The new cable barrier separating the east- and westbound lanes...

The new cable barrier separating the east- and westbound lanes of the Long Island Expressway between exits 64 and 68. (Aug. 7, 2011) Credit: Thomas A. Ferrara

Steel cable barriers are being erected in the grassy medians of the Long Island Expressway and Sunrise Highway in Suffolk County to help prevent deadly crossover crashes that have killed at least seven people and injured 20 in less than a decade.

The guide rails in the project's first phase will stretch for 11 miles in the medians of each roadway -- from Exits 64 to 70 on the LIE and from Exits 53 to 59 on Sunrise Highway, state Department of Transportation officials said. The work on the LIE will be completed this fall and on Sunrise Highway by the end of the year, spokeswoman Eileen Peters said.

By 2015, the DOT plans to extend the barriers on the LIE into the Town of Riverhead and on Sunrise Highway into the Town of Southampton, according to a project overview on the DOT's website. The second phase of the project is still in development.

The guide rails, made of four steel cables strung between 30-inch poles that are driven into the ground, are "tremendously effective at stopping crossover crashes," said transportation consultant Pete Rahn of Kansas City, who as Missouri DOT director backed the barriers' construction throughout the state from 2005 to 2010.

"They are almost like a net that captures the vehicle and prevents it from crossing over," he said.

For Arthur Dorman, 77, of Aquebogue, the guide rails have special meaning.

"Every time I drive there, I can't help but think of the accident and how it could have been prevented," said Dorman, whose wife of 48 years, Doris Dorman, was killed in a crossover crash between Exits 68 and 69 on the LIE in January 2005.

Just three months later, Kelly Scherz, now 25, of Patchogue, was left in a coma with a broken neck and bleeding in her brain after a chain-reaction crossover crash on the LIE between Exits 66 and 67.

"If there was something there [in the median], it wouldn't have happened," Scherz said last week.


Requests for barriersThe guide-rail construction was spurred, in part, by a May 2005 letter to the DOT from the Suffolk County Police Department.

In the letter, Thomas Palmieri, then a Suffolk police captain in the highway patrol bureau, detailed five crossover crashes on the LIE and Sunrise Highway, including those involving Doris Dorman and Scherz. Palmieri requested that the department look into constructing barriers between the eastbound and westbound lanes.

"Although I understand economically that this may be a costly endeavor, it apparently is the only effective means to prevent further loss of life," he wrote.

Since then, at least four crashes have claimed three more lives and injured three people.

The first phase of the project, which costs $4.8 million, was included in the department's 2005-2010 capital plan, and the design stage began in January 2009. The bid was awarded last summer to Hasa Construction of Farmingdale and construction began in the spring, the DOT said.

There is no federal requirement that the two roadways have median barriers, DOT traffic engineer Shaik Saad said. Federal Highway Administration guidelines recommend barriers in medians up to 50 feet wide. Medians along the LIE and Sunrise Highway are 50 to 60 feet wide, Saad said.

"Even though the median is very wide, because of the number of accidents it was appropriate to construct a barrier," he said.

Because of its flexibility, the cable system is best suited to the wider medians, Saad said. In crash tests, a tractor-trailer moving at 55 mph displaced the guide rail 12 feet before stopping, he said. Twelve feet is considered the maximum "deflection distance" for this type of guide rail, he said.


Victims support project In the crash that injured Scherz, the driver of a car going west on the LIE rear-ended a Ford Expedition, which sent the SUV careening across the median into the eastbound lanes, where it smashed into Scherz's car, police said.

Three other people -- Scherz's passenger, and two women in the Ford -- were injured. The man who police said caused the accident, Henry Schaeffer, now 42, of Bellport, later pleaded guilty to drunken driving and vehicular assault, and was sentenced to 6 months in jail.

"I didn't ever blame it on the road; it was more the person who caused it," said Scherz, who was a Dowling College freshman at the time, as was her passenger. "But I think that's great that they're finally fixing that so people don't get hurt."

In a May 2004 crash, Lisa Vigliotta, 30, of Center Moriches, was killed when a truck crossed the Sunrise Highway's median and hit her car head-on. Her golden retriever, who was in the car, was also killed.

The truck driver, Edward Martinez, 26, of Bellport, whom authorities charged with driving while intoxicated, pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter. He is serving a 4- to 12-year sentence, according to state records.

Vigliotta's mother-in-law, Cheryl Vigliotta of Manorville, said of the guide rail's construction: "It's long overdue."


There's one disadvantage The cable guide rails are cheaper and more flexible than concrete or corrugated metal barriers, said John Dewar, roadway departure team leader for the Federal Highway Administration in Washington.

The cable guide-rail system "doesn't do as much damage to the vehicle and the people in it" as the other types, Rahn said.

Cable barriers are now in wide use across the country, Rahn said. When they were installed along more than 500 miles of highway in Missouri, annual fatalities due to crossover crashes were reduced from about 50 to one, he said.

One disadvantage of cable guide rails is that they may not always stop big trucks, which sometimes penetrate or topple over the barrier, Dewar said.

"You're never going to put in something that's going to solve every problem," he said.

Chief Michael Sharkey of the Suffolk County Sheriff's Department said the project is a good idea.

"If it saves one life, it's well worth the expense," he said.



Crossover crashes




Long Island Expressway



Aug. 18, 2002. Between Exits 65-66 eastbound. Driver of westbound pickup truck crosses median; two eastbound cars crash trying to avoid truck. Truck driver is killed and seven people in the two cars are injured.

Jan. 12, 2005. Between Exits 68-69 eastbound. Van driver headed west loses control, hits a westbound car and crosses median, hitting eastbound car. The eastbound driver, a woman, is killed; the van driver has minor injuries.

April 16, 2005. Between Exits 66-67 eastbound. Driver of westbound car rear-ends a SUV; the SUV crosses the median and collides with eastbound car. Two women in the SUV and two women in the eastbound car are injured. The male driver of the westbound car, who police said caused the crash, pleads guilty to drunken driving and vehicular assault and is sentenced to 6 months in jail.

Sept. 25, 2007. Between Exits 65-66 eastbound. Driver of westbound Freightliner utility truck loses control, crosses median and collides with eastbound minivan. The minivan driver, a woman, is killed; the truck driver is injured.

Jan. 1, 2008. Between Exits 68-69 westbound. Driver of eastbound pickup truck crosses median, with truck flipping at least twice into the westbound lanes. Driver is ejected and killed.

July 27, 2010. Between Exits 65-66 eastbound. Driver of westbound car dies after he crosses median and strikes an eastbound pickup truck.



Sunrise Highway



May 12, 2004. Between Exits 57-58 eastbound. Driver of westbound pickup truck crosses median and crashes into eastbound sedan. Killed are the woman driving the sedan and her dog; the truck driver and three passengers have minor injuries. The truck driver, who was drunk, pleads guilty to second-degree manslaughter and is serving 4 to 12 years in prison.

May 28, 2004. Between Exits 59-60 westbound. Driver of a eastbound car crosses median and collides with westbound car. The driver that crossed over is ejected and killed; the driver of the westbound car has minor injuries.

Feb. 23, 2011. Near Exit 59 eastbound. Driver of westbound SUV crosses median, and vehicle flips and lands in eastbound lanes. The driver and a passenger are ejected and seriously injured.

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