Southern State Parkway: Why it's so deadly

The scene of a deadly crash along the

The scene of a deadly crash along the westbound Southern State Parkway between exits 18-17 that occurred around 3:40 a.m., and left four dead after the vehicle struck a tree and split in half. (Oct. 8, 2012) (Credit: James Carbone)

Thirty-seven people died in crashes on the Southern State Parkway in Nassau in the past six years, more than on any other county parkway, but there is little prospect of major renovation that will make it safer.

To turn the winding, narrow road built for taking 35-mph drives to the beach into a modern thoroughfare would be costly, if possible at all, experts and transportation officials said.

Seven people have died on the parkway in Nassau this year, according to State Police, one more than for all of last year. In 2010 there were four fatalities in Nassau. There were seven fatal wrecks in 2009, five in 2008 and eight in 2007.

Over the same six-year period, 13 people died in crashes on the nearly 16-mile stretch of the Northern State Parkway in Nassau.

The most recent fatal crash killed four teenagers from Queens on Oct. 8 and is still under investigation. The 17-year-old driver with a learner permit survived the 3:40 a.m. collision, but his 2012 Subaru Impreza WRX STI split in two after it failed to take a curve westbound between Exit 18 and Exit 17 and struck a stand of trees, police said.

So many people have died on the Southern State in Nassau over the years that the 10-mile portion from Exit 17 to Exit 30 has been dubbed "Blood Alley."

Part of the problem, experts and officials concede, is that the 80-year-old parkway wasn't designed for modern speeds.

 

'Poster child of bad roads'

Robert Sinclair, spokesman for AAA New York, calls the Southern State "the poster child of bad roads in our area that predate modern engineering."

But Sinclair points out that while a lot of knowledge didn't exist when it and other roads of a similar era were constructed, bringing the parkway up to modern engineering standards would be enormously costly.

"An insane amount of work would be necessary to widen and flatten it," he said. "You can change the grade some, but how do you change the turns?"

And, he adds: "Not only can we not afford to fix it -- with the homes, schools and parks abutting right up hard against the parkway, it's virtually impossible, even if we could come up with the money. We're stuck with it."

Lee Koppelman, executive director of Stony Brook University's Center for Regional Policy Studies, said the road isn't being used the way planner Robert Moses intended when construction began in 1925 for a route to bring leisure drivers from New York City to Jones Beach.

"The highway was not designed for 70 or 80 mph," Koppelman said. "It was designed for leisurely driving, 35 mph to 40 mph."

With its twisting curves and short access ramps, the parkway requires some "driver responsibility" to negotiate safely, particularly the curved sections in western Nassau.

Portions of highways that need updated design changes like the Southern State only seem to get fixed when there's a crisis, said Koppelman, the founding director of the former Long Island Regional Planning Board. "The gestation period for New York State transportation is 25 years," he said. "And the solutions are always the minimum."

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's office declined to allow Long Island-based state transportation department officials to be interviewed for this story.

 

Steps taken for safety

The parkway has undergone changes to improve safety. In the 1990s, after a rash of head-on fatalities, a continuous center median barrier was installed on the Southern State in Nassau. Other minor fixes -- that cost millions of dollars -- have followed. Exits and on-ramps were reconfigured in some places, the roadway has been resurfaced to improve traction and the road's elevation profile was altered for better banking and maneuvering on curves.

In addition, between 2007 and 2009 the state spent $34.2 million to resurface 25 miles between the Sagtikos State Parkway in Suffolk County and the New York City line, making the road more skid-resistant. That work included painting solid white lines on six curvy sections in Nassau to encourage motorists to stay in lanes.

The State Police said the parkway "poses some difficult challenges" in Nassau. "The number of serious accidents on the Southern State Parkway, and the tragic accident on Oct. 8, highlight the unforgiving nature of this parkway as it relates to drivers disregarding speed limits, warning signs, or other rules of the road," Troop L Commander Maj. Patrick Regan said.

"The layout of the roadway and its daily volume of traffic are unique even to other Nassau County highways," he said.

But he added excessive speed, inexperienced or aggressive drivers, and intoxication or impairment can create deadly hazards on any roadway. "Ideally, if all drivers were to comply with the rules of the road, the highway would be safer."

 

205 crashes in two years

According to figures from the state Department of Transportation, from 2009 to 2011 there were 205 crashes on the Southern State within six-tenths of a mile of last Monday's crash. Of those, one person died, another 81 people suffered injuries and the rest of the crashes resulted in property damage only. Rear-end collisions were the most predominant type of crash.

The winding section where the crash occurred is heavily traveled. Exit 18 is Long Island's busiest interchange, carrying an estimated 229,140 vehicles a day, according to the DOT.

Joseph Beer, 17, should not have been driving at that hour, under state law. The teenager was required to have a supervisory licensed driver of 21 or older in the car and was not allowed to have more than one teenage nonfamily member in the car. Beer was treated for injuries and discharged from a hospital.

Sinclair said he has driven the model car involved in last Monday's crash. He said the 305-horsepower vehicle was "a handful in the hands of even an experienced race driver."

Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit highway safety group funded by car insurance companies, said teen driver crashes often involve similar factors -- a vehicle going too fast, multiple teenagers in a car and nighttime driving. Studies show teen passengers increase distraction and encourage recklessness.

"Teenagers overestimate their skills and underestimate the risks of driving. Put them in a high-performance vehicle and it's a recipe for disaster," Rader said. "The roads can always be improved and made safer but research shows that the main factor in nine out of ten crashes is a driver making a mistake."

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