LMS 8th-grader champions road safety, brings change

Photo by Amanda Valentovic
Liberty Middle School eighth-grader Soham Bhatnagar stands with West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi at the new pedestrian beacon signals on Kelly Drive.

WEST ORANGE, NJ — Pedestrian beacon signals were recently installed on Kelly Drive thanks to the efforts of a Liberty Middle School eighth-grader and a petition he started that amassed 395 signatures in support of the safety measure.

Soham Bhatnagar decided to start the initiative while researching a school project on traffic safety. The project resulted in extra credit: Signs were installed at the corner of Kelly Drive and Baxter Lane, just down the street from LMS.

“It’s a critical topic, especially around this area,” Bhatnagar said in an interview with the West Orange Chronicle on Saturday, June 9. “There’s this intersection that wasn’t very safe so I decided to do something about it.”

Bhatnagar estimates that there are about eight students in the neighborhood who cross the intersection on their way to LMS every day, in addition to the joggers, dog walkers and jitney riders who frequent Kelly Drive. He brought his petition to the local community and asked for signatures, before bringing it to school. Within five days, he had the support of nearly 400 people. Bhatnagar then brought his petition to the West Orange Pedestrian Safety Advisory Board and to Mayor Robert Parisi.

“We have a lot of roads and neighborhoods in West Orange,” Parisi told the Chronicle in an interview on Saturday, June 9. “No one knows as much as the neighbors do, and it’s hard not to be inspired by over 300 signatures.”

Roz Moskovitz Bielski, a member of the WOPSAB, was one of the people who helped Bhatnagar bring the petition to the municipality. In a phone interview with the Chronicle on Friday, June 8, Bielski said Kelly Drive is one street in town the municipal government can easily address.

“Municipal roads are easy because they’re controlled by the town,” Bielski said. “West Orange can be a little bit different because of all the other jurisdictions, there are mostly county and some state roads. But the township rules their own roads; they just have to want to do it.”

Bielski and Bhatnagar attended the New Jersey Bike and Walk Summit at Mercer County Community College in March, where he said he learned a lot about traffic safety and making a difference.

“I learned a lot about how to be a good citizen and traffic etiquette that people weren’t aware of,” Bhatnagar said. “And without the community and the 395 people who signed the petition, this wouldn’t have happened.”

That the initiative came from a young person is encouraging, according to Parisi.

“Anything we can do to remind and encourage people to engage in the community is something we want to do,” he said. “One of the most important things in the community is to have people make it their own, whether they are children or adults.”

Bielski was also happy to work with Bhatnagar when he brought his proposal to the WOPSAB meeting.

“I was delighted to see that Soham was interested in the area,” she said. “It just takes one or two citizens to speak up, and we can’t advocate for safety around schools enough because they’re our students. And how can you say no to a student? I told him that I hope he stays involved and advocates for the students.”

Bhatnagar’s mother, Pooja Khurana, said she is happy her son listened to the advice he received.

“I’m able to have some peace of mind too,” she said in an interview with the Chronicle on June 9. “My middle child is going to Liberty next year and going to Mt. Pleasant before; this is the first time they can walk to school. I marvel at it because what an incredible initiative. You can’t help but be proud when you remember that at a young age he’s learning how to make a difference.”