As traffic deaths and dangerous driving behaviors rose during the pandemic, advocates and experts are calling for comprehensive solutions that include safer road design, stricter laws and increased police enforcement.
While experts said preventing serious and deadly crashes still boils down to the classic principles of engineering, enforcement and education, there is greater stress on constructing streets to protect pedestrians and cyclists.
“The old paradigm was a car-centric system to move traffic. Now it’s ‘let’s calm the roads and bring people in to have a more sustainable system,’ ” said Tom Louizou, a former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regional administrator.
A crash is often the result of a combination of factors, which is why layers of safety — on the road, in cars, and on sidewalks — aim to cushion against human errors.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Tackling the rise in traffic fatalities on Long Island requires a multilayered approach.
- Advocates call for better road design, stricter driving laws and increased enforcement.
- Curbing speeds and preventing impaired driving remain critical.
Improving vehicle technology and automated driving also remain long-term objectives, but advocates would like to see more immediate infrastructure changes and tougher laws around impaired driving, along with enforcement.
Taming unsafe speed
With unsafe speed last year cited by police as a leading contributing factor in Long Island’s deadly crashes, there’s an urgent need to tame speeds in the car-reliant region, experts said.
Higher speeds result in deadlier and more serious crashes, and with more people walking, biking and exercising outdoors, the threat is only underscored by the sheer number of pedestrians killed last year — 72, compared with 60 in 2019.
“There’s this tolerance for going at least 10 over, and then there’s a thrill associated with going 20, 30, 40 over that is kind of a sickness, and we don’t treat it as a stigma,” said Matthew Carmody, a transportation engineer at AKRF, an engineering, planning and environmental firm with offices in New York City and Holbrook. “I think that it’s just not treated as seriously as it should be.”
To combat traffic fatalities, Suffolk County recently announced a Vision Zero plan, which was first rolled out in Sweden and major cities such as New York, to eliminate traffic fatalities. In Suffolk, officials said they will focus on areas that may need road improvements and collaborating with different agencies to do so.
For example, Joseph Brown, commissioner of the Suffolk Department of Public Works, said the Department of Health intends to reach out to lower-income communities where walking is more of a necessity.
“We need to be thinking about how we can make our highways and transportation systems safer,” Brown said.
Engineering improves downtowns and highways
In downtowns and certain commercial or business districts, traffic calming measures such as landscaping, added parking, raised crosswalks, medians and slimmer lanes can intuitively force drivers to go slower. Entryway signs posted at neighborhood boundaries also serve as a reminder about new speed limits.
“If we can engineer the roads and accept the fact that if you take 10 seconds to 30 seconds longer to take that trip across town, you’re going to save a life,” Carmody said.
Even on freeways such as the Long Island Expressway and Southern State Parkway, there are potential treatments that can protect drivers. For instance, barriers along the medians can be improved, while adding crash barrels to fixed objects can soften the impact from crashes, experts said.
Eric Alexander, the director of Vision Long Island, a downtown planning organization based in Northport, said he’s working with 20 communities and officials to apply for federal and local infrastructure funding and grants for changes — such as crosswalks, countdown timers, better lighting or roadway narrowing.
“People driving slower just inherently in itself is safer,” Alexander said.
Traffic circles, such as those added on Lake Street and Holbrook Road in Patchogue and two others added at each end of Main Street in Westhampton Beach, force drivers to slow down and wait to proceed.
Downtown Main Street in Westhampton Beach has become a model of walkability since it underwent a complete transformation, said Jonathan Keyes, director of downtown transit oriented development for Suffolk County. The changes include a raised crosswalk, angled parking, curb extensions that shorten crossing distances for pedestrians, and wider sidewalks.
It's “a really beautiful public space that’s also a lot safer,” Keyes said.
New laws to fight drugged, drunken driving
In addition to roadway changes, several experts also hope to see tougher state laws against drugged and drunken driving.
One bill being pushed by the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office and a coalition of advocates would tighten existing drugged driving laws. Currently, not only must law enforcement be able to identify the drug an impaired driver has taken, but that substance must be on a New York Public Health Law list. The list does not cover emerging and synthetic drugs, and many drugs fall under the radar as a result.
“If law enforcement pulls me over, and I am slumped over the wheel, and they can see I am obviously impaired, but I have no indication of what’s impairing me, and I refuse to take a test, they can’t charge me,” said Maureen McCormick, special litigation assistant district attorney in Suffolk County. "It has to be named, and it has to be on a list.”
In addition to other measures, the proposed legislation also calls for allowing roadside oral fluid testing to screen for recent use of drugs.
It’s not about prohibition, but it’s about separating drinking from driving.
—Tom Louizou, former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regional administrator
Louizou, also a co-founder of .05 Saves Lives Coalition, and groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, are hoping to lower the drunken driving threshold from the current .08 to .05.
Utah, which in 2018 was the first state to make driving with a blood alcohol content of .05 or higher illegal, has seen significantly reduced road fatalities , according to federal highway data.
The National Transportation Safety Board in 2013 recommended all 50 states lower the BAC to .05.
“It’s not about prohibition, but it’s about separating drinking from driving,” Louizou said.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving is also hoping to strengthen state interlock laws for all convicted drunken drivers. Interlock devices require a driver’s alcohol content to be tested before a vehicle is started and driven by having a driver blow into a mouthpiece. MADD is also calling for a law that would require impaired drivers found guilty of causing a fatal crash to pay child support for those left parentless under 18.
Enforcement focused on impaired driving, speeding, seat belts
Even the strictest driving laws will require enforcement, experts said, noting that police continue to play an important role in deterring crashes.
Automated cameras can also reduce speeds but will not immediately identify or remove high-risk drivers.
MADD supports high-visibility enforcement that is fairly implemented and focused on issues like impaired driving, speeding and not buckling up.
These crashes are 100% preventable.
—Paige Carbone, MADD regional director
“These are proven solutions that can save lives and prevent injuries,” said Paige Carbone, MADD regional executive director for New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
“These crashes are 100% preventable,” she said.
Traffic experts acknowledged that while enforcement is an important tool, it needs to be used in conjunction with other lifesaving traffic measures.
“There is no magic potion that could solve everything. There’s a lot of different aspects that have to be improved and addressed,” said Frank Pearson, a director of transportation safety at the Babylon-based Greenman-Pederson Inc., an engineering firm. “It’s an ongoing challenge that is not going away quickly.”