The Southern State Parkway is the most dangerous state road on Long Island and Hempstead Turnpike has the highest concentration of crash-prone locations, according to data compiled by the state Department of Transportation.
The Southern State had five of Long Island's 10 worst-rated spots when compared with similar state roads throughout New York. Hempstead Turnpike had 12 segments with above-average accident rates west of the Meadowbrook Parkway.
There were nearly 24,000 accidents on the Island's 724 miles of state roads in 2004 and 2005, the latest crash data available. The DOT's analysis of the Island, home to 363 spots where accident frequency exceeds state averages, shows distinct patterns that suggest flaws in certain roads and their surroundings -- not just chance or poor driving habits -- may have contributed to many of the accidents.
The data, for which Newsday waged a three-year legal battle with the DOT, include:
A three-tenths of a mile stretch of Route 110 just north of the Southern State and south of Main Street in Farmingdale that was ranked as the most dangerous location on all of Long Island's state routes based on 68 accidents with injuries and two with fatalities over the two years. The DOT says extreme congestion at the confluence of three busy roads is at the heart of the problem.
A small section of Route 112 just north of the Long Island Expressway in Medford that ranked eighth with 41 injury accidents and one fatal crash.
The transportation department analyzes crash data to identify crash-prone locations and determine how to fix them.
But the DOT concedes that it has few solutions for some of the most dangerous spots on Long Island -- such as Hempstead Turnpike and the Southern State -- that crop up on the list year after year. Critics complain that the department is slow to act and more concerned about moving vast amounts of traffic than improving safety.
"I think they just look at this stuff from an engineering point of view, and traditional highway engineering is a very limited concept of what you do about safety," Jonathan Orcutt said as executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a group dedicated to reducing the dependency on cars in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. (He has since become an adviser to the commissioner of the New York City transportation department.) "They need to sit down with the counties, with key municipal officials in the affected areas, and make some progress on it, rather than just going through the usual motions."
Frank Pearson, the lead DOT engineer for Long Island, said safety is built into every project the department undertakes with an annual combined budget for Suffolk and Nassau of about $200 million. He also said some factors that cause accidents are beyond the DOT's control, particularly driver error, which in 2005 at least partially contributed to 87 percent of all crashes on Long Island, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
"We try to address this with the 'Three Es' -- education, enforcement [of traffic laws] and engineering -- and they all play a part," Pearson said. "When you talk about the police, obviously they can't be everywhere, but they are a big factor. Hopefully, people are taking their defensive driving courses. It's a broad approach and hopefully you reach some people."
Richard Retting, senior traffic engineer for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, agreed with Pearson that bad driving habits deserve a good bit of blame for high accident rates but said those who put most of the onus on drivers "don't have a deep enough understanding of roadway design. "The fact is we have built a roadway system that could be much safer," he said.
The DOT analysis is limited to state routes and therefore accounts for 27 percent of the 90,000 accidents reported on Long Island in the two-year period and covers just 155 of the 516 fatal crashes. The department says it plans to expand its reach to all crashes as early as next year.
Since 1973, federal highway-funding guidelines have required states to analyze crash patterns and seek remedies for the most dangerous locations. In 2005, Congress required that states begin posting only the worst 5 percent of high-accident locations on the Web site of the Federal Highway Administration, along with a description of measures they will take to solve the problems. New York's first report included 20 sites from Long Island.
Jeff Lindley, associate administrator for safety at the highway administration, said he believed Congress required disclosure so the public could be alerted to dangerous locations where they might want to be more cautious and informed about what their states were doing to fix them.
Right to know
"So it would make it easier for citizens to have conversations with decision makers in their state about investing resources in safety," Lindley said. The DOT's analysis begins by comparing each road segment's accident rate with the average rate for similar roads across the state. It also takes into account the relative severity of crashes.
For example, the worst-rated segment on Long Island -- on 110 just north of the Southern State -- had an accident rate six times the statewide average for similar roads. The segment would need to see 19 fewer accidents per every tenth of a mile to come down to the statewide average rate. The initial severity rating of 19 was adjusted upward, to 25.94, because analysts estimating the costs of injuries, deaths and property damage determined accidents there cost nearly 39 percent more than average.
Since that segment made the top of the DOT's list, the department has repainted the markings on the road and at the intersection, upgraded the traffic signals and sensors embedded in the pavement, realigned the crosswalk across 110 and installed a new one across Main Street, a spokeswoman said. The segment also will be repaved as part of a project that began this month. The department estimates that it will spend a total of $3 million on the improvements. The dangerous rating didn't surprise Paul Keker of Deer Park, who was shopping at the Ace Hardware store beside the troubled stretch of Route 110. "Everyone dumps out at 4:30, five o'clock and runs to the Southern State," said Keker, 52. "The entrance is too small to accommodate the volume it's getting and people double-stack trying to get onto the parkway. A guy who is coming down, expecting to go down to Amityville in the middle lane, he has no place to go. If you're not familiar with it, you're surprised."
Keker said he has lived on Long Island since he was a child, so he knows what roads and intersections to avoid. But he said the DOT should always have made the crash data public. "Give the poor an opportunity to see what's going on there, make choices, make educated decisions about what roads to take," Keker said.
The DOT's Pearson noted that half of the Island's 363 high-accident locations had severity ratings below five on a scale of 1.15 to 25.94, which he said makes them marginal cases. But among segments with severity ratings of seven or higher, Nassau County stands out with 58 locations, compared with 37 in Suffolk. Hempstead Turnpike and the Southern State have the highest concentrations of the worst-rated spots.
Both roads carry far more traffic than they were meant to bear and both are poorly designed by today's standards, Pearson said. Fixing them completely is a practical impossibility, he said, because it would require widening Hempstead Turnpike and straightening the dips and curves of the Southern State and both highways are hemmed in by dense development. "All you need to do is look at an aerial photo of western Nassau to see how the Southern State meanders," Pearson said. "To straighten that out you would be going through a lot of wetlands, a lot of residential communities."
DOT slow to act
Some critics say the department is too slow to act on the problem spots. Among them is Assemb. Thomas Alfano (R-North Valley Stream), whose district in western Nassau County is bisected by Hempstead Turnpike.
"Hempstead Turnpike has become a dangerous thoroughfare," Alfano said. "I think sometimes we're too caught up in traffic flow, and as a result I think the lights are synchronized in such a way as to, tacitly at least, encourage surpassing the speed limit."
Alfano said he and his staff have tried to work with the DOT on changing traffic-light sequences or even installing cameras that would automate the ticketing of red-light runners, but they have had little success.
"They try to be responsive, but it seems like the timetable they operate on is relatively slow," he said. "They don't move at a pace that would satisfy many of us."
DOT spokeswoman Eileen Peters said the department has many regulations and steps to follow before it embarks on trying to fix a problem, particularly when federal funds are involved. She added that all projects have to be prioritized "against thousands of competing needs throughout Long Island."
"The perception is we should move quickly," Peters said. "We have a very specific process that we must follow to make sure that it's the proper solution and a good use of public funding, and that the solution is not going to make the situation worse."
To the east of Alfano's district, on a section of the turnpike that runs through Hofstra University, the DOT recently completed an $8.7-million, yearlong project that includes all or part of four high-accident zones. The department is hoping that new pavement, traffic signals and road markings, among other enhancements, will at least improve the crash ratings of the problem spots, if not drop them off the list, Pearson said.
As for the rest of the turnpike, Pearson said the DOT has had limited success in reducing accidents despite myriad improvements that included upgrading traffic signals, installing countdown timers for pedestrians and restricting parking.
"That's a tough one," he said of the turnpike. "It does pop up [on the high-accident list]. It's a congested, narrow corridor."
The DOT does have success stories resulting from analysis of crash data, including some that were relatively easy and inexpensive to fix. One example is the intersection of Veterans Memorial Highway and Johnson Avenue in Ronkonkoma, which leads to the main entrance of Long Island MacArthur Airport and was the site of 40 crashes in 2000.
In 2001, the DOT replaced the single turn lanes in both directions on the highway with double turn lanes and configured the traffic signals so that turns could be made only with a green arrow. The department also lengthened the right-turn lanes on the highway, added crosswalks with pedestrian signals and restricted right-on-red turns.
In 2002, the year after the $700,000 project was completed, there were just seven accidents there, an 83-percent reduction that dropped the location off the high-accident list.
Other problem spots have been solved as part of larger expansion projects, such as the complete reconstruction of a 4.5-mile stretch of Sunrise Highway in Oakdale and Sayville. The four-year, $125-million project transformed an artery with intersections and traffic lights into a limited-access highway with bridges and entrance and exit ramps.
In 1994, when traffic on that stretch averaged 70,000 cars a day, there were 459 accidents there. By 2002, the annual accident tally had plummeted to 162, even though the daily vehicle count had doubled, according to the DOT.
Experts generally praised New York's approach to highway safety and said the DOT faces unusual challenges in the metro area due to the overwhelming amount of traffic and the aging infrastructure that carries it.
"It's fairly unique to the New York metro area that you have these roadways that exist today that were envisioned and designed and built in a completely different era," said Retting, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety engineer, who once worked for the New York City Department of Transportation and lived on Long Island. "And that's not to mention the fact that you didn't have drivers on cell phones driving SUVs or Cadillac Escalades or Hummers at 60 mph and on their iPod and Blackberry at the same time.
"New York is a very progressive state, and I don't think it could be faulted for being unwilling or incapable of improving safety," Retting added. "But there will be situations where hazards exist that could be more rapidly addressed."
Robert Sinclair Jr. of AAA New York questioned the pace at which the DOT operates, recalling that a colleague once joked, "Our children should live so long" as to see the DOT complete important projects. But he quickly added that he was aware of the immense challenges facing the department.
"A lot of these situations exist because a lot of New York roadways were built prior to the advent of modern transportation engineering," Sinclair said. "To deal with them properly would in many cases require that roads be completely closed down and rebuilt, and we know that's not practical. So they do the best that they can with what they have."
Although Orcutt of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign criticizes the DOT for what he sees as an overreliance on engineering, he also said federal highway-safety requirements put too much of the burden on the department.
"One of the things the DOT doesn't ever seem to do is disown some of the problems that aren't of its making, like the lack of enforcement or the insane behavior that enforcement would have to effect," Orcutt said. "I think that's one of those sort of cultural revolutions that has to happen.
"It's the same with congestion," he added. "We keep telling the DOT, 'Look, you've got to stop responding to all of these people complaining about congestion because it's these towns that are building the office parks and the big boxes in the wrong places and causing congestion, not you.' Until you tell the towns that, they're not going to do anything differently. They think you're going to come and widen the road every time they screw it up."