I drive a stretch limousine. There's almost no safe way to make a U-turn with such a big vehicle.
A month has passed since the tragic pickup truck-limousine collision on Long Island's East End on July 18, and one thing has gone through my mind:
As a driver for hire, I have made that U-turn with buses and stretch limousines where the four young women died. It's not easy.
Limo drivers face a dilemma. After dropping off or picking up passengers at the Vineyard 48 winery on the south side of Route 48 in Cutchogue, most limo drivers want to head west (left) to find a place to wait or to take their customers home.
Vineyard 48 is very hard to get out of because Route 48 is a divided highway with two lanes in either direction. To go west, the driver has no choice but to first turn east (right). Then less than a quarter-mile farther east on Route 48, most conventional vehicles make a U-turn at the intersection of Depot Lane and head west. Easy.
That's the intersection where the limousine making a U-turn collided with a westbound pickup truck on July 18, killing four female passengers and injuring four others. The driver of the pickup has pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor charge of driving while intoxicated.
While the U-turn is legal there, this road, like most, is not designed for extra-long vehicles to safely make a U-turn. Even for skilled limo drivers, the U-turn is a challenge to do in one maneuver without backing up -- but you have to hit it just right and never rush it. If a limo driver misjudges the maneuver, it becomes a three-point turn in the middle of a 55-mph highway.
If a limo driver wants to avoid that risky U-turn, the alternative is perhaps a four-mile drive around the rural area to safely change direction. In rural area like Cutchogue, there is no available driveway to turn a limousine around.
Since I first started driving a limousine almost eight years ago, I have been out there often. And until a few years ago, I made that U-turn a number of times, just as I saw other limos doing. However, about four years ago, I saw a close call in which another limousine botched the U-turn at Depot Lane, having to back up into traffic. Some westbound drivers suddenly saw the the rear of the limo blocking their path and had to jam on the brakes.
From then on, I decided to take the long way around, spending the extra 10 to 15 minutes, rather than take that risk. While I was not at the scene on July 18, the driver of the limousine that day might have made a better decision by taking the long way, and the extra 10 or 15 minutes, rather than trying the difficult U-turn.
My heart breaks for the four young women who died and for the others who were injured and whose lives are forever scarred. They were doing the right thing by renting a limousine instead of drinking and driving.
After the July 18 limousine accident, the company I work for brought in a safety expert from our insurance company to talk about safe driving and the danger of U-turns. Our company has now prohibited U-turns by drivers of our vehicles. Most roads, with or without a traffic light and turn arrow, are just not safe for us to make a U-turn.
Reader Jack Byrnes lives in East Northport.