Fewer people were killed in traffic accidents on Long Island roads and highways last year, according to the latest statistics and police officials, who credited the decrease over the previous year to beefed-up law enforcement, increased motorist education and improved roadway engineering.
Other factors, like better cars, installation of red-light cameras, enhanced EMS training and traffic congestion have also contributed to the decline, experts say.
There were 94 crashes that killed 100 people in Suffolk County in 2017, according to preliminary figures released by the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research, a nonprofit partnership between the state Department of Motor Vehicles and the University at Albany that studies roadway safety. That represents a dramatic drop from 2016, when 139 people were killed in 121 crashes.
Seventy-one people died in 66 fatal crashes in Nassau County last year, the institute said, compared with 79 deaths in 73 deadly accidents in 2016.
Suffolk saw a 28 percent drop in fatalities over 2016; Nassau a 10 percent drop; and Islandwide, traffic deaths fell 22 percent, from 218 to 171.
The numbers include all fatalities reported in both counties by New York State troopers and the law-enforcement agencies responsible for patrolling Long Island’s roads and highways — including the Suffolk and Nassau police departments — and the five East End police departments.
Despite last year’s decrease, texting while driving continues to be a big challenge for law enforcement, said Suffolk Chief of Police Stuart Cameron, who noted education and enforcement will prevail.
“We can get a climate in Suffolk County where people aren’t using cellphones or texting while they are driving,” Cameron said. “Enforcement can overlap with education . . . A new driver may not realize the dangers of texting and driving until they get pulled over and get a ticket.”
Det. Gary Ferrucci, a Nassau County police accident expert, said reversing the trend of texting and driving will be hard and likened it to efforts to stop drinking and driving.
“It is going to be difficult because everybody is using cellphones,” Ferrucci said. “Maybe the phone companies will have to devise something so you can’t use your phone while you are driving.”
The National Safety Council — a nonprofit, nongovernmental public service organization promoting health and safety — said vehicle crashes in the U.S. killed 18,680 people in the first six months of 2017, according to the latest data. There were 40,200 deaths in the country in 2016 and 37,757 in 2015.
Robert Sinclair, a spokesman for the Garden City-based AAA, said he agrees that engineering changes and increased enforcement and education saves lives. Locally, he said, there is another factor: traffic congestion.
Nearly 38,000 additional vehicles were registered from 2011 to 2015 in Nassau and more than 55,000 additional vehicles registered in Suffolk during the same period, according to the latest figures available. All those new vehicles are making Long Island roads and highways more crowded and safer.
“When you slow down, crashes tend to be less severe,” he said. “It’s the law of physics.”
Police officials say they have an arsenal of weapons at their disposal to make roads safer.
Nassau police issued 14.5 percent more traffic tickets last year than in 2016, according to spokesman Det. Lt. Richard LeBrun. Suffolk officers wrote 8.7 percent more traffic summonses last year compared with 2016, but Cameron said the increase in tickets doesn’t tell the whole story.
“They are not just writing more summonses,” Cameron said. “They are writing the right summonses,” he said, adding officers are targeting distracted drivers.
He hopes education to make texting behind the wheel taboo is also working.
Suffolk officers often take a traffic simulator to schools to show students how alcohol or drugs can dull their reflexes, and how drivers distracted by cellphones can turn Long Island roads deadly.
“It is like a video game,” Cameron said. “It gets their attention.”
Jennifer Wendell, a police officer assigned to the Suffolk County Police Department’s Highway Patrol Bureau, says the department tries to apply intelligence-based policing to traffic enforcement.
She uses a device affixed to a tree or street pole that measures traffic volume and vehicle speeds, Cameron said. If Wendell finds that motorists are hitting dangerous speeds, officers are dispatched to pull over drivers and issue tickets Cameron hopes will make them more mindful motorists.
“The purpose of enforcement is not to punish people,” Cameron said. “It is to educate people.”
Pavement markings and roadway surfaces have improved, which also makes driving safer, said Ferrucci, a 49-year Nassau police veteran.
Which is why Wendell visits the scene of every fatal crash and serious accident in Suffolk County and analyzes how that intersection or stretch of highway could be made safer, Cameron said.
She also looks at road engineering and forwards recommendations to the appropriate state, county and town agencies, Cameron said. Sometimes those recommendations are as simple as suggesting that a crosswalk be repainted. Others may be major capital projects, such as constructing left-turn lanes at busy intersections, he said.
Ferrucci said red-light cameras also serve as a deterrence and make people more cautious. “People say, ‘I don’t want to get a $150 ticket,’” he said.
He said car engineering is also saving lives with state-of-the-art anti-lock brakes and car bodies that absorb the energy of a crash and break apart on impact.
And in the event of an accident, Ferrucci said EMS personnel are much better trained these days. “The people who are coming to treat you if you do have an accident have received excellent training,” he said.