Claudia Mariano said she should have been celebrating her son’s wedding over the summer. Instead, the 79-year-old woman was mourning his death.
Anthony Mariano, 44, was killed after his car was hit by a drunken driver heading the wrong way on the Sunken Meadow Parkway in Commack last November, according to Suffolk County prosecutors.
Mariano was among 113 people killed in motor-vehicle-related accidents last year in Suffolk, the most of any county in the state, according to Newsday's review of preliminary data from the Albany-based Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research. Nassau County ranked third — behind Queens — with 78 vehicle-related fatalities.
Those statistics, along with the overall number of accidents on Long Island last year — many of which are attributed to speed and other human-related factors — serve as stark reminders of the dependence on driving in the region, and the risks involved.
"It’s been a terrible year. We’re all trying so hard to move on and pick up the pieces," Claudia Mariano, of Levittown, said in an interview. "This has destroyed my family. My son's wedding was supposed to be this summer after it was postponed last year."
What to know
There were 113 people killed in motor-vehicle-related crashes last year in Suffolk, the most of any county in the state, according to the Albany-based Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research.
Suffolk also recorded the most motor-vehicle crashes in the state in 2020 with 32,154.
Speed was the No. 1 human contributing factor for police-reported motor-vehicle-related fatal crashes on Long Island.
Police continue to crack down on speeding, reckless and distracted driving, while traffic advocates call for roadway changes.
Suffolk also had the most vehicle-related crashes — 32,154 — in the state in 2020, according to the institute, which analyzes data from the state Department of Motor Vehicles and logs the figures into a database system used for traffic safety. The data will be finalized this fall.
Suffolk's total is lower than in 2019, when it recorded 42,485 accidents, but there were fewer vehicles on the roadways in 2020 because of state-ordered COVID-19 restrictions.
Nassau had the second-most motor vehicle-related accidents in the state last year — 29,666, a drop from 41,862 in 2019, data shows. Queens recorded the most accidents in 2019, 43,830.
Mom says son advocated for safe driving
Mariano said her son was a Queens high school social studies teacher from Kings Park who advocated for safe driving in classes he taught.
"Anthony was always so careful. This was a drunk driver who was so far above the legal limit. People were beeping their horn and trying to get his attention and he had no idea because he was totally zoned out while my son was innocently going for a pizza," said Mariano, a retired nurse.
Joseph Norris, 38, of Babylon, pleaded not guilty to charges related to Mariano’s death, including aggravated vehicular homicide and aggravated driving.
Norris, a New York City firefighter who's on leave from the department, lost both legs in the crash. Suffolk prosecutors said Norris’ blood alcohol content was .29%, more than three times the legal limit of 0.08%, when he crashed after a night of allegedly drinking at a Smithtown bar.
The data shows that many deadly accidents continue to be caused by people's behavior.
Of the total police-reported accidents in Suffolk last year, 27,308, or 85%, were believed to have been caused by human-related factors, including speed, with 87 of them fatal, data shows. In Nassau, human factors were listed as contributing to 27,016 police-reported accidents, or 91%, resulting in 67 deadly crashes.
"That’s a sick amount of people to be dying," said Victor Maldonado, whose son, Jonathan Flores-Maldonado, 27, of Westhampton, died Jan. 12, 2020, in a car crash.
Suffolk prosecutors said an intoxicated driver, Jordan Randolph, plowed into Flores-Maldonado's car in Shirley. A black box recovered from Randolph's car showed he was driving 130 mph when he crashed, Suffolk prosecutors said during Randolph’s arraignment last year.
Randolph, 42, was charged with seven counts of aggravated vehicular homicide, among other offenses. Victor Maldonado previously testified before Nassau legislators pressing for changes to the state's bail reform law. Randolph had three previous DWI convictions.
Among human-related factors, speed was the No. 1 contributor in police-reported fatal crashes on Long Island in 2019 and 2020, according to the data. In 2020, unsafe speed was listed as contributing to 38 fatal police-reported wrecks in Suffolk and 20 in Nassau. In 2019, unsafe speed was linked to 25 fatal crashes in Suffolk and 19 in Nassau.
"I still get choked up. I miss him — his kindness — he was such a good kid. He always put others first. My son had graduated with a degree in biology. He wanted to do Doctors Without Borders," said Maldonado, a Bronx resident. "I don't think anyone should be driving  miles per hour. On any road, that's very dangerous. On a county road, you should be as close to the speed limit as possible.
"On the LIE [Long Island Expressway], people drive 80 miles per hour every single day. I think it's very unfortunate because the speed limit isn't enforced and the courts are too lenient," Maldonado added.
Other crash factors with deadly consequences include failure to yield right of way, pedestrian and bicyclist error or confusion, and passing lane or improper use, according to the data.
Pedestrian and bicyclist error or confusion led to 14 fatal crashes in Suffolk and 17 in Nassau in 2020, data shows. Additionally, in Suffolk, data shows that driver inattention was cited as a contributing factor in 13 deadly wrecks, while alcohol was listed in 11 others.
Counties vow to act
Suffolk and Nassau said they have plans in place to reduce the number of crashes and fatalities.
Suffolk police will launch a new safe-driving initiative next month that includes using targeted enforcement patrols to dole out more summonses for speeding, aggressive driving, and cellphone use or distracted driving. Over time, enforcement with marked and unmarked units will be set up at high-crash corridors.
Acting Suffolk Police Commissioner Stuart Cameron said his department has been working hard to reduce the number of accidents. He noted that drivers need to be more attentive and realize that speed limits help protect everyone on the roadways.
"One of the things you can certainly do is make sure you are leaving yourself enough time to get where you need to go. … Don’t use your cellphone, don’t send or read text messages while you’re driving," Cameron said. "Simply glancing at your phone could result in you hitting a pedestrian, which would be devastating.
"We don’t want any more tragedies," he added.
Since 2019, Nassau has invested $50 million in infrastructure improvements, such as traffic signals, pavement markings, signage and various traffic calming devices on roadways, County Executive Laura Curran said in an emailed statement.
"While car accidents have been declining in Nassau, there are still too many people losing their lives. Nassau County Police have renewed efforts to crack down on reckless driving, such as speeding, driving under the influence and texting while driving, which accounts for more than half of all fatal accidents," Curran said in the statement.
Safety advocates say roadways a problem
Traffic safety advocates said increased enforcement is only part of the solution. Marco DiAquoi, deputy director of Manhattan-based advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, said costlier roadway design changes would offer more permanent results than a beefed-up police response. He explained that most roads were designed by engineers and urban planners who prioritized ease of service for commuters.
"That high level of service for cars is deadly for users, including pedestrians and cyclists," DiAquoi said. "Our roads are designed to produce precisely the outcome we are getting. Traffic violence in the U.S. is an epidemic that kills as many people every year as gun violence."
DiAquoi advocates for a safe systems approach that includes the use of roundabouts, narrower roads, bulb-out extensions, bike lanes, medians and rumble strips to alert inattentive drivers.
Eric Alexander, director of planning group Vision Long Island, also said revamping roadways will go further in preventing motor-vehicle-related tragedies than punitive measures.
"The key is to make the drivers uncomfortable enough, so they’re forced to drive slower with changes in roadway design. It’s a simple thing. If these crashes are at lower speeds, people survive," Alexander said. "Our values on Long Island are not about hurting people, so why do we feel we have an inalienable right to drive hurtling through neighborhoods?"
Mariano said motorists should remember that "the car is a weapon."
"This reckless driving is all wrong," she said. "It's so selfish and it's needless. My heart goes out to anyone who's lost a loved one. It's not in the course of things to lose your child."