Newly completed median cable barriers on stretches of the Long Island Expressway and Sunrise Highway have kept 22 drivers from crossing into oncoming traffic so far this year, transportation officials said.
In all, the barriers were damaged 36 times from Jan. 1 to March 31, all presumably by drivers, the New York State Department of Transportation said. It took anywhere from one to 10 days to repair the damage.
Along with the 22 instances reported by Suffolk sheriff's deputies, in which drivers crashed into the barriers but did not cross into oncoming traffic, 14 others were spotted by road crews, who noticed steel posts knocked over or cables askew or on the ground.
The transportation department, the agency in charge of designing and maintaining the system -- made of four steel cables strung between 30-inch poles that are driven into the ground -- said the frequency of repairs indicates that the barriers are working as intended.
"It is expected that they will get hit," said Carol Breen, a transportation department spokeswoman. "However, the barriers are certainly a deterrent to crossover accidents."
Officials at the Federal Highway Administration and experts said cable barriers, if installed properly, prevent crossover collisions by capturing out-of-control vehicles 75 percent to 95 percent of the time.
"Just because the accident rate goes up it does not mean that the barrier system is not functioning properly," said Roger Bligh, a research engineer with the Texas Transportation Institute, which conducts crash tests on some cable barrier systems.
Lisa Parravano, 43, of Sag Harbor, said the cable barrier probably saved her life when she lost control of her car on Feb. 29 while driving east on Sunrise Highway near Exit 55.
"If the cables weren't there, I would have kept on spinning or sliding on mud," Parravano said. "I would have landed on the other side of the highway."
DOT officials in June began installing cable barriers on some sections of the medians on the LIE and Sunrise Highway, after seven people were killed and 20 injured during crossover collisions in less than a decade.
Officials had hailed cable barriers as good alternatives to concrete or metal ones because cables absorb some of the impact and do less damage to drivers and their vehicles.
The state hired Hasa Construction of Farmingdale to install about 10 miles of steel cable barriers on the LIE, between Exits 64 and 70, and another 10 miles of cable barriers on Sunrise Highway, between Exits 53 and 59.
When the median cable barriers were under construction last summer, Chief Michael Sharkey of the sheriff's department, which patrols both the highways in Suffolk, raised concerns over the system's effectiveness after three drivers drove their vehicles through them and crossed three lanes of oncoming traffic between Aug. 1 and Oct. 7.
Since then, Sharkey said, there have been no crossover accidents.
"I would say, at this point, the system seemed to be working as designed," Sharkey said last month.
Plans are under way to extend median cable barriers on the LIE to Exit 72 and on Sunrise Highway to Exit 66. But that extension, to cost about $6.8 million, won't begin until the summer of 2014.
Cable barriers cost lesser to install than other types of barriers, but come with higher maintenance costs, state officials and road experts said.
And they are a lifesaver, said Nicole Walsh, 25, of Mastic Beach.
Walsh was traveling east on Jan. 23 in the middle lane of the LIE, between Exits 65 and 66, when another driver cut her off, she said. She lost control of her car when she swerved left to avoid crashing into another vehicle. Walsh said her car spun around and the passenger side slammed into the cable barriers.
"If that cable median wasn't there, I probably would have flown to the other side of traffic," she said. "If it had been those concrete slabs, I feel like it would have been a worst impact. Concrete doesn't give. There is no bouncing back."
Each steel post is 30 inches high. The cables are steel and ¾-inch thick. It is a four-cable system. The posts are driven directly into the ground, but there is concrete at "terminal points" to anchor the cables.
The light-colored strip on the ground is a weed mat to prevent weeds from growing around the guiderail as a preventive maintenance measure. It is not concrete.
- Exits 64 to 70 on the Long Island Expressway