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Opinion

Editorial: Make LIE safer for cops

Abner Vega, left, controls a paint cart while

Abner Vega, left, controls a paint cart while co-worker Louis Roque holds a paint hose as they repaint the road lines on the Long Island Expressway in order to improve safety conditions. Both are employees of the Safety Marking Company, (June 28, 2012) Credit: Steve Pfost

The death of Nassau County Police Officer Michael Califano, who was hit by a truck during a traffic stop last year, shone a light on a treacherous stretch of the Long Island Expressway. Califano was the first Nassau officer to die in the line of duty since 1993, but one of 25 to be struck on the LIE between exit 35 and exit 41 since 2001.

These 7.2 miles need to be made much safer, quickly. The 10 emergency pull-off areas announced this week by the state Department of Transportation are a start. In addition, the stretch needs more rumble strips, more visible signage, and continued publicizing and enforcement of tough laws. Long Island drivers must do their part, too.

A Federal Highway Administration report released in the months after Califano was killed reported insufficient shoulder space and suggested adding pull-off areas for officers to conduct traffic stops. The report also suggested better lighting, signs and clearer road markings.

In early 2011, a little more than a month before Califano was killed, a state law went into effect requiring that motorists move over one lane to leave a buffer between themselves and stopped police cars or ambulances displaying emergency lighting. It makes no difference whether the vehicles are on the shoulder of the road or in a travel lane. When traffic makes that impossible, drivers must slow down. About 16,000 citations were issued in 2011 for such violations statewide. and in early 2012, that law was widened to require that drivers display the same caution toward tow trucks, snow plows and vehicles conducting road maintenance, construction or repair.

The most extensive part of the plan the state has adopted, the 10 new emergency pull-off areas (five eastbound and five westbound) is just beginning to be implemented; DOT officials hope to have four areas completed by the end of the year -- almost two years after Califano was killed. The delay has drawn the ire of police advocates, but the DOT said it took time to evaluate the federal report, decide what it can do, let contracts and integrate the work into its maintenance and construction schedule, which is largely seasonal.

All of the proposed improvements can likely help -- some more than others -- and figuring out which ones work best and expanding them is crucial. The driver of the truck that killed Califano, who fell asleep behind the wheel, certainly wouldn't have been stopped by a "move over" law, but he might have been awakened by rumble strips. His truck might never have drifted far enough to hit Califano if the officer had been able to conduct his stop in a pull-off area further from traffic, removed from the shoulder of the highway. Those improvements, along with one huge, nongovernmental change, seem to offer the most hope for better safety.

The last change is a doozy, though, because it's about us. Long Islanders drive distracted and aggressively, too fast and, sometimes, drunk. We drive while overly tired, texting and talking on the phone. And sometimes people die. We don't need a federal report or the DOT to change that. We just need to care enough to change.

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