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Editorial: Wrong-way deaths and drinking

Wrong-way sign on on southbound Meadowbrook Parkway

Wrong-way sign on on southbound Meadowbrook Parkway Credit: Newsday/Ken Sawchuk

Recent wrong-way accidents on Long Island roadways have stirred anger and fear, and stopping them has become a hot topic. More warning signs, better-configured ramps, lights and sirens, and spikes to stop or alert wrong-way drivers, all these and more are being discussed.

But while Long Island's highways aren't perfect, and cost-effective ways to prevent such accidents should be investigated, there's no rampant problem with wrong-way driving.

What is killing or injuring people on our roads is motorists piloting vehicles while drunk or on drugs. That's what almost certainly happened in each of these cases, authorities said, and where we need to direct our anger, energy and efforts:

Dave Richards, driving the wrong way on the Long Island Expressway on July 5, struck the vehicle of John Rey, who died. Officials said Richards' blood-alcohol content was .19 percent, more than twice the legal limit.

Juan Cruz, driving the wrong way on the LIE on Sept. 6, struck a barrier, killing a friend, passenger Mauricio Visoso-Ornelas. Cruz's blood-alcohol level was described as .19.

Michael Bowen, driving the wrong way on the Northern State Parkway Nov. 15, struck the vehicle of Andre Menzies, killing him. Prosecutors said Bowen's blood-alcohol content was .26.

Katelyn O'Connell, driving the wrong way on the LIE Nov. 16, struck the vehicle of Marvin Rodriguez, breaking his ankle. Her blood-alcohol level was reported to be .17.

Ralph Cerullo, driving the wrong way on Sunrise Highway at speeds exceeding 100 mph, according to the Suffolk County sheriff's office, refused to pull over for marked deputies' cars. Finally stopped, he refused a Breathalyzer but failed sobriety tests and smelled heavily of alcohol, officials said.

Timothy Griffin was arrested Wednesday after driving the wrong way on the LIE. Officials said he admitted drinking "a Bacardi and Coke" and smoking marijuana. It was Griffin's third arrest on DWI charges and his license was previously suspended.

Early Thursday, Suffolk police and sheriff's deputies said they stopped Christopher Williams on the Sunrise Highway, driving west in the eastbound lanes. Charges against him included driving while intoxicated and assault for rolling a car tire over the foot of a police officer.

The most effective methods to stop wrong-way driving - large painted arrows, multiple, appropriately colored "wrong-way" signs and reflectors - were put on every ramp on Long Island by 1994. Experts agree that one suggestion, spikes on ramps to deflate the tires of wrong-way drivers, won't work: They aren't very effective on cars exceeding 10 mph, and if they do work, the spiked car is left stuck on the ramp, creating a safety hazard. Worse, people going the right way on the ramp sometimes panic when they see the spikes, causing more problems.

Studies suggest alarms, flashing lights and sensors don't work well, either, and they're tremendously expensive solutions to a fairly rare problem. At most, 2 or 3 percent of Long Island traffic fatalities are related to wrong-way driving.

Cheap, effective improvements should be pursued, including striping the backs of highway signs with reflecting paint to warn wrong-way drivers, and using existing electronic signs to alert motorists when wrong-way drivers are spotted.

But if we want to stop these tragedies, we'll keep ourselves and those around us from driving drunk or drugged - via peer pressure and strict laws and enforcement - instead of putting the blame on signs and ramps that work pretty well for sober, alert and law-abiding motorists.

This editorial was updated Thursday with two new arrests.