Suffolk Closeup: Madness on the L.I.E.

Long Island Expressway

Driving on Shelter Island is a pleasure. But off the Island and on what has been called “Long Island’s Main Street,” a.k.a the Long Island Expressway, it’s truly another world.

Andrea Kalkstein Lieberman was driving east on the LIE, approaching Manorville on Sunday, August 21, in the left-hand lane, when, she said, “three cars cut in front of me, zoomed around me so fast and sped off weaving around cars.”

She said the three cars seemed to be playing “cat and mouse,” and gauged their speed at 90 miles per hour.

“A few minutes later,” Ms. Lieberman said, “traffic slowed down and I saw a huge cloud of dust ahead.” Then she passed the scene of a horrific event, in which one of the eastbound cars had flown into the LIE’s westbound lane. Six persons died.

“They could have killed me,” said Ms. Lieberman, a businesswoman from Water Mill, and a friend.

She called the Suffolk Police Department three times to provide an account of what she had witnessed.

Among those killed were Scott Martella, communications director for the Suffolk County executive and previously a staffer for Governor Andrew Cuomo, and Isadore and Helen Adelson of Westhampton, who were on their way to a wedding. Also killed was Carmelo Pinales of Hicksville, driver of what police say was a speeding car that went out of control, careened across a grass median and went airborne and struck the autos that Mr. Martella and the Adel-sons were in. Mr. Pinales’s son and a sister were also killed. Others were injured.

Suffolk Police determined the cause was a speeding driver, and that judgement is reflected in what I see regularly on the LIE. I drive 50 miles each way in Suffolk and Nassau Counties, heading from Noyac to and returning from SUNY College at Old Westbury, where I teach.

I’ve been driving a Toyota Prius in recent years and can make use of the HOV lane that covers most of the stretch. I like the lane not only for its lighter volume but because it provides somewhat of a separation from the scene in the regular lanes.

On average, every other day, I see one, two or three maniacal drivers racing at 80 miles an hour or more, weaving through traffic in those lanes.    To them it seems the LIE is a racetrack despite it often being congested. And they endanger the lives of so many people as they zoom in and out, cutting in front of cars and trucks and rocketing ahead in wild zig-zags. Some of these drivers are stopped. But in my experience, it’s not often that I see one of these dangerous road-racers pulled off to the side of the LIE by police.

Among recent articles on these characters — at least those who have been caught — was one in July about an 18-year-old Deer Park woman charged with speeding on the LIE at over 110 miles per hour and making “multiple unsafe lane changes without signaling,” according to the police report.

In June, a 23-year-old Bronx man was arrested for racing his car at more than 100 miles per hour on the LIE. He was caught because a video was posted on YouTube and Face-book by another one of the drivers doing high-speed cat-and-mouse with him on the LIE.

“Police said they believe at least three drivers were racing as they headed to a car show,” stated the story on the WCBS/2-TV website. The video proudly presented the cars weaving through LIE traffic at high speed.

A startling fact was Nassau County Police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter saying only misdemeanor charges could be brought “because state lawmakers have been unable to agree on measures upgrading reckless speeding as a felony.”

After the Manorville tragedy, I explored whether New York State — with its notorious governmental dysfunction — was alone in not coming down hard on this madness.

It is not. Reckless driving is just a misdemeanor in states throughout the U.S. The penalty can be up to a year in jail, the maximum for misdemeanors nationally, but in many states it is far less. In some places, it’s as little as five days, 30 days, 90 days, and so on. In New York State it’s 30 days for the first offense. There are also fines and driver’s license suspension or revocation.

But for these characters on our highways, the penalties should be much, much tougher. In their hands, motor vehicles constitute instruments of murder.

Moreover, policing must be much stronger on the LIE. Governments have budget constraints but, surely, a major push to apprehend those who make the LIE so dangerous, especially by providing unmarked police cars — regarded by those in law enforcement as essential to catch reckless speeders — should be a top priority.

Photo: Westbound on the Long Island Expressway. (Credit: Jen Nuzzo)