L.I. cyclists must navigate myriad dangers on state, county roads

Most Long Island roads do not include dedicated lanes for cyclists. Above, a bicycle parked on New Street in Huntington. // Photo by Julia Capitelli/Long Island Advocate

By Julia Capitelli

Editor’s note: The following is part two in a series.

While cycling on Merrick Road on Long Island, Seaford resident Billy Muirhead, 66, was nearly hit by a car. The motorist drove through a red light, and the retired physical education teacher was forced to veer to avoid a collision. Swerving led Muirhead to fall off his bicycle, striking his side and face on the ground. He was able to get up and continue with his day, but the near-collision points to the many ongoing safety struggles that Long Island cyclists must face.

“I was furious,” Muirhead said. “But there’s nothing else you can do because there’s other cars starting to come. You’ve got to get out of the road.”

According to the Nassau County Police Department, in 2022, Nassau County saw 319 bicycle-related accidents, with two fatalities. Those numbers increased in 2023 to 437 bicycle-related accidents, with three fatalities.

Daniel Flanzig, a board member for the New York Bicycling Coalition, said there are several factors that contribute to the high number of bicycle crashes on Long Island. They include poor infrastructure and reckless, inattentive and drunken driving. NYBC advocates for improved safety conditions for cyclists in New York.

The infrastructure of Long Island roads is not only a concern for NYBC, but it is also a focus of Vision Long Island, an advocacy group that works to improve Long Island streets and communities. Its director, Eric Alexander, said state and county roads are particularly dangerous because they have been built to prioritize car speed over the safety of pedestrians and cyclists.

“We have dangerously designed roads, and pedestrians and bicyclists are seen as an afterthought,” he said.

Alexander detailed the problem with road design, explaining that wider lanes lead motorists to feel more comfortable driving at faster speeds. This potentially endangers pedestrians and cyclists.

“Every measure of why we have crashes points to speed as the number one culprit,” he said.

In terms of solutions for slowing vehicle speed, Alexander said Vision Long Island does not see speed cameras as an answer because ticketing more people might unintentionally lead to financial difficulties for middle-class, working-class and low-income drivers. Instead, the organization suggests narrowing lanes so drivers are inclined to slow down.

“There’s a difference between the posted speed limit and the design speed of the road, so that’s an important component here,” he said.

Alexander added that people are likely to drive the speed for which a road seems to be designed rather than obeying the posted speed limit. He also said the goal is to bring automobile speeds down to 30 mph or lower where drivers coexist with pedestrians and cyclists, or even 20 mph in downtowns.

Without dedicated byicle lanes, cyclists must often use the shoulder, particularly on state and county roads. // Photo courtesy Lily Perrotta

Bicycle lanes and paths are another way to protect cyclists from motor vehicle traffic. Many, if not most, Long Island roads, however, do not include such protected areas. Muirhead said he thinks bike paths would benefit Long Island cyclists, but noted there are a number of riders who lack common courtesy.

“Bike paths are great, but again you have [cyclists] that stop in the middle. They’re not very considerate,” Muirhead said. “You have all levels of bike riders. The ones that are working out for speed, they have million-dollar bicycles [and] they ride all over. They think they get priority over everybody…You’ve got to pull over to the side [for them]. Otherwise, they’re beautiful, the bike paths we have.”

In Nassau County, only a handful of roads have bikes like this one on Hempstead Turnpike outside of Hofstra University. // Photo by Julia Capitelli/Long Island Advocate
Graphic by Julia Capitelli/Long Island Advocate

The New York State Department of Transportation includes on its website education for drivers and cyclists. This includes safety tips for cycling, traffic laws in New York and definitions of certain terminology.

Many of NYBC’s solutions for improving cyclist safety fall under its “Three E’s,” which stand for education, enforcement and environment. Environment refers to infrastructure of the roads. Education is aimed at both cyclists and drivers on how to share the road.

“It’s two-fold. It’s not just motorists; it’s also cyclists being compliant with the laws that control their behavior,” Flanzig said. “Not to victim-blame, but to make sure that you’re doing everything you can to keep yourself [safe]. If you’re riding at night, do you have bike lights on? Do you have reflectors? You’re not running red lights, riding with the flow of traffic, riding in proper road position.”

The enforcement piece includes laws for drivers and cyclists. Some of the laws involve regulations concerning the distance that automobiles must maintain when overtaking cyclists to stay safe. NYBC was successful in passing a law in Suffolk County that states cars must keep at least three feet of distance when overtaking a cyclist. The advocacy group also engages in law enforcement training, providing police departments with information on traffic laws designed to protect cyclists and strategies to enforce them.

As to why state and county roads seem to be more dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists than local roads, Alexander said he believes it has to do with the difference in the relationship between the levels of government and the people. Local municipalities can react more to the public’s complaints, whereas larger governments are not as directly involved with the people.

“The New York State DOT is largely disconnected from the public on Long Island,” he said. “That’s probably the chief problem.”

The State DOT could not be reached for comment.

Graphic by Julia Capitelli/Long Island Advocate