Hempstead Tpke. safety makeover announced

State and county officials explain plans to make 16 miles of the turnpike safer for pedestrians. Videojournalist: Jim Staubitser (May 7, 2012)

Repainted crosswalks, increased signal time for pedestrians and upgraded crossing signals are part of a state and county effort to boost safety along Hempstead Turnpike in Nassau County.

The changes, announced Monday by County Executive Edward Mangano and New York State Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald, come about three months after Newsday published a series of stories on pedestrian safety on the 16-mile stretch, which runs from the Queens border to the Suffolk County line.

Among Newsday's findings were that, on average, five pedestrians died each year on the turnpike between 2005 and 2011.

"We've made significant improvements and we're going to be doing more," McDonald said during a news conference in Elmont.

Major changes to Hempstead Turnpike that would alter traffic flow -- such as signal timing, construction of a center median or pedestrian fencing -- were not part of the announced changes, but remain under study, she said.

She said she wanted to have a "menu" of potential improvements by the end of June that would include the medians, fencing on sidewalks or on center islands, relocation of bus stops to be closer to crosswalks, and adding pedestrian signals where none exist.

Eliminating some parking along the roadway and adding as many as six red-light cameras also are being considered.

"Cost isn't the issue," McDonald said. "We're funding what needs to happen."

Mangano vowed to move Hempstead Turnpike off the list of most dangerous roads for pedestrians in the New York metro region, which the turnpike has topped four times since 2008. The Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an advocacy group, ranks roads for pedestrians annually.

"Only in New York, it seems, our pedestrians have to dodge traffic," Mangano said. The improvements announced Monday represent "a first step, but a giant step," he said.

Ryan Lynch, policy director for the campaign, said the changes were "imperative" to make a deadly road safer.

"The state and county's ongoing vigilance in studying, and hopefully implementing, solutions like landscaped medians and pedestrian refuge islands demonstrates their long-term commitment to reducing pedestrian fatalities," he said.

McDonald also presented results of a state study analyzing vehicle-pedestrian crashes between 2008 and 2011 -- the first time the state has undertaken such a review. Of the 17 pedestrian fatalities the study reviewed, about 50 percent were due to pedestrian error; about 33 percent involved pedestrians who had consumed alcohol; and about 11 percent involved people on foot under the influence of drugs.

More than 59 percent of the fatalities were pedestrians crossing in the middle of the block -- without the aid of crosswalks -- and 35 percent were crossing against a traffic light. Twenty percent of the deaths involved driver distraction, McDonald said.

The state's findings echo Newsday's analysis of nearly 460 pedestrian crashes, including 32 fatalities, between 2005 and 2010, and three fatalities as of July 2011. So far in 2012, there have been two fatal pedestrian accidents on Hempstead Turnpike.

Since mid-March, the DOT has increased pedestrian crossing times at 86 traffic signals; reprogrammed dozens of crosswalk signals; and re-marked 235 crosswalks, widening 126 of them, McDonald said.

Nassau police stepped up enforcement along the stretch of road, officials said. Frank Kirby, Nassau County's chief of patrol, said that police have written 249 tickets to motorists on the turnpike since February.

Eighty-six intersections have had pedestrian-crossing time increased, especially to accommodate seniors with a slower gait, McDonald said.

Another change that officials said should make pedestrians safer is new programming of the walk phase of traffic signals to allow more exclusive time for pedestrians to start crossing the road before cars and trucks are given the green light. So-called "leading pedestrian intervals" programming has been added at 10 additional intersections, bringing the total to 53 with the feature. More will be added this summer, the commissioner said.

Through its Traffic Safety Board, the county has launched its "Walk Safe Nassau," a public education campaign featuring fliers and posters that remind motorists to watch for pedestrians, and for walkers to use pedestrian signals and crosswalks to safely cross roadways.

Elmont community activist Patrick Nicolosi said such change on Hempstead Turnpike is overdue.

"I'm looking for less talk and more action," he said.

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