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Officials: Suspected bus route had warning signs but not sensors

Height detection sensors on the eastbound ramp of

Height detection sensors on the eastbound ramp of the Southern State Parkway at Eagle Avenue in Lakeview are pictured Monday, April 9, 2018. Credit: Barry Sloan

ALBANY — The suspected route taken by a coach bus before it struck a Southern State Parkway overpass on Sunday contained several warnings about low crossings, but not one of the newly installed electronic height detectors designed to reduce the chances of such collisions, Cuomo administration officials said Monday.

The bus driver, Troy D. Gaston of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, had picked up a group of Huntington High School students and chaperones at Kennedy Airport, and is believed to have exited via the Belt Parkway and then headed east on the Southern State before smashing into an overpass at Eagle Avenue in Lakeview, state troopers said Monday.

The suspected choice of route was triggered by Gaston’s use of a global positioning system, or GPS, meant for “non-commercial” vehicles such as cars, troopers said. In contrast, a “commercial” GPS device contains warnings about restricted roads or low bridges, and offers routes to avoid such issues, a trucking official told Newsday.

No coach bus should ever get on the Belt Parkway, much less the Southern State Parkway, Cuomo transportation officials said. Bus or commercial drivers leaving the airport should take the Van Wyck Expressway to the Long Island Expressway to journey to Suffolk County, or Route 27 east. If he started on the Belt, Gaston would have passed several warnings about impending height restrictions along the way, officials said.

“Safety is our top priority and while we can’t comment on an ongoing investigation, throughout this area there is signage indicating height restrictions and making clear that commercial vehicles are prohibited from driving on parkways,” Joe Morrissey, a state Department of Transportation spokesman, said in an email.

A commercial GPS could have enforced the message. Designed for truckers and other professional drivers, the device generally contains information about low bridges and suggested alternate routes, said Kendra Hems, president of the Trucking Association of New York, which encourages its members to use the devices.

While the technology helps, Hems added: “Our opinion is: It’s still your responsibility to know the route you’re taking.”

Concerns about trucks and buses traveling on New York parkways downstate have been ongoing. Last year, the Cuomo administration announced it would install electronic height detectors at 13 on ramps scattered across Long Island that could not only determine a vehicle’s height but also trigger warnings telling a driver to exit or risk striking a bridge ahead. Five have been completed so far.

Though there is such a detector at the Eagle Avenue on ramp, it not only isn’t operable yet but also it would have had no bearing on Gaston’s route because he is believed to have entered the parkway via the Belt.

Morrissey added “at the conclusion of the investigation, DOT will look at additional options to maximize public safety including determining whether more sensors should be added between the Belt Parkway and the Southern State Parkway.”

The sensor at Eagle Avenue is slated to be operable this spring, along with seven others on the Island, he said.

In 2009, then-Gov. David Paterson, citing bridge collisions, proposed a law requiring truck drivers to use a commercial GPS. But it failed because it raised legal issues about restricting interstate commerce and compelling out-of-state drivers.

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