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Editorial: More enforcement can make Southern State safer

In this time exposure, traffic heads east on

In this time exposure, traffic heads east on the Southern State Parkway. (Jan. 29, 2013) Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

The highways of Long Island are exceedingly dangerous, none more so than the Nassau County portion of the Southern State Parkway. From 2007 through 2011, vehicle accidents killed 34 people on that stretch of the road, a frightening number.

Archaic in its design, winding and often congested -- even though commercial traffic is prohibited -- the Southern State, designed in 1925, presents inherent dangers. But what presents even more danger is the behavior of the drivers themselves, because the statistics show that excessive speed is a factor in most of the fatal crashes, and many involve drugs and alcohol.

To reduce the fatalities that plague the motorway, as well as Long Island's other main arteries, it's worth acknowledging what won't change very much: the parkway. The Robert Moses-era road was designed as a route to scenic beaches, and it won't be rerouted or reconfigured, widened or straightened.

Likewise, many of the suggestions to address another plague of Island driving, wrong-way entering on exit ramps, like angled spikes to flatten the tires of errant drivers, are unlikely to be installed. So we have to concentrate on what can happen.

The foremost answer is increased enforcement. Newsday reported yesterday that most of the 11 fatal crashes on the Southern State in 2011 and 2012 were related to driver impairment from drugs, alcohol or both.

The state police need the resources to make a determined, well-publicized push to ticket more speeders and catch more high and drunken drivers. Such crackdowns are expensive, but they also generate fines that should offset costs. From 2007 through 2011, about 72 percent of the fatal crashes on the Southern State Parkway occurred at night, which isn't surprising. During the day, congestion on the parkway is so bad it slows down traffic and likely prevents fatal accidents. So finding a way to change night and early morning driving behaviors has to be the priority.

While the Southern State is the focus now, the Northern State Parkway and the Long Island Expressway also see tragic accidents linked to high speeds and intoxication. Targeted enforcement and more patrols on these roads is needed too. More signage and warnings could help.

Along with strong enforcement, we also need to change attitudes. Drivers, passengers, parents and friends must come to see, and preach, that it's not OK to scorch a path down the highway or drive under the influence. The success of groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving in reducing alcohol-related fatalities shows us that progress and change are possible. In the 1980s, drunken driving killed about 70 people per year in Nassau. Today it kills about 30 people annually.

We need public service announcements about high-risk driving and these dangerous Long Island roads; they could show the flower arrangements at accident sites and the tears of the bereaved. There need to be testimonials and school programs and posters in bars -- and cops all along the highway. The roads aren't going to get much better. That means we have to.