A Suffolk County grand jury began convening in secret last week to begin examining the details of a high-speed crash that took place on February 1 on Hill Street in Southampton Village, leaving one person dead and another critically injured.
Testimony continued early this week before the grand jury, which will decide whether or not there is enough evidence to indict Jacob Alegria, 27, of Southampton on any criminal charges. He was the driver of a 2008 Lexus R35 that witnesses told police was traveling west in the oncoming lane at nearly three times the posted speed limit of 25 mph on the residential street, when he slammed into a luxury SUV that had just turned into the eastbound lane from a side street.
The crash killed 20-year-old Charlotte Meyer of Germany, who was a passenger in the eastbound vehicle and suffered severe head injuries. The driver of the vehicle, Luisa “Lulu” S. Keszler, 26, of Southampton, was thrown nearly 30 yards by the impact. She was airlifted to Stony Brook University Hospital and is still reportedly recovering from her injuries.
Mr. Alegria was injured in the crash, but spent just two days in the hospital.
Multiple calls to Southampton Village Detective Sergeant Herman Lamison seeking comment were not returned this week.
Southampton resident Hilga Klinkenberg said she witnessed the accident on February 1. She was walking along Hill Street and heard a bang so loud that she jumped and fell into some bushes.
“I thought an explosion had happened,” Ms. Klinkenberg said on Monday. “I thought the car had exploded. I started calling 911 as I rushed across the street.”
Ms. Klinkenberg and other village residents say the problem of vehicles speeding along Hill Street is not a new one, and they’re asking for changes to the busy entry point into the village from the west.
“The problem with Hill Street is, from the movie theater to [the Stony Brook Southampton campus], there’s nothing to slow it down,” said Ms. Klinkenberg. “I’d like to see them either put in stop signs or traffic lights, to see them slow it town.”
Village resident Rob Coburn said he has seen traffic speed increasing for most of the 25 years he has lived on Hill Street. He agreed that he would like to see something put in place to help slow down the traffic, whether village officials install additional speed limit signs, indicator lights or even a sign that welcomes people to Southampton but also reminds them that the speed limit is 25 mph unless otherwise noted.
Mr. Coburn also said enforcement is key but does not necessarily have to be done 24 hours a day. Mostly, he said, he would like to see the speed limit enforced regularly and during commuter hours. Enforcement not only means writing more tickets, he said, but it also means making the tickets tougher to be dismissed in court.
In order to tackle the issue and come up with a solution, Mr. Coburn said he is trying to take a three-phase approach, and raising awareness is the first piece.
Mr. Coburn raised the issue with the Southampton Village Board last week. “That accident, in the opinion of many, was historically overdue,” he told board members on Thursday, March 9. He suggested that Village Police increase enforcement along Hill Street, and that any violations should be strictly enforced in Village Court. He also suggested more signs along Hill Street to remind people it’s a residential street, and more speed limit signs.
“[Village Police] are doing much more on Hill Street,” Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley said to Mr. Coburn. “They are there, and they are aware of this situation.” The mayor agreed at the meeting that stop signs would slow down the traffic, but he noted they also would create more congestion.
He told those in attendance that he welcomes their feedback, and wants to see Hill Street become a safer area. “It’s unfortunately a very tragic event that occurred,” Mr. Epley said.
Mr. Coburn also is working to raise awareness of the issue among residents along Hill Street and extending a block north and south of the street, through letters. He said the idea is to make his neighbors aware of what is going on and how traffic and bad driving are going to affect them.
The second piece is to ask for a study that looks into what the village’s Highway Department can do, and then look at what other villages on Long Island have done.
The third piece is implementation, which Mr. Coburn said could mean more speed limit signs, additional stop signs, traffic lights, medians with vegetation, or even signs that show how fast people are going.
As to whether the traffic lights or stop signs would create more gridlock in the summertime during the rush hour commute, Mr. Coburn said he couldn’t care less. “People on Hill Street would much rather have stop-and-go traffic than people speeding down Hill Street,” he said.
Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley did not immediately return calls this week seeking comment on what can be done to slow down traffic along Hill Street, but residents like Ms. Klinkenberg said they want to see something done soon.
“There’s a reason the speed limit is 25 mph,” she said. “Something has to be done to break the flow of traffic on Hill Street.”
Staff writer Amanda Bernocco contributed to this story.