By Alex Wilenski
August was a dangerous time on Long Island roads. As of press time, 21 people had been killed in wrecks across the Island, many on notoriously dangerous thoroughfares such as Sunrise Highway and Hempstead Turnpike.
“It’s like a public health epidemic,” Cindy Brown, executive director of the New York Coalition for Transportation Safety, said in an interview.
A report by TRIP, a Washington,D.C.-based transportation nonprofit, revealed traffic fatalities increased 23% across New York State between 2019 and 2022 and 24% on Long Island, specifically. Suffolk County ranks first for traffic fatalities in New York and Nassau third.
Rocky Moretti, director of police and research at TRIP, spoke to News 12 Long Island to clarify the data in the report. “The TRIP report looked at strictly traffic fatalities on Long Island, looking at Nassau and Suffolk counties. And although the data only goes to 2021, it unfortunately showed a similar trend with the number of traffic fatalities on Long Island.”
On Aug. 7 alone, six people died in three crashes over 24 hours across the Island. Nassau County police said Michael Deangelo was under the influence of cocaine and fentanyl when he struck Patrice Huntley’s SUV at 120 mph on Sunrise Highway in East Massapequa, according to Newsday. Huntley and his two children, ages 13 and 10, were killed. Hours earlier, a 77-year-old cyclist was struck and killed in Hicksville.
Another crash caused by speeding early that Monday morning killed a 6-year-old on Hempstead Turnpike in West Hempstead, and a 72-year-old woman was struck crossing Rosevale Avenue in Ronkonkoma several hours later, dying in the hit-and-run.
A week later, three were killed in a crash in Holbrook, while in Laurel Hollow, Nassau police said Sotirios Spanos was driving nearly three times above the legal limit for alcohol in his system when he collided with a Ferrari in the opposite lane, killing the two occupants inside, according to WABC “Eyewitness News.”
“There seems to be no responsibility. Leaving the scene of an accident is almost commonplace,” Brown said. “There needs to be better enforcement, but I don’t think cameras are the answer.”
Recently, speed cameras were put up by the New York State Department of Transportation along work zones on Long Island. Newsday reported that state officials found the program to be effective in slowing drivers.
Speed cameras around school zones were formerly deployed in Nassau in 2014 but were disbanded following widespread outcry by drivers who contended they were not so much about safety but rather about helping to fill the county’s coffers.
This month’s many crashes demonstrated a need for change, experts say. Eric Alexander, director of Vision Long Island, which advocates for smart growth planning on the Island, told 1010 WINS that speeding is a major issue on Long Island roads. “You’ve got 13-foot, sometimes 14- or 15-foot, lanes going through downtowns—that’s the width of the Long Island Expressway,” he said. “When lanes are wide, they induce speeding.”
Most of this month’s crashes involved speeding on top of driving under the influence, but distracted driving is also a concern. “You have to be really aware, not that you wouldn’t anywhere, but particularly here [on Long Island], everybody is sort of distracted while driving these days,” said Alyssa Greiner, of Merrick. “You really have to pay attention, see what’s around you as much as what’s in front of you.”
The New York Coalition for Transportation Safety raises awareness of distracted driving and educates drivers and pedestrians to stay focused on the road. Brown said, however, that organization officials have found it difficult to reach drivers ages 21 to 39. “We try to reach younger drivers every which way we can think of, but it needs a big public information campaign,” she said.
The uptick in crashes on Long Island could also be as result of drivers readjusting to the road in a post-pandemic world. “I do think the people who did drive when Covid was on, where the roads were wide-open, developed some very bad habits,” Brown noted.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found many people engaged in risky behaviors such as speeding, driving aggressively or driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs during the pandemic.
According to Brown, effecting change that leads to safer driving is hard. “You can’t engineer certain things. You can make a road safer, but you can’t force people to have better driving behaviors,” she said. “That’s what we have to do, we have to change behaviors.”