Aggressive and distracted driving on East End roads—which are not designed to handle their current traffic volume—were named at a South Fork Highway Safety Roundtable last week as key factors in a rash of serious and fatal car crashes this past summer.
Although accident statistics provided by the Southampton and East Hampton town police departments indicate that fatalities did not spike in the summer of 2012, officials have identified the issue as a public safety concern.
“It seemed as if every week when you went online, it seemed as if there had been a major accident, fatality, throughout the summer,” said State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. in opening the discussion and noting that this past summer was the busiest since the economic crisis began in 2008. He listed a fatal hit-and-run of a Roman Catholic nun in Water Mill in July and a serious two-vehicle crash on County Road 39 at Sunrise Highway the same month, which caused a major traffic jam on a major artery for more than six hours during the evening commute, as two of the highest profile examples.
As a step toward addressing the problem, approximately 25 to 30 officials from government, law enforcement, and ambulance crews, as well as the Suffolk County medical examiner’s office, the New York State Department of Transportation and Southampton Hospital gathered at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton last Thursday evening to brainstorm possible solutions.
The event, which was by invitation only, was hosted by Mr. Thiele and State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle.
The Southampton Town Police jurisdiction had four fatal crashes this summer, on par with years past. According to figures provided by Chief William Wilson Jr., the number of fatal crashes between 2000 and 2011 averaged 9.4 per year, ranging from a low of five each in 2008 and 2010 to a high of 15 in 2002. The East Hampton Town Police jurisdiction saw four fatal crashes this summer as well, and Chief Ed Ecker Jr. said that while the number of accidents hasn’t changed much, fatalities were a “blip on the radar.” Both chiefs attributed the crashes to recklessness and driver inattention, as well as drunken or drugged driving, compounded by high traffic volume on roads not designed to handle it.
“We have a different type of driver. We have a very aggressive driver,” said Bill Hillman, chief engineer for the County Department of Public Works. “There’s other parts of the country where when somebody comes to the edge of a road at a crosswalk, everybody stops, and by law you’re required to. You would never see that on Long Island, absolutely never.”
One idea pitched to better control traffic included using portable speed cameras, automated ticketing machines that detect traffic infractions. Their portability is an advantage for police because motorists do not become accustomed to their locations.
Obtaining cameras may be a way down the road, however, because they are not yet used in New York. Mr. Thiele said legislation is under way to allow them in New York City, but civil liberties groups oppose them.
Another idea called for installing rumble strips between lanes to warn motorists when they begin to drift into lanes of oncoming traffic. Rumble strips are raised strips across a road or along its edge that cause noise and vibrations when a vehicle passes over them. Rumble strips are expected to be installed in the center line of a 3.1-mile stretch of Flanders Road from Long Neck Boulevard in Flanders to Sunrise Highway in Hampton Bays this fall.
Improving communication and education, such as teaching the dangers of texting while driving in driver’s education classes, were other suggestions.
Suffolk County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Yvonne I. Milewski suggested that to cut down on the amount of time roads are closed following fatal accidents and to limit the amount of time victims’ bodies are left at the scene, her office might not always need to be called because when responders declare that no further medical attention would help a person, they are in essence making a declaration of death. Standard protocol calls for the medical examiner’s officer to declare a person dead and determine a cause of death.
Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst expressed interest in pooling different police agencies’ resources to target hot-spot zones for particular problems, similar to the way the Suffolk County district attorney’s office started an East End DWI Task Force this past summer. East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson suggested studying best practices and research in other resort places whose population swells at certain times of year, like Aspen, Colorado.