WEST ORANGE, NJ — Thirteen-year-old Ronan Carter finished first overall and the Nikhil Badlani Foundation surpassed its $50,000 fundraising goal as the 11th annual STOP for Nikhil 5K Run returned to Suriano Stadium at West Orange High School in person on Sept. 19 after the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to go virtual last year. The annual event, which honors Nikhil Badlani, a West Orange middle school student who died in a car crash in 2011 when a driver failed to stop at a stop sign in South Orange, was a hybrid race this year; participants were given the option to run, walk or bike the route together or on their own. The 2021 event raised $53,000.
“With COVID we weren’t sure, and we still have to be careful,” Sangeeta Badlani, Nikhil’s mother and president of the NBF, said in an interview with the West Orange Chronicle at the event. “So we wanted to keep the option.”
It was the first year that cyclists were incorporated into the event in person as well, after last year’s virtual bike race was a success. The money raised goes back into the foundation, which advocates for traffic safety, awards scholarships to graduating high school seniors and provides music lessons to underserved students through its “Music for Nikhil” program.
“This family and the foundation have made more change than I can list,” Mayor Robert Parisi said before the starting gun went off at the event. “They’ve never rested.”
Carter finished the 5K first overall and first in his age group with a time of 18:03; Janna Chernetz was the top female finisher in the race and finished 17th overall with a time of 23:33.
Parisi noted that the West Orange Township Council unanimously passed a resolution at its Sept. 14 meeting to establish a Vision Zero task force in town, based on a policy to reduce traffic deaths and injuries. An action plan will be published by September 2022, and will include proposals to help eliminate fatalities and severe injuries on West Orange roadways.
The NBF, especially its youth advisory board, has been advocating for a state bill that would require a set number of driving practice hours before a teenager can receive a driver’s license. The bill would require teenagers to practice driving for 50 hours, including 10 hours at night, while they have their learner’s permit to become eligible for a probationary license. New Jersey is one of only three states, along with Arkansas and Missouri, that do not mandate practice hours. The bill has passed through committees, and Assemblyman John McKeon said in an interview with the Chronicle at the event that he’s hoping it is signed into law during the lame-duck session when state legislators go back to Trenton in early November.
“Ask parents what makes them crazy, and it’s the thought of, ‘Oh my God, my kids are going to start driving,’” McKeon said. “It’s a great step for safety. If New York can do it, why can’t New Jersey?”
Sangeeta Badlani presented the foundation’s annual Inspiration Award to Arnold Anderson, the Community Traffic Safety Program coordinator at the New Jersey Bike and Walk Coalition; Anderson is a former police officer who specialized in vehicular homicide. He started his career in the Irvington Police Department before becoming a detective in the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, where he investigated vehicular deaths.
“The only way to get better at something is to practice,” Anderson said in an interview with the Chronicle at the event. “Zero deaths is the only acceptable number. These kids have really been working to try to pass this legislation. High school students will spend 40 hours a week practicing a sport. You can spend 50 total hours practicing something that you’ll do every day that could kill you.”
Sangeeta Badlani is optimistic that the bill will pass later this fall.
“All the legislators that we’ve spoken to are enthusiastic about it,” she said. “Fingers crossed.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic