Pedestrians: Hempstead Turnpike a losing game
Cases of pedestrian injury and death on Hempstead Turnpike in Nassau County divide almost equally into two broad categories: people who crossed at intersections with signals, and people who didn't.
The pedestrians in intersections faced significant danger from drivers who failed to yield, according to Newsday's analysis of police reports from 2005 through 2010. Some who chose not to cross at intersections gambled and lost: Seventy percent of those killed during that period were deemed by police to be cases of pedestrian error.
The 428 accident reports in which police detailed whether an incident occurred at an intersection generally did not say why the pedestrians struck were trying to cross the street. A handful described people who were running to catch buses in Elmont, Franklin Square or Hempstead Village.
Some traffic experts pin blame on the turnpike, saying it was engineered primarily for vehicles and should be redesigned with consideration for people on foot and their behavior.
"Life is filled with examples of where if you want to be successful with solving a problem -- whether it's a health problem or tobacco intervention, kids not reading well in school, ADD, whatever -- you have to understand human nature and you have to adapt to it," said Gary Toth, a Manhattan-based traffic engineer. "You can't force human nature to adapt to you."
Frank Pearson, the state Department of Transportation's chief traffic engineer for Long Island, said a DOT review of almost 250 incidents involving pedestrians between 2006 and 2010 found that 75 percent occurred within 100 feet of an intersection. Because almost all the road's traffic signals now have a countdown timer and a push-button to activate a walk signal, it's a "reasonable expectation" that pedestrians can walk to an intersection to cross, he said.
Hempstead Turnpike "is not a dangerous road to walk," Pearson said. "It's dangerous if you cross midblock, if you cross against the traffic signal, if you don't use the features that are there."
Scores of people interviewed along the turnpike's 16 miles through Nassau County expressed an opposite view. Wherever they try to cross the road, they said, peril is a constant companion.
"You put your life at risk," said Ed Bennett, 51, who owned the SoHo for Men clothing store in Franklin Square. He crossed the road twice each workday -- once in the morning and once on the way home. "Cars drive way too fast and don't have courtesy for pedestrians."
A race to beat the light
L.C. Benson, who gets around Hempstead Village on a motorized scooter, approached the intersection of Fulton Avenue and Clinton Street, where 16 pedestrians were hit from 2005 through 2010, including one fatality, and rolled to a stop at the traffic signal.
"Anything could happen," said Benson, 72, as she surveyed the traffic on Fulton, which is the name of the turnpike through Hempstead Village. "You gotta make sure everyone's stopped."
Traffic experts say people on foot generally should cross at intersections to avoid danger. The state requires drivers to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk. But drivers failed to yield in 49 percent of 227 accident reports in which police cited a driver's actions as a contributing factor.
In addition, Newsday's analysis shows that in 33 percent of the incidents at intersections, people were hit by turning vehicles.
Pedestrians were particularly vulnerable to vehicles making left turns. In 78 percent of the pedestrian accidents involving a turn, the vehicles were turning left, across the lanes of traffic headed in the other direction.
Pedestrians, especially senior citizens, frequently complain that "walk" signals do not give them enough time to cross Hempstead Turnpike. Much of the roadway is six lanes wide in Nassau, though at some intersections it has as many as eight lanes.
In timing of "walk" signals, the DOT uses the standard of a person traveling 3 feet per second. For example, pedestrians crossing the turnpike's 60-foot width at Elmont Road are allowed 20 seconds to cross.
Since late 2009, DOT officials said, time ranging from 1 to 4 seconds has been added on pedestrian "walk" signals at 10 intersections in Elmont and Hempstead Village -- a 5.2-mile section that was the focus of a state study on making the road safer for senior citizens. That review found "clusters" of pedestrian accidents near intersections.
State officials said many pedestrians don't realize that they often must press the crosswalk-signal button to activate the 4 seconds of exclusive pedestrian walk time.
A matter of convenience
At lunchtime in Hempstead Village, a stream of workers crossed from the sidewalk in front of an office building near Terrace Avenue to a shopping center across the street, ignoring a crosswalk about 100 feet away.
They waited for a break in traffic and got across two lanes, stopped at the centerline, then hurried the rest of the way across the turnpike. On their way back, many carried sandwiches from Subway.
"Why walk back [to the crosswalk] when I'm going this way?" said Marjorie Presume, 39, of Valley Stream, who had just crossed from a spot in front of an office building. "It's foolish of me, yes, but there should be something to slow down the traffic and I could cross right there."
In dozens of interviews, people navigating Hempstead Turnpike on foot gave different reasons for crossing midblock or at a distance away from a signalized intersection. For some, it was a convenient shortcut. Others said weaving through lanes of traffic was necessary to transfer from one bus to another to get to work or school. On parts of the turnpike where signals are few, pedestrians acknowledged taking the risk to avoid a lengthy walk to the closest crosswalk or turning vehicles in heavily trafficked intersections.
Sixty-seven percent of pedestrians killed from 2005 through 2010 were hit at spots away from intersections, police reports analyzed by Newsday show. Furthermore, among 201 accident reports of pedestrian hits that occurred midblock or away from intersections, police cited "pedestrian error/confusion" as a contributing factor in 53 percent.
In Levittown, Nathan Schinder, who is unemployed and doesn't have a car, jaywalked across the turnpike just east of Silver Lane, going from a shopping center to a residential neighborhood.
"Sometimes I cross in between the lights and it can be a better deal," he said. At intersections, he said, "You don't have enough time because there are so many people making the turn."
Dr. Anthony Boudin, chairman of the medical emergency department at Nassau University Medical Center in East Meadow, where many pedestrians struck on Hempstead Turnpike are taken, said he regularly tries to cross the turnpike on foot.
Boudin, like many others, said he is frustrated by the choice the highway presents: pound the pavement for hundreds of feet to reach an intersection with a pedestrian signal, or take the risk of crossing multiple lanes midblock, without a crossing signal.
"You may not see cars coming, but they're coming," he said. "If you're not quick enough, you can get yourself into trouble."
Ryan Lynch, senior planner for the nonprofit advocacy group Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said the infrastructure provided by the state DOT is insufficient to allow people on foot to cross safely and legally.
"You can hardly blame a pedestrian when they have to walk half a mile to a legal crossing," Lynch said.
Bus stop location a factor?
A dangerous ballet played out during morning rush hour in the heart of Franklin Square. Pedestrians, often in groups of six or more, poured off buses and ran through moving traffic to catch buses on connecting routes.
The spot is the meeting of three busy thoroughfares -- Hempstead Turnpike, New Hyde Park Road and Franklin Avenue. There are four bus stops within a block.
Twenty-three pedestrians were hit there from 2005 through 2010, more than any other intersection along Hempstead Turnpike in Nassau County, Newsday's analysis of police accident reports shows. None of those people were killed.
Traffic engineers who examined that area at Newsday's request said the placement of two of the bus stops -- away from the intersection, rather than close to its crosswalks -- encourages people to cross midblock.
Bus riders said they often jaywalk either because they see a bus approaching that they want to catch or because there is no crosswalk near their bus stop.
No data were available on the number of pedestrians struck while trying to catch a bus or after exiting one.
In 2005, Syed S. Hussain, 71, was struck and killed in Elmont as he tried to cross the turnpike after leaving a bus. The Elmont man was on his way to his 3-year-old granddaughter's birthday party, relatives said. The driver was not charged.
The state DOT acknowledges that bus stops play a role in pedestrians' exposure to traffic. Potential solutions, the DOT's Pearson said, include fences to deter jaywalking, new crosswalks at bus stops, or relocation of bus stops closer to existing crosswalks.
"It's quite a well-utilized system," he said of Nassau's bus system. "And that's a factor because that attracts pedestrians, obviously."
Angela Nunziata, 55, of Franklin Square, who manages a hair salon near the turnpike's intersection with New Hyde Park Road and Franklin Avenue, said people get off buses and instantly look for their connection.
"It's constant running and trying to catch the bus," she said. "It's hazardous for everyone."