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Motorists speeding on virtually empty roads catch the attention of police

A Suffolk County Highway Patrol Bureau officer cited

A Suffolk County Highway Patrol Bureau officer cited the drivers of three Porsches for speeding at an estimated 120 mph on the eastbound Long Island Expressway near Exit 59.   Credit: Suffolk County Police Department

Police on Long Island have issued far fewer speeding tickets during the coronavirus crisis as drivers largely stay home and off the streets, but police say some motorists are taking advantage of relatively empty roads to put the pedal to the metal.

“The traffic on the Long Island Expressway is something I’ve never seen in my lifetime,” said Suffolk police Deputy Inspector Dave Regina, the commanding officer of the Highway Patrol Bureau and a lifelong Long Islander. “There’s a lot less cars on the road, so our tickets are down. But we are seeing a small percentage that are really pushing the envelope, and those are the people that we’re really trying to target. We’re seeing some really high speeds out there.”

Earlier this month, Suffolk police said they pulled over three Porsches driving at estimated speeds of 120 mph on the Long Island Expressway.

Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder said he, too, has heard anecdotally of people “flying” on the LIE and other roadways.

Ryder said while most of the drop in vehicle traffic law tickets can be attributed to people staying home, a lot of Nassau police officers are issuing warnings to speeders, rather than writing tickets, to keep proper social distancing.

“That gets the same result — the person will slow down, but I don’t have to interact with that person, handing an ID back and forth," Ryder said. "They’re trying to respect social distancing for themselves and keep everybody safe.”

Following mid-March directives from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to New Yorkers to work from home and only go out for necessities like groceries, police said they have seen traffic jams virtually disappear on the Island’s typically clogged roadways, with weekday traffic during what used to be rush hour instead at what you’d expect to see on a Sunday morning.

The number of vehicle traffic violations issued by the New York State Police, which patrol Long Island’s parkways, also has dropped dramatically.

From March 1 to April 22, Farmingdale-based Troop L issued 4,065 tickets — 1,258 of those for speeding — and made 67 arrests for DWI, according to figures provided by the state police.

That's a 68% drop in overall tickets from the same period last year, when state police issued 12,805. For speeding tickets, it's a 59% drop, from 3,085 last year, and for DWI it's a 74% drop, from 171 last year.

In Nassau County, police reported a 39% decrease on all traffic tickets so far this year compared to last year, including for speeding, unsafe lane change and failure to signal, according to department statistics.

Car accidents have decreased by 28.4%, with 7,265 recorded this year through April 22, compared with 10,149 last year.

Accidents with drinking involved decreased by 32.8%, with police reporting 84 this year, compared with 125 last year.

And the number of DWI arrests fell by 34.5%, from 475 in 2019 to 311 this year.

From March 1 to April 11, Suffolk County police issued 1,907 speeding summonses, according to department statistics, compared with 2,266 in the same period last year, a 15.84% decrease.

Robert Sinclair Jr., manager of media relations for AAA Northeast, said traffic volume on roadways on Long Island and in New York City has decreased up to 75% during the coronavirus crisis.

Speeding in the city is on the rise, he said.

According to statistics from the city’s transportation department, 56,492 speed camera tickets were issued from March 2 to March 6. That figure jumped 18% from March 16 to March 20, when 66,907 were issued, Sinclair said. 

“People are driving like maniacs,” Sinclair said. “There aren’t many people on the road, but those who are, are just driving like crazy.”

Sinclair said he’s noticed speeding on local roads in his Astoria, Queens, neighborhood, as well as on highways.

“The couple of times I had to go out, particularly on the highways, people are driving with a lot less restraint,” Sinclair said. “People blasting down local streets like there’s no tomorrow. It’s extremely dangerous.”

A company that collects and analyzes data from smartphones and other GPS-enabled devices, as well as some 10,000 physical traffic counters, estimated that the total vehicle miles traveled for residents of Nassau and Suffolk counties was down 88% and 85% respectively from a January 2020 baseline, according to Martin Morzynski, the vice president of marketing at StreetLight Data Inc.

The calculation for Queens and Brooklyn indicated the total vehicle miles traveled for residents was down 85% and 80%.

Long Beach Police Commissioner Michael Tangney said his department hasn’t seen an increase in speeders because of empty streets due to coronavirus.

Tangney said the number of vehicle traffic law tickets being issued by Long Beach police officers is “way down” and “it’s a direct correlation to COVID-19.”

In February, there were 56 car crashes in Long Beach. In March, when the coronavirus stay-at-home order began about midmonth, the number of crashes fell to 49.

Tangney said he thought the drop would be more dramatic.

“I think people are distracted in general, and they’re not concentrating,” Tangney said about driving in the coronavirus era. “I don’t know if it has anything to do with masks and an obstructed view, or they’re paying less attention because the roads are emptier. They could be doing a little more sightseeing, not concentrating on the road.”

Officials said some are tempted to speed when there is less traffic congestion.

Ryder, the Nassau police commissioner, doled out his own reckless driving warning a few days ago, having his police department driver roll up on the side of a motorist he said was speeding and carelessly changing lanes in Bethpage.

“I had my raid jacket on. We turned on the lights and you can see the guy’s face kind of drop,” Ryder said. “I said, ‘Not now, man, come on.’”

He said the driver apologized and went on his way — at a slower clip.

Regina, whose Suffolk Highway Patrol bureau keeps watch over parts of the Long Island Expressway and Sunrise Highway, said on April 12 at 10:04 a.m., a Highway Patrol officer pulled over three men from Westbury, Massapequa and Jackson Heights, Queens, who were driving Porsches at an estimated 120 mph on the LIE.

The trio, in 2014, 2016 and 2018 Porsches driving eastbound around Exit 59, “were clearly traveling together,” Regina said, but they were not cited for racing.

“The officer was able to stop all three vehicles, which were all issued speeding tickets,” Regina said, adding that the drivers were also cited for other offenses such as lane usage and equipment violations. 

Regina, despite being the top supervisor of a 96-officer command, said he still issues vehicle-traffic law citations and did so a few weeks ago when he pulled over a driver on the LIE near Exit 53 for speeding.

“When I actually issued the ticket, he said, ‘oh, officer, I thought the courts were closed.’"
Regina said he told the alleged speeder: “There may not be hearings, sir, but you’ll still have to answer this at a later date.”

“These executive orders, it’s drastically reduced the traffic volume each day,” Regina said, referring to directives to work from home and only go out for food and other necessities.

“Whereas many times, you may not be able to travel at that high speed, now that opportunity exists for you to reach a much higher speed and have an open road in front you,” Regina said.

While there is still some traffic, as delivery trucks and essential workers still must travel and the general public heads out to stores on occasion for necessities, Regina said, the speeders and reckless drivers are easier to spot. In addition, he said he’s deployed officers who normally work in the office to hit the streets.

He added: “I want people to know that we are still out there enforcing the law.”

With Anthony DeStefano