Within just a few days this month, the Long Island Contractors’ Association emerged with an extensive report detailing the tragic toll the Southern State Parkway’s winding and narrow paths have exacted — only to have that toll grow again.
Last Saturday, an 18-year-old was killed, and two other teens were injured, when the car in which they were riding crashed into a bridge embankment near exit 20 on the Southern State.
That’s just the latest example. Last year, 75-year-old Holbrook resident Richard Riggs was killed when two teens, each in separate stolen cars, allegedly sped east on the Southern State in a race that ended in a collision in North Babylon, and Riggs’ death.
And yet, despite this happening again and again, solutions seem as far away as ever.
When will elected officials and others finally prioritize the safety of our most dangerous roads? How many travelers have to die before the issue is finally taken seriously?
BUILT FOR BEACH ACCESS
The Southern State opened in 1927, a Robert Moses project designed to give drivers access to Long Island’s beaches and beauty. It wasn’t built to carry hundreds of thousands of cars each day — and it certainly wasn’t built to allow drivers to chase one another at high speeds around tight curves that are tough enough to navigate at 50 mph.
Yet, that’s what happens all the time, leading to injury after injury, death after death, and earning a 10-mile section of the parkway — from exit 17 in Malverne to Exit 32 in Farmingdale — the nickname “Blood Alley.”
If individual incidents like the one on Saturday or the crash that killed Riggs last year aren’t enough, perhaps the latest statistics, released by Assemb. Michaelle Solages and the contractors’ association, will be.
The state has tried to tackle the vexing Southern State mess before. A study completed in 2000 contained details and solutions, but for reasons uncertain, it was never publicly released.
But LICA’s new data tells the story — a story that has only worsened. In 2012, there were 3,210 accidents a year on the parkway. By 2019, that number had jumped to 4,166. Of the 15,768 accidents on the Southern State between 2012 and 2019, 8,443 resulted in injury and 78 resulted in death.
Then there’s the comparison between the Southern State and the Northern State — two parkways, stretching through the same counties, one far more dangerous than the other. In a stunning discrepancy, one study found the Northern State had just .21 accidents per mile, while the Southern State had 1.1 accidents per mile.
We shouldn’t even have to say this is unacceptable, or horrifying, or unsustainable. Everyone knows that. Few would disagree.
So . . . now what?
LICA has proposed one eye-popping solution: Adding a high-occupancy toll lane to each side of the Southern State Parkway, and redoing about 50 bridges and ramps along the parkway’s most dangerous corridor, using a public-private partnership model to get the work done.
It’s a bold idea with many questions and concerns attached. But the proposal could start a conversation about what’s really possible on the Southern State, and lead to some significant change, That, in and of itself, would be a welcome step.
SOLUTIONS DECADES AWAY
Ideas like LICA’s — bigger solutions that would remake the parkway itself by straightening it, adding lanes, changing exit or entrance ramps, or other big infrastructure shifts, would be difficult to enact, likely involving the taking of private property and enormous, extensive approval processes. Such answers are years if not decades away. They’re important — and the discussion must include such large-scale possibilities. But we can’t start — or stop — there.
Even with the road’s horrific layout, so many of the Southern State’s tragedies are preventable, caused by distracted driving, or inattentiveness or worse, the reckless and intentional attempt to use roads like the Southern State as an all-too-real video game.
So, more immediately, enforcement remains key. But we can’t put police officers at every bend. License plate readers, speed cameras and other technology — promoted by State Sen. John Brooks and others — would allow law enforcement to catch the lunatics who use the Southern State as their personal road rage outlet. Such technology, along with clear signage, could help to clamp down at least somewhat on the erratic, irresponsible drivers who take to the highway.
For now, a more prominent presence of state troopers could reduce the horror.
Solages and Brooks are among those rightly shining a spotlight on the Southern State’s dark corners. Other state and federal officials should join them, move beyond reports and data analyses and find workable solutions — both short-term and long-term — to put an end to Blood Alley.
Then it’s up to the drivers themselves. Only a change in behavior — whether brought about by a realization that they’re putting themselves and others at risk, or by the fear of being caught and punished — will truly stop the carnage.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.