he said. “We try to help.”
Lt. Egan said that the police department can’t directly hand out car seats for legal reasons, but Ms. Byrnes contacted the town’s Police Benevolent Association to organize the giveaway. Planning Board member Ed Densieski has also helped by securing time to host the car seat safety classes at Town Hall, she said.
Another local resident, Ryan Carr, forwarded information and contacts to Ms. Byrnes after hearing about her program.
“I love what she’s doing,” he said. “This is a terrible thing that happened, but how can you push forward and educate people to make sure it doesn’t happen again?”
Ms. Byrnes said local businesses have already donated $600 she can use to buy more car seats, or have offered to pay for refreshments at the proposed safety class, which she is trying to quickly set up. Friends and acquaintances have also donated seats they purchased on their own.
“The community is really coming together,” she said.
The car seat program is a personal mission for Ms. Byrnes, who said she understands Ms. Ortiz-Casia’s situation. She herself had been a 19-year-old new mother and struggled for years to make ends meet. Coincidentally, she also worked as a taxi driver in the Hamptons, ferrying fares between restaurants and bars during the summer months for extra cash. She said she always carried a car seat in her taxi.
Ms. Byrnes said she realized Ms. Ortiz-Casia was using the taxi because she had no other choice.
“A lot of the community here uses public transportation and I knew it was probably somebody who couldn’t afford a car seat,” Ms. Byrnes said. “I can’t blame the taxi driver. I can’t blame the mother.”
The car seat program is her way of giving back to those in need, as she used to be.
“I struggled back then as a single parent, trying to hold things down on my own,” Ms. Byrnes said. “I know what it was like struggling … now when things got better, I’m not so much in need. When people try to give me stuff, I’m not in need. I know there’s somebody else out there who can use it.”
On Tuesday night, Ms. Byrnes was out shopping again at stores in Riverhead. It was markdown day at Target and she was eager to buy more car seats. She picked up one at a steep discount and then scouted the store for a car seat/stroller combo.
Ms. Byrnes said she wants to give that one specifically to Ms. Ortiz-Casia for her new baby.
“I’m going to see if she can come out with me,” she said with a smile. “That way she can pick one out. That’s what I’ll do.”
Top photo caption: Amanda Byrnes stands among dozens of car seats at her Riverhead home. The single mother of three spent her last paycheck, Christmas bonus and money saved for a trip to buy the car seats, which she plans to donate to taxi companies and families in need. (Credit: Paul Squire)