It happened again. On a gray morning in Southold last Wednesday, another life was cut short in a fatal motor vehicle crash.
It was the second deadly traffic incident in town in 2015 and the fourth since last September. Seven lives have been lost.
These latest high-profile crashes have the people of Southold wondering once again if we are safe on our own roads, if driving conditions have gotten worse here and what’s being done to make us safer in the future. It’s a complicated set of questions with scarce data easily available for answers.
The perception of many is that conditions on our roadways are, in fact, worse. More venues in our community are serving alcohol. The deer population has exploded. Distracted driving has become a problem. And the attention given to motor vehicle accidents by a growing number of media outlets covering the area shines a light on every major crash.
On the flip side, technology has made our vehicles safer. Drivers are believed to have become more aware of the dangers of drinking and driving in recent years. And a number of infrastructure improvements have been made — or are in the works — across the North Fork.
To take a deeper look at the issue, The Suffolk Times examined press clippings from the past 45 years, compiled population data reports and interviewed several public officials for their input on the safety of our roads.
When it comes to ensuring public safety in Southold Town, few people have more responsibility than Martin Flatley. A police officer in the town since 1980, he was promoted to chief of the department in 2011.
He’s seen a lot of changes in that time. A growing population, particularly in the summer, has had a dramatic impact on our roads and led to more crashes. He’s also quick to point out, however, that vehicle safety features have gone a long way toward protecting drivers and their passengers.
“We have a lot more traffic now than we ever had in the ’70s and ’80s, obviously,” he said. “That we have to address because we have a lot of complaints about vehicles and speeding vehicles and aggressive driving. But when cars do get into accidents, the injuries are all mitigated because of the seat belt and air bags.
“We don’t have the same type of accidents today that we had 20 years ago,” the chief continued. “Before, when you had two cars collide, you had people going through windshields, people being ejected from cars. Now with air bags and seat belts … it’s really reduced the amount of fatals.”
A look at the numbers certainly supports that theory. While the number of people living in Southold Town has grown dramatically since 1970, the number of fatal accidents each year has not.
Arriving at an accurate count of just how many people live in Southold Town today is tricky, notes town planning director Heather Lanza. It’s been five years since the most recent census, which counted 19,771 residents living here. That number is skewed significantly, she says, by the number of seasonal residents who reported a property elsewhere as their home. To estimate how many people live here part-time during the busy summer months, town planners use the average occupancy rate of the area and multiply it by the number of seasonal homes.
That raises the number of residents living full- or part-time in Southold Town to about 30,000, nearly double the 16,804 residents reported living here in the 1970 census. Yet there were four fatal crashes in Southold Town that year. Seven people were killed in those incidents, including five children. A year earlier, in 1969, 360 motor vehicle crashes were reported in Southold Town, including five fatals.
In 1989, with the full-time population having grown to nearly 20,000, 494 accidents, including six fatalities, were reported in Southold Town, though the number of deadly crashes dipped to just two the following year.
Like Chief Flatley, Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski recalls just how tragic many of those crashes were in the 1970s and ’80s.
“When I was young, there were a lot of crashes and a lot of fatalities because of drinking and driving,” Mr. Krupski said. “I think [the younger] generation is certainly smarter when it comes to that behavior.
“The awareness is there now that it’s really dangerous,” he continued. “I lost quite a few classmates. Prom night was always bad and graduation night was always bad.”
Many of the subjects interviewed for this story agreed that seasonal out-of-town traffic leads to many of the horrific crashes on Southold’s roads today. The total number of motor vehicle crashes in Southold Town was 1,028 in 2014. So far this year, there have been 795 crashes, according to data provided by Southold police.
Town Supervisor Scott Russell said local roadways were not built to support the type of traffic we see today and the growing number of cars on the roads is something town Highway Superintendent Vincent Orlando agreed has led to more accidents.
“If you put twice as many cars or four times as many cars on the road as 25 years ago, that always increases the chance of an incident,” Mr. Orlando said. “The roads themselves haven’t changed. It’s just that we’ve been discovered out here.”
Mr. Russell said it’s important to note that Southold Town is recognized by AAA each year for road safety and Mr. Krupski and state Department of Transportation spokesperson Eileen Peters pointed to recently planned or completed road safety improvements on the town’s two main thoroughfares.
The state spent more than $8 million to resurface Route 25 across Southold Town, a project that was completed last spring, 10 years after the road’s last resurfacing. And for the first time here, a rumble strip was installed along much of the road’s center line to provide noise and physical vibration and warn motorists who may stray across into oncoming traffic. That rumble strip had not been installed at the location of last week’s crash. Chief Flatley said he believed ‘distracted driving’ to be the cause of that crash.
The state has conducted more than 1,000 traffic safety studies so far in 2015. Fifteen of them have involved Southold Town. Those initiatives range from installing deer crossing and pedestrian warning signs on Main Road to ongoing feasibility studies for allowing a left turn out of the 7-Eleven in Mattituck and for installing a traffic signal on Route 48 in Greenport, near the spot where a pedestrian was struck and killed last September. A truck restriction request for Main Road at Love Lane was denied, Ms. Peters said.
“It’s a juggling act,” she added, referencing the myriad issues the state is constantly examining.
Mr. Krupski said the county is nearing completion of a traffic light installation at the intersection of County Road 48 and Depot Lane, where four women were killed in a limousine crash in July. Other safety initiatives, such as widening Route 48 to four lanes in Mattituck and installing a traffic circle in Southold, have been discussed in the past, but never came to fruition.
Mr. Krupski added that drivers sending and receiving text messages from behind the wheel is a major cause for concern.
“There’s a lot more technology that people have in their hands now that they didn’t have 20 years ago,” he said. “That’s especially dangerous on the East End, where a lot of roads have no shoulders and you have pedestrians and bicycles. People have no place to go.”
Mr. Russell said it’s difficult to say if the recent fatal crashes are indicative of any particular trend.
“We certainly get a lot of bad accidents, but [so does] any other community,” he said. “Generally speaking, there are very bad sections, but I don’t see a volume change at all [in fatal accidents].”
Chief Flatley said the police department has authorized overtime so more officers can be out on the road looking for aggressive driving and speeding, which Mr. Russell said is among the top complaints his office receives. Another officer was also added to the highway unit this fall.
“These past couple of summers have just had so much more traffic,” he said.
Top photo: A roadside memorial remains at the intersection of Route 48 and Depot Lane in Cutchogue, where four young women were killed in July. (Credit: Chris Lisinski)
Click on the tab below for a complete list of the state Department of Transportation’s recent traffic safety investigations.