Dangerous crossings: Hempstead Turnpike

Pedestrians crossing at the intersection of Hempstead Turnpike

Pedestrians crossing at the intersection of Hempstead Turnpike and North Franklin Street. (Jan. 10, 2012) (Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa)

The conflict between cars and pedestrians plays out more violently and more often along Hempstead Turnpike's 16 miles through Nassau County than anywhere else on Long Island.

Pedestrians are killed an average of more than five times a year, according to a Newsday analysis of pedestrian accident reports from 2005 through 2010.

Thirty-two people were killed and at least 427 injured in 457 pedestrian incidents on this east-west arterial road over those six years. Through last July, three more people died.

"It kills me to know that so many people keep dying," said Lisa Saunders, whose parents, Richard and Dorothy Costleigh, were struck down in 2006 when a multiple-vehicle crash sent a truck careening into them as they walked to a movie theater in Franklin Square. "Nothing has been done. Nothing has been changed."

Longtime Elmont resident Agnes Pemberton, 82, spoke of the turning vehicles that bear down on her as she tries to cross the turnpike at Meacham and Covert avenues.

"They don't even give you a chance," she said. "The lights aren't long enough. Forty years ago, I was younger and didn't mind. I ran across and caught the bus. But now there are more drivers, more cars, more everything."

The human toll along one of the county's oldest and busiest roads is long-standing. The turnpike in Nassau has been ranked as the deadliest road for pedestrians in the metropolitan area since 2008 in annual listings by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit advocacy group. It is expected to remain at or near the top on this year's list.

 

Findings of investigation

A Newsday investigation, which included analyzing 569 reports of accidents on the turnpike, obtained from Nassau County and Hempstead Village police through the Freedom of Information Law, revealed:

Pedestrians crossing at intersections are in significant danger. More than half of the incidents examined occurred at intersections, and walkers were struck far more often by drivers turning left than turning right.

Nearly half of all pedestrians struck were hit in stretches away from intersections or crosswalks. Seventy percent of the pedestrians killed from 2005 through 2010 were not at intersections.

Elmont, Franklin Square and Hempstead Village have intersections with the highest number of pedestrian hits. On one stretch of less than two miles in Hempstead Village, there were 76 pedestrian strikes, including three that were fatal.

Hempstead Turnpike, compared to Sunrise Highway, Hillside Avenue, Jericho Turnpike and Northern Boulevard, has the highest rate of pedestrian fatalities per vehicle-miles-traveled, or VMT, a statistic that takes traffic volume into account.

In some sections, long distances between crosswalks, ranging from 1,000 feet to a half-mile, encourage pedestrians to cross midblock.

"It seems like this is a broken record and no one's fixing it," said Ryan Lynch, senior planner with the transportation campaign. "Hempstead Turnpike is routinely the most dangerous road for pedestrians in the region. It's designed to move cars and trucks as fast as possible through downtowns and communities at the expense of the safety of pedestrians."

Portions of the road led the state Department of Transportation's own list of high-accident danger zones for both drivers and pedestrians as far back as the late 1980s. The department made changes in some spots in the 1990s and over the last two years, adding left-turn lanes, installing countdown clocks for pedestrians at some intersections, and increasing the crossing time allowed at some signals.

Despite the rankings and repeated calls from traffic safety and transportation experts for major design changes, there are no plans for comprehensive redesign to reduce pedestrian fatalities and injuries.

"There's nothing in the capital program," said Frank Pearson, the DOT's chief traffic engineer on Long Island. "Our focus right now is on what we can do quickly."

State DOT officials said it's too soon to know whether changes made since 2010, which include some new traffic signals, intersection countdown clocks and updated crosswalk striping for greater visibility, will help reduce deaths and injuries.

 

'Stunning' pedestrian toll

Manhattan-based traffic engineer Gary Toth, whose specialty is finding solutions to problems on congested arterial highways, had one word for the number of fatalities and injuries on Hempstead Turnpike: "Stunning."

"You've just got to accept the fact that there are certain givens, and people are not going to go walk 500 feet," he said of long distances between intersections with signals. "I've heard that story a thousand times. It's never going to get fixed. And so you're going to sit there and allow 25 more people to get killed in the next five years."

State Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) is one of many elected officials and community leaders who have written the state Department of Transportation over more than a decade seeking pedestrian safety improvements -- and his efforts have had some success.

His 6th Senate District includes the turnpike from Franklin Square to the Suffolk County line.

Hannon said the roadway's changeable character in its course through Nassau is a big reason no comprehensive overhaul has been broached.

"It has a series of personalities," Hannon said. "The problems in East Meadow are not necessarily the problems in Franklin Square. You have to have different solutions for different problems."

Local political officials, he said, "have a split view" because they tend only to look at troublesome sections of the turnpike in their district.

"We tend to react to problems people point out to us," Hannon said. "There is an overall need for a traffic-calming plan."

 

Slices through downtowns

Hempstead Turnpike, six lanes wide in most places and wider at intersections with turning lanes, slices through the downtowns of Elmont, Franklin Square and Hempstead Village, where shops, restaurants, apartments and office buildings generate a lot of pedestrian traffic.

Farther east, through East Meadow, Levittown, Wantagh and Farmingdale, the road is mostly lined by strip shopping centers with parking lots -- hubs of suburban commerce. The turnpike, called Conklin Street in Farmingdale, finally crosses Route 110 and extends about 2 miles into Suffolk County, dead-ending into Wellwood Avenue in East Farmingdale.

The road is heavily trafficked, with speed limits ranging from 30 mph to 50 mph. The annual average daily traffic count ranged from nearly 19,500 vehicles at Main Street in Hempstead to almost 57,000 at Newbridge Road in East Meadow, according to the most recent DOT figures available. Among the major east-west state routes through Nassau, only Sunrise Highway carried a greater load.

No medians or midroad islands for pedestrians exist along most of the thoroughfare through Nassau. Where the turnpike bisects Hofstra University's campus for about six-tenths of a mile, three climate-controlled pedestrian bridges -- each more than half the length of a football field -- arch over the roadway, allowing safe passage for students and faculty who choose to use them.

In a sad testament to the dangers pedestrians face, the turnpike is dotted with roadside memorials -- utility poles wrapped in flowers, photos and notes from loved ones to those killed.

Along those 16 miles, the pedestrian fatality rate far outstrips those of other east-west state highways through Nassau, statistics show.

Hempstead Turnpike has an average annual fatality rate of 8.21 for every 1 million vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT). Comparable averages are 3.01 for Sunrise Highway (State Route 27); 3.00 for Hillside Avenue (State Route 25B); 2.57 for Jericho Turnpike (State Route 25); and 0.90 for Northern Boulevard (State Route 25A).

Purabi Nandi, 68, of East Meadow, was killed close to home, trying to cross eight lanes on her way back from the grocery store at Newbridge Road in July 2009.

Her son, Saumya Nandi, 40, said planners must ask themselves this question: "Do they want Hempstead Turnpike to be a highway, or do they want it to be part of the community?

"My mother was inclined to think about it as part of a community," he said. "She felt she should be able to walk across the street."

The state Department of Transportation is responsible for maintenance and traffic safety of the majority of Hempstead Turnpike in Nassau County.

From 1987 to 1993, the DOT ranked a 4.5-mile section of the turnpike between the Queens border and Hempstead Village as the most crash-prone section of road on Long Island.

In the mid- to late 1990s, state officials made improvements to Hempstead Turnpike that included adding left-turn lanes and removing some on-street parking.

Rae DePrizio's father, Jerry Noble, 74, of Levittown, was killed before those changes were made. He was struck in 1992 as he crossed the turnpike in Franklin Square, east of Scherer Boulevard.

"You have to kind of blame the way the road has been set up," said DePrizio, of Middle Island.

Over the years, residents have repeatedly asked the DOT for pedestrian safety improvements.

Elected officials, from village mayors to state legislators to members of Congress, have written letters on behalf of constituents. The appeals typically focus on specific locations, with requests running the gamut: to create crosswalks, allow more time to cross intersections, place intersection countdown clocks, relocate bus stops and install flashing lights or traffic signals.

 

Letters of complaints

Newsday obtained copies of letters to DOT from 1998 through mid-2011 under the Freedom of Information Law. They show the department investigates complaints and, if it decides the circumstances call for it, sometimes takes action. The letters do not reflect any call for a safety investigation of the entire turnpike through Nassau.

Patti Bunyon, of Franklin Square, wrote the state in December 2004 after the hit-and-run death of Jessica Savarese, a Carey High School freshman who was weeks shy of her 15th birthday. No one has been arrested in the case.

Bunyon told DOT officials she was so concerned about the danger of crossing the turnpike at intersections in Franklin Square that she had instructed her daughters, who also attended Carey, to cross in between intersections -- not at them.

"Hempstead Turnpike has turned into an extremely dangerous road, not just for trying to cross but also to drive on," Bunyon wrote. "We teach our children to cross at the light, but that is actually more dangerous as there is always a car moving in the intersection."

Over the past two years, some improvements have been made through separate efforts -- one a "Safe Seniors" pilot program created by former Gov. David A. Paterson, and the other an Islandwide project under the federal government's economic stimulus program.

Under "Safe Seniors," the DOT has been making some pedestrian-safety improvements at five intersections. The measures include increased crossing time, bigger street signs, high-visibility crosswalk striping and asphalt repairs.

With the federal funding, the DOT installed pedestrian countdown signals at every intersection in its jurisdiction.

"It was looking at low-cost, highly effective solutions," said Heather Sporn, a senior policy adviser for the DOT's Long Island office. "Not that you couldn't put in a median, but that wasn't what this was about . . . because that's a longer-term thing that takes a lot of money. We wanted stuff that we could pretty much do within the construction season."

Making substantial pedestrian-safety improvements on the turnpike is complicated by jurisdiction issues. Although the state DOT maintains most of the roadway, Nassau County is responsible for a mile-long section through Hempstead Village, from High Street to Truro Lane.

So, for example, DOT made safety improvements recently at traffic signals on the western end of Hempstead Village, but those changes were not made at intersections farther east because of the different jurisdiction, Pearson said.

As for the section of the turnpike in its jurisdiction, Nassau has upgraded two traffic signals and rebuilt two signals at Warner Avenue and Nassau Place. That 2009 work included creating crosswalks, said Katie Grilli-Robles, a spokeswoman for County Executive Edward Mangano.

Countdown clocks were added to pedestrian signals in 2010 and last year, she said.

"Nassau County is committed to ensuring traffic safety and will conduct a traffic safety study of the county-owned corridor to make certain that there are no safety issues that are not being addressed," Grilli-Robles said.

 

A life-endangering choice

A large portion of the chronic problem is not occurring at intersections: It stems from people's behavior.

When police noted contributing factors in pedestrian hits from 2005 through 2010, pedestrians' actions were cited in 59 percent of the incidents. That included crossing the highway at points other than at a traffic signal, crossing against traffic signals, or simply "wandering off the sidewalk."

Under state law, when no crosswalk is available, pedestrians are allowed to cross without one but must yield to drivers, who have the legal right of way.

"There are a varied number of reasons why pedestrians get hit," said Det. Lt. Kevin Smith, who until last month was a spokesman for the Nassau County police. "A lot of times, it's that they're not paying attention, because they've made an impulsive decision to go, [or] sometimes because it's dark out and they're wearing dark clothing."

Traffic experts who examined the turnpike in Nassau point to the distances between intersections with signals -- the average is nearly 800 feet -- as a primary contribution to jaywalking. The state DOT also says pedestrians generally will not walk more than 300 feet to a crosswalk.

Newsday's analysis shows one-third of the people killed from 2005 through 2010 were 300 feet or more from the nearest crosswalk.

Dilruba Ozmen-Ertekin, a Hofstra University engineering professor who has studied pedestrian safety and drives the turnpike regularly, said jaywalking should not be dismissed as people choosing to put themselves at risk for the sake of convenience.

"The design is wrong, and it needs to be improved," Ozmen-Ertekin said.

Daniel Yanega, 19, walks from his Levittown home to his job at a Panera Bread restaurant in East Meadow, encountering a length of Hempstead Turnpike where there is no pedestrian crossing signal for more than 1,500 feet.

This seven-lane-wide section of the road, unlike most of the turnpike through Nassau, has a median in the center that provides a short-term haven. Because of the median, Yanega prefers crossing mid-block rather than trekking to the intersection.

"It's safe for me to cross there, and then stand on the island a little bit," he said. "They say it's more dangerous but it seems to me to be safer. I usually wait until there's absolutely no one. I'm pretty cautious."

Still, near the spot where Yanega crosses the turnpike, those who regularly see pedestrians scurry across worry that someone will be hit.

"It's just like running a gauntlet," said Jay Lowe, 29, a bartender at F&S Fantazia Bar and Grill on the turnpike's south side. "We wonder: Is it going to happen?"

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Vote

What LI road do you think is the most dangerous?

Hempstead Turnpike Sunrise Highway Jericho Turnpike Other

advertisement | advertise on newsday