Two hundred forty-three people died in traffic crashes in Nassau and Suffolk last year, including 72 pedestrians, and the numbers keep climbing. NewsdayTV’s Drew Scott reports. Credit: Morgan Campbell; Debbie Egan Chin; Craig Ruttle

With big, bright eyes and a bubbly personality, 6-year-old Katerine Vanegas-Hernandez was not just her mother’s little princess — she also was her little brother’s best friend.

On Aug. 7, a driver crashed into the family’s parked car on Hempstead Turnpike in West Hempstead, and Lorena Hernandez pulled her daughter from the wreck, cradling her for the last time. Police say the driver of the other vehicle was intoxicated.

“She was snatched from me,” the soft-spoken mother said outside her apartment last month. “I feel pain in my heart.”

Hernandez's family is one of hundreds broken by the Island’s increasingly lethal roads.

Traffic fatalities on Long Island last year surged to the highest levels since 2015, as dangerous driving increased post-COVID-19 and police traffic enforcement dropped, according to a Newsday analysis of crash and ticketing data and traffic experts.

Crashes claimed 243 lives in 2022, 29% more than in 2019, the year before the pandemic, according to data kept by the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research at the University at Albany. 

That’s an average of nearly five deaths per week. Seventy-two of those killed were pedestrians, compared with 60 in 2019.

Deaths have continued to rise this year. Traffic fatalities increased 22% through August compared to the same period last year in the Nassau and Suffolk county police departments’ jurisdictions, according to police.

“I drive the roads, I see the news reports, I see the data. It’s startling,” said Janine Logan, traffic safety advocate at the Westbury-based New York Coalition for Transportation Safety. “It’s a crisis, because it’s not going in any other direction.”

Police increasingly reported reckless driving behaviors such as unsafe speed, improper lane changes and passing, as well as distracted driving and alcohol, as factors in fatal car crashes.

Long Island police linked unsafe speed, the leading contributing factor of deadly crashes, to 65 fatal collisions last year — up from 44 in 2019, for example. Police also reported an increase in alcohol-involved fatal crashes, from 14 to 21.

“We see this reemergence of these wantonly bad driving behaviors,” said Robert Sinclair Jr., a spokesman for AAA Northeast.

At the same time, police enforcement against those types of infractions has fallen on Long Island compared with before the pandemic.

There were 24% fewer adult DWI arrests, for example, and 18% fewer speeding tickets last year compared with 2019, according to state data analyzed by Newsday.

“It’s disappointing,” Sinclair said when told about Newsday’s findings about decreased enforcement. “Certainly the instances of these violations haven’t gone down.”

Traffic experts said police enforcement that targets dangerous behaviors can create safer roads, along with education, public safety campaigns and improved road design.

Howard Hall, a member of the Virginia-based International Association of Chiefs of Police’s roadway safety committee, said that with cars and roads safer than they’ve ever been, it’s clear people behind the wheel are driving the rise in fatal crashes seen across the country. He noted that decades of research shows that policing can help change the human factor, which, he said, is the hardest to control.

“When the behavior changes, the crashes go down,” said Hall, who retired as police chief for Roanoke County, Virginia, in January. “Places that have implemented, over the years, enforcement programs that target violations that are contributing to crashes and go out there and carry that out, their crash rates tend to go down.”

Compared with 2019, the Nassau County Police Department last year issued about half as many tickets for aggressive driving infractions, defined by the Albany institute as unsafe lane changes, failure to yield right of way, following too closely and disobeying traffic control devices. The department issued 66% fewer speeding tickets.

Suffolk County Police Department officers issued 14% fewer aggressive driving tickets and 20% fewer speeding tickets.

Nassau and Suffolk police department officials acknowledged that ticketing dropped after the pandemic but noted it has been climbing each year since then. In interviews, officials said they’ve beefed up teams that target dangerous locations and behaviors linked to crashes, including focusing on speeding and distracted drivers.

While both departments attributed the drop in ticketing, at least in part, to a decline in traffic after the pandemic flared, Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said officers backed off ticketing during 2020, starting with the COVID-19 outbreak and then during protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, when police were assigned other duties. Now, he said, the department has started to “remotivate” officers.

"Sometimes you have to take those young officers and remotivate them. For six, seven months, we ask them to do no ticketing. Don’t write a ticket, just go out there and enforce the laws as best as you can. … And then you sort things out, you come back, we motivate.”

Suffolk last year saw a 42% increase in fatal crashes compared with 2019.

“Obviously, as a department, we’re concerned because we’re in the public safety business,” Suffolk County Police Chief of Patrol Gerard Hardy said.

He said a drop in traffic because of hybrid work explained at least some of the ticketing decline compared with pre-pandemic levels.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, driving dropped as workers stayed out of the office and public venues shut down. Traffic levels on Long Island fell 16%, to 19.8 billion vehicle miles of travel that year, from 23.5 billion in 2019, according to data provided by the state Department of Transportation. In 2021, Long Island traffic was 8% below pre-pandemic levels, while total tickets were down 34% that year.

While Long Island traffic data for last year was not available, experts have said that national and local traffic has been nearing 2019 volumes.

Fatalities had declined on Long Island between 2015 and 2019, but as the region plunged into the pandemic in 2020, driving plummeted and emptier roads created more opportunities for speeding. Increased alcohol and drug use, combined with rising mental health challenges, and fragmented social networks also emerged and have carried over, local and national experts said.

“It is abundantly clear that something in the collective psyche has disintegrated in terms of careful driving,” said Maureen McCormick, who established Nassau County’s and New York City’s vehicular crimes bureaus.

“It doesn’t get more violent than a vehicular death,” said McCormick, now a special litigation assistant for the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office, which is working on state legislation to close loopholes for driving while drugged because of an increase in impaired driving.

Daniel Moran, a Manhattan psychologist and director of clinical training at Touro University’s School of Health Sciences, said that during the pandemic, there was a general distrust of authority and drivers were less likely to follow laws.

He said Long Islanders are more focused on getting where they need to go rather than on each other.

“There are so many people around, we’re nameless,” Moran said. “I’m not saying we’re selfish, because we look out for our families too, but we’re not likely to look out for each other as a whole community."

Jawana Richardson of Hempstead joined Mothers Against Drunk Driving and became a traffic safety advocate after her husband, Sherman Richardson, 59, was fatally struck by a drunken hit-and-run driver on the Southern State Parkway in 2014. Police found and apprehended the driver 10 months later, and he was convicted of manslaughter.

“We definitely need more police and law enforcement out on the roads,” Richardson said. “It’s too easy to get away with it.”

Nassau and Suffolk police say they have more cops on the roads — 5,004 current officers for both county departments, compared with 4,946 in 2019.

There has been a stream of horrific crashes this year, robbing parents of sons and daughters, orphaning children and splitting loved ones.

In May, an allegedly drunken driver heading the wrong way on North Broadway in Jericho smashed into a car, killing two 14-year-old Roslyn boys, Ethan Falkowitz and Drew Hassenbein, heading home from a tennis match victory.

In one of the deadliest crashes of the year, four family members — father Patrice Huntley, his children Jeremiah, 10, and Hannah, 13, and his 6-year-old granddaughter, Chantel Solomon — died after going out for ice cream. They were stopped at a red light on Sunrise Highway in East Massapequa on Aug. 6 when a driver, later charged with being under the influence of cocaine and fentanyl, allegedly smashed into the back of their car at 120 mph.

The following morning, Hernandez watched her daughter take her last breaths.

Minutes before the crash, Katerine Vanegas-Hernandez had been squeezing her hand, exuberant about turning 7 in two days.

They had pulled over to check out carpet, to use as a scratching mat for their cat. Hernandez was standing near the curb when she saw a Nissan Pathfinder without its headlights on race through a red light and careen into their Toyota Corolla, pinning her daughter inside between the driver's and back seats.

Hernandez quickly carried her out, but she was no longer responsive, she said. Her son was also injured.

The 18-year-old driver was arrested on charges including driving without a license, driving while intoxicated and second-degree manslaughter. Prosecutors said police smelled alcohol on his breath and saw beer cans inside and next to his vehicle.

Hernandez faces an uncertain future raising her 5-year-old son, Gerson Romero, without the child who once made their world complete.

The charges “can’t bring my daughter back,” she said outside her West Hempstead home.

“The only thing I can say more to the authorities is, 'Yes you are there to help, to try to protect or try to prevent someone from driving too fast,'” Hernandez said in Spanish.

She also pleaded with young drivers to slow down and drive sober.

The number of people under 18 killed in crashes on Long Island went from seven in 2019 to 13 in 2022. 

Statewide and nationally, total death counts rose in 2020 and 2021, like on Long Island. Rates of deaths, based on miles that vehicles traveled, also rose, and have been higher nationally than in Nassau and Suffolk.

The fatality rate on Long Island per 100 million vehicle miles traveled rose from 0.81 in 2019 to 1.08 in 2021, based on state Department of Transportation and Albany institute data.

But unlike on Long Island, roads nationally and statewide experienced a slight dip in fatalities in 2022, according to early estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Preliminary estimates from April show that 42,795 people died in traffic-related crashes last year nationwide, per the federal agency.

“The most dangerous thing you do every day is get on the road, whether it’s in a car or as a pedestrian or bicyclist,” said Lorraine Martin, president and CEO of the National Safety Council, an Illinois-based nonprofit advocacy group. “Somehow, we take that as the price you have to pay to be able to drive in our country. But it’s not the case. The U.S. has a much higher fatality rate than other industrial nations.”

Police officers list factors that contribute to each crash, and there may be multiple causes for one collision.

There were 228 fatal crashes in 2022 on Long Island, compared with 175 in 2019. Some crashes had multiple fatalities.

Besides the increases in fatal crashes involving unsafe speed and alcohol, there was a rise in fatal crashes involving lane changing and passing, from 25 to 45.

Distracted driving in fatal crashes went up last year, from 12 crashes in 2019 to 21 in 2022. Additionally, fatal motorcycle crashes increased from 21 to 34.

Enforcement efforts, at least in the form of tickets and DWI arrests, have not kept pace with fatal crashes.

Total traffic tickets issued on Long Island fell 22% from 635,343 in 2019 to 495,907 in 2022, according to data from the Albany institute, , Impaired driving tickets on Long Island decreased 19%, from 8,415 in 2019 to 6,816 in 2022, , Tickets for lane violation and crossing lines, together, decreased 42%, from 21,859 in 2019 to 12,602 in 2022, .

While Nassau saw similar reductions for overall summonses as Suffolk last year compared with 2019, Suffolk experienced a greater increase in the number of traffic deaths.

Traffic fatalities and ticketing are tracked on Long Island by various law enforcement agencies, including the county, village and town police departments and state troopers, which report the data to the state.

When people break traffic laws, “a big part of it is that they don’t fear getting stopped and getting a ticket. And so, we have to bring law enforcement back,” said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, based in Arlington, Virginia. He noted that law enforcement had been key to increasing seat belt use and reducing impaired driving.

Stuart Cameron, former Suffolk police chief of department and acting commissioner who left in 2021, had made reducing traffic fatalities a priority. He said officers collected and analyzed crash data, and used it to determine which offenses officers should be cracking down on. They also targeted hot spots that called for amped-up enforcement.

The reduced deaths in 2019 “highlights that that strategy was working,” said Cameron, who is now chief of the Old Westbury Police Department.

“It’s kind of the laser-focused approach used to reduce crime that’s been successful, and there’s no reason it wouldn’t be successful to use that same approach to traffic,” he said.

Both county police departments said they identify frequent crash sites and target top causes of serious crashes, such as distracted driving, cellphone use, speeding and failure to stop at red lights.

“Any summons that you issue is supposed to take the bad driver off the road, the bad element of the driving off the road, so by issuing summonses you hope to get a reaction which slows people down and stops them from running red lights,” Ryder said.

Ryder said they deploy teams to conduct traffic enforcement in areas where frequent crashes have been occurring, honing in on traffic violations.

He blamed the increase in dangerous driving during COVID on less driver education and increased alcohol and drug abuse.

“The recklessness of driving just was crazy,” Ryder said. “Coming out, we’re trying to change the culture again. We’re trying to bring back control of the roads.”

Hardy said distracted driving is probably the biggest problem, noting that cellphones are distracting for both drivers and pedestrians while new dashboard screens divert attention from the roads.

“We try to deploy our resources accordingly. We want to put people where these accidents are happening, at the times that they're happening,” he said, adding that police put out extra cars during commute times on the Long Island Expressway and Sunrise Highway.

New York State Police, mostly responsible for patrolling the parkways, has increased traffic enforcement compared with before the pandemic.

Capt. Robert Orth of State Police Troop L on Long Island said troopers on Long Island made 1,181 DWI arrests last year compared to 993 in 2019. Speeding tickets also went up nearly 8%, to 19,606 tickets, from 2019.

“Those dangerous behaviors, those contributing factors, are things we’re trying to target,” Orth said. State police focused on the Southern State Parkway this summer and added speed enforcement at night, as well as DWI enforcement during peak fatal crash hours, he said.

Trooper Daniel Ahlgrim, a state police spokesman, said he did not immediately have data about whether the increased enforcement has made those roads safer.

Roads were historically built to prioritize drivers over pedestrians, but infrastructure needs to adapt to protect pedestrians, people using wheelchairs and cyclists — populations considered vulnerable to vehicles, transportation experts and advocates said.

Suffolk saw a rise in pedestrian deaths, from 31 in 2019 to 51 last year. Nassau saw a drop in pedestrian deaths, from 29 in 2019 to 21, after 33 were killed in 2021.

The statistics paint a bleak picture, said Elissa Kyle, a director at Vision Long Island, a downtown planning group that works with local community leaders on pedestrian and road safety.

“It confirms that the way we’ve been doing things has not served all the population,” Kyle said. “Right now, we have a system that’s kind of set up to make it as easy as possible to be reckless, and then we blame people when they eventually are reckless.”

Katerine Vanegas-Hernandez, 6, of West Hempstead. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

With big, bright eyes and a bubbly personality, 6-year-old Katerine Vanegas-Hernandez was not just her mother’s little princess — she also was her little brother’s best friend.

On Aug. 7, a driver crashed into the family’s parked car on Hempstead Turnpike in West Hempstead, and Lorena Hernandez pulled her daughter from the wreck, cradling her for the last time. Police say the driver of the other vehicle was intoxicated.

“She was snatched from me,” the soft-spoken mother said outside her apartment last month. “I feel pain in my heart.”

Hernandez's family is one of hundreds broken by the Island’s increasingly lethal roads.

Traffic fatalities on Long Island last year surged to the highest levels since 2015, as dangerous driving increased post-COVID-19 and police traffic enforcement dropped, according to a Newsday analysis of crash and ticketing data and traffic experts.

Crashes claimed 243 lives in 2022, 29% more than in 2019, the year before the pandemic, according to data kept by the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research at the University at Albany. 

That’s an average of nearly five deaths per week. Seventy-two of those killed were pedestrians, compared with 60 in 2019.

Deaths have continued to rise this year. Traffic fatalities increased 22% through August compared to the same period last year in the Nassau and Suffolk county police departments’ jurisdictions, according to police.

“I drive the roads, I see the news reports, I see the data. It’s startling,” said Janine Logan, traffic safety advocate at the Westbury-based New York Coalition for Transportation Safety. “It’s a crisis, because it’s not going in any other direction.”

Police increasingly reported reckless driving behaviors such as unsafe speed, improper lane changes and passing, as well as distracted driving and alcohol, as factors in fatal car crashes.

Long Island police linked unsafe speed, the leading contributing factor of deadly crashes, to 65 fatal collisions last year — up from 44 in 2019, for example. Police also reported an increase in alcohol-involved fatal crashes, from 14 to 21.

“We see this reemergence of these wantonly bad driving behaviors,” said Robert Sinclair Jr., a spokesman for AAA Northeast.

At the same time, police enforcement against those types of infractions has fallen on Long Island compared with before the pandemic.

There were 24% fewer adult DWI arrests, for example, and 18% fewer speeding tickets last year compared with 2019, according to state data analyzed by Newsday.

“It’s disappointing,” Sinclair said when told about Newsday’s findings about decreased enforcement. “Certainly the instances of these violations haven’t gone down.”

Traffic experts said police enforcement that targets dangerous behaviors can create safer roads, along with education, public safety campaigns and improved road design.

Howard Hall, a member of the Virginia-based International Association of Chiefs of Police’s roadway safety committee, said that with cars and roads safer than they’ve ever been, it’s clear people behind the wheel are driving the rise in fatal crashes seen across the country. He noted that decades of research shows that policing can help change the human factor, which, he said, is the hardest to control.

“When the behavior changes, the crashes go down,” said Hall, who retired as police chief for Roanoke County, Virginia, in January. “Places that have implemented, over the years, enforcement programs that target violations that are contributing to crashes and go out there and carry that out, their crash rates tend to go down.”

recommended readingHow could LI's roads be made safer?

Police: ‘Remotivate’ officers after 2020

Compared with 2019, the Nassau County Police Department last year issued about half as many tickets for aggressive driving infractions, defined by the Albany institute as unsafe lane changes, failure to yield right of way, following too closely and disobeying traffic control devices. The department issued 66% fewer speeding tickets.

Suffolk County Police Department officers issued 14% fewer aggressive driving tickets and 20% fewer speeding tickets.

Nassau and Suffolk police department officials acknowledged that ticketing dropped after the pandemic but noted it has been climbing each year since then. In interviews, officials said they’ve beefed up teams that target dangerous locations and behaviors linked to crashes, including focusing on speeding and distracted drivers.

While both departments attributed the drop in ticketing, at least in part, to a decline in traffic after the pandemic flared, Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said officers backed off ticketing during 2020, starting with the COVID-19 outbreak and then during protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, when police were assigned other duties. Now, he said, the department has started to “remotivate” officers.

"Sometimes you have to take those young officers and remotivate them. For six, seven months, we ask them to do no ticketing. Don’t write a ticket, just go out there and enforce the laws as best as you can. … And then you sort things out, you come back, we motivate.”

Suffolk last year saw a 42% increase in fatal crashes compared with 2019.

“Obviously, as a department, we’re concerned because we’re in the public safety business,” Suffolk County Police Chief of Patrol Gerard Hardy said.

He said a drop in traffic because of hybrid work explained at least some of the ticketing decline compared with pre-pandemic levels.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, driving dropped as workers stayed out of the office and public venues shut down. Traffic levels on Long Island fell 16%, to 19.8 billion vehicle miles of travel that year, from 23.5 billion in 2019, according to data provided by the state Department of Transportation. In 2021, Long Island traffic was 8% below pre-pandemic levels, while total tickets were down 34% that year.

While Long Island traffic data for last year was not available, experts have said that national and local traffic has been nearing 2019 volumes.

Alcohol and drug use, fragmented society carried over

Fatalities had declined on Long Island between 2015 and 2019, but as the region plunged into the pandemic in 2020, driving plummeted and emptier roads created more opportunities for speeding. Increased alcohol and drug use, combined with rising mental health challenges, and fragmented social networks also emerged and have carried over, local and national experts said.

It is abundantly clear that something in the collective psyche has disintegrated in terms of careful driving.

—Maureen McCormick, special litigation assistant for the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office

“It is abundantly clear that something in the collective psyche has disintegrated in terms of careful driving,” said Maureen McCormick, who established Nassau County’s and New York City’s vehicular crimes bureaus.

“It doesn’t get more violent than a vehicular death,” said McCormick, now a special litigation assistant for the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office, which is working on state legislation to close loopholes for driving while drugged because of an increase in impaired driving.

Daniel Moran, a Manhattan psychologist and director of clinical training at Touro University’s School of Health Sciences, said that during the pandemic, there was a general distrust of authority and drivers were less likely to follow laws.

He said Long Islanders are more focused on getting where they need to go rather than on each other.

Jawana Richardson lost her husband, Sherman Richardson, in a 2014 DWI crash on the Southern State Parkway. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

“There are so many people around, we’re nameless,” Moran said. “I’m not saying we’re selfish, because we look out for our families too, but we’re not likely to look out for each other as a whole community."

Jawana Richardson of Hempstead joined Mothers Against Drunk Driving and became a traffic safety advocate after her husband, Sherman Richardson, 59, was fatally struck by a drunken hit-and-run driver on the Southern State Parkway in 2014. Police found and apprehended the driver 10 months later, and he was convicted of manslaughter.

“We definitely need more police and law enforcement out on the roads,” Richardson said. “It’s too easy to get away with it.”

Nassau and Suffolk police say they have more cops on the roads — 5,004 current officers for both county departments, compared with 4,946 in 2019.

Tragedies on roads

Top: Ethan Falkowitz, left, and Drew Hassenbein, both 14, were killed when a driver heading the wrong way on North Broadway in Jericho struck their car. Bottom: Six-year-old Chantel Solomon, her grandfather Patrice Huntley, 60, and his children Hannah, 13, and Jeremiah, 10, died after their vehicle was struck while stopped at a red light on Sunrise Highway in East Massapequa. Credit: Andy Siegel/Tyler Hill Camp; Peter Frutkoff; Tasheba Hamilton–Huntley

There has been a stream of horrific crashes this year, robbing parents of sons and daughters, orphaning children and splitting loved ones.

In May, an allegedly drunken driver heading the wrong way on North Broadway in Jericho smashed into a car, killing two 14-year-old Roslyn boys, Ethan Falkowitz and Drew Hassenbein, heading home from a tennis match victory.

In one of the deadliest crashes of the year, four family members — father Patrice Huntley, his children Jeremiah, 10, and Hannah, 13, and his 6-year-old granddaughter, Chantel Solomon — died after going out for ice cream. They were stopped at a red light on Sunrise Highway in East Massapequa on Aug. 6 when a driver, later charged with being under the influence of cocaine and fentanyl, allegedly smashed into the back of their car at 120 mph.

The following morning, Hernandez watched her daughter take her last breaths.

Nassau County police investigate the Aug. 7 crash that killed Katerine Vanegas-Hernandez. Credit: Lou Minutoli

Minutes before the crash, Katerine Vanegas-Hernandez had been squeezing her hand, exuberant about turning 7 in two days.

They had pulled over to check out carpet, to use as a scratching mat for their cat. Hernandez was standing near the curb when she saw a Nissan Pathfinder without its headlights on race through a red light and careen into their Toyota Corolla, pinning her daughter inside between the driver's and back seats.

Hernandez quickly carried her out, but she was no longer responsive, she said. Her son was also injured.

The 18-year-old driver was arrested on charges including driving without a license, driving while intoxicated and second-degree manslaughter. Prosecutors said police smelled alcohol on his breath and saw beer cans inside and next to his vehicle.

Hernandez faces an uncertain future raising her 5-year-old son, Gerson Romero, without the child who once made their world complete.

Katerine Vanegas-Hernandez was killed two days before her 7th birthday. Top: Her mother, Lorena Hernandez, with a photo of her daughter. Bottom: Lorena Hernandez with her son, Gerson Adrian Romero, 5, who was injured in the crash, and boyfriend, Angel Manzaneres. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

The charges “can’t bring my daughter back,” she said outside her West Hempstead home.

“The only thing I can say more to the authorities is, 'Yes you are there to help, to try to protect or try to prevent someone from driving too fast,'” Hernandez said in Spanish.

She also pleaded with young drivers to slow down and drive sober.

The number of people under 18 killed in crashes on Long Island went from seven in 2019 to 13 in 2022. 

National, state fatalities dip in 2022

Statewide and nationally, total death counts rose in 2020 and 2021, like on Long Island. Rates of deaths, based on miles that vehicles traveled, also rose, and have been higher nationally than in Nassau and Suffolk.

The fatality rate on Long Island per 100 million vehicle miles traveled rose from 0.81 in 2019 to 1.08 in 2021, based on state Department of Transportation and Albany institute data.

But unlike on Long Island, roads nationally and statewide experienced a slight dip in fatalities in 2022, according to early estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Preliminary estimates from April show that 42,795 people died in traffic-related crashes last year nationwide, per the federal agency.

“The most dangerous thing you do every day is get on the road, whether it’s in a car or as a pedestrian or bicyclist,” said Lorraine Martin, president and CEO of the National Safety Council, an Illinois-based nonprofit advocacy group. “Somehow, we take that as the price you have to pay to be able to drive in our country. But it’s not the case. The U.S. has a much higher fatality rate than other industrial nations.”

Factors in deadly crashes vs. traffic enforcement

Police officers list factors that contribute to each crash, and there may be multiple causes for one collision.

There were 228 fatal crashes in 2022 on Long Island, compared with 175 in 2019. Some crashes had multiple fatalities.

Besides the increases in fatal crashes involving unsafe speed and alcohol, there was a rise in fatal crashes involving lane changing and passing, from 25 to 45.

Distracted driving in fatal crashes went up last year, from 12 crashes in 2019 to 21 in 2022. Additionally, fatal motorcycle crashes increased from 21 to 34.

Enforcement efforts, at least in the form of tickets and DWI arrests, have not kept pace with fatal crashes.

  • Total traffic tickets issued on Long Island fell 22% from 635,343 in 2019 to 495,907 in 2022, according to data from the Albany institute.
  • Impaired driving tickets on Long Island decreased 19%, from 8,415 in 2019 to 6,816 in 2022.
  • Tickets for lane violation and crossing lines, together, decreased 42%, from 21,859 in 2019 to 12,602 in 2022.

While Nassau saw similar reductions for overall summonses as Suffolk last year compared with 2019, Suffolk experienced a greater increase in the number of traffic deaths.

Traffic fatalities and ticketing are tracked on Long Island by various law enforcement agencies, including the county, village and town police departments and state troopers, which report the data to the state.

When people break traffic laws, “a big part of it is that they don’t fear getting stopped and getting a ticket. And so, we have to bring law enforcement back,” said Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, based in Arlington, Virginia. He noted that law enforcement had been key to increasing seat belt use and reducing impaired driving.

Stuart Cameron, former Suffolk police chief of department and acting commissioner who left in 2021, had made reducing traffic fatalities a priority. He said officers collected and analyzed crash data, and used it to determine which offenses officers should be cracking down on. They also targeted hot spots that called for amped-up enforcement.

The reduced deaths in 2019 “highlights that that strategy was working,” said Cameron, who is now chief of the Old Westbury Police Department.

“It’s kind of the laser-focused approach used to reduce crime that’s been successful, and there’s no reason it wouldn’t be successful to use that same approach to traffic,” he said.

Both county police departments said they identify frequent crash sites and target top causes of serious crashes, such as distracted driving, cellphone use, speeding and failure to stop at red lights.

“Any summons that you issue is supposed to take the bad driver off the road, the bad element of the driving off the road, so by issuing summonses you hope to get a reaction which slows people down and stops them from running red lights,” Ryder said.

Ryder said they deploy teams to conduct traffic enforcement in areas where frequent crashes have been occurring, honing in on traffic violations.

He blamed the increase in dangerous driving during COVID on less driver education and increased alcohol and drug abuse.

We’re trying to bring back control of the roads.

—Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder

“The recklessness of driving just was crazy,” Ryder said. “Coming out, we’re trying to change the culture again. We’re trying to bring back control of the roads.”

Hardy said distracted driving is probably the biggest problem, noting that cellphones are distracting for both drivers and pedestrians while new dashboard screens divert attention from the roads.

“We try to deploy our resources accordingly. We want to put people where these accidents are happening, at the times that they're happening,” he said, adding that police put out extra cars during commute times on the Long Island Expressway and Sunrise Highway.

New York State Police, mostly responsible for patrolling the parkways, has increased traffic enforcement compared with before the pandemic.

Capt. Robert Orth of State Police Troop L on Long Island said troopers on Long Island made 1,181 DWI arrests last year compared to 993 in 2019. Speeding tickets also went up nearly 8%, to 19,606 tickets, from 2019.

“Those dangerous behaviors, those contributing factors, are things we’re trying to target,” Orth said. State police focused on the Southern State Parkway this summer and added speed enforcement at night, as well as DWI enforcement during peak fatal crash hours, he said.

Trooper Daniel Ahlgrim, a state police spokesman, said he did not immediately have data about whether the increased enforcement has made those roads safer.

Pedestrians and cyclists

Roads were historically built to prioritize drivers over pedestrians, but infrastructure needs to adapt to protect pedestrians, people using wheelchairs and cyclists — populations considered vulnerable to vehicles, transportation experts and advocates said.

Suffolk saw a rise in pedestrian deaths, from 31 in 2019 to 51 last year. Nassau saw a drop in pedestrian deaths, from 29 in 2019 to 21, after 33 were killed in 2021.

The statistics paint a bleak picture, said Elissa Kyle, a director at Vision Long Island, a downtown planning group that works with local community leaders on pedestrian and road safety.

“It confirms that the way we’ve been doing things has not served all the population,” Kyle said. “Right now, we have a system that’s kind of set up to make it as easy as possible to be reckless, and then we blame people when they eventually are reckless.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Driving on Long Island has gotten increasingly dangerous, with the number of people killed on the region’s roadways climbing to the highest levels since 2015. 
  • Police increasingly reported reckless driving behaviors as factors in fatal car crashes, according to a Newsday analysis.
  • Ticketing dropped for those violations, though police said they’re amping up enforcement efforts.

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