Jennifer Bianco was driving to go pick up her son, just like on any normal evening. But this night was different. As Bianco crossed the Franklin Avenue overpass she could see exactly where two young men had lost their lives in a fiery car accident. “All I could see were flames and black smoke, I couldn’t even tell if it was a car anymore,” said Bianco, a Franklin Square resident who drove above the scene of the Southern State Parkway’s latest victims.
Around 12:30 a.m. on Nov. 11th, 19-year-old Joseph Kelly lost control of his car while negotiating a turn on the Southern State Parkway. He crashed into the overpass just east of exit 15 in Franklin Square. Kelly and his passenger, 19-year-old Justin Johnson, were trapped inside the wrecked car as it burst into flames. The two teenagers were burned beyond recognition, authorities said.
Bianco, like many motorists who know this stretch of highway, was saddened to see the remnants of yet another crash. Saddened, but not surprised.
A deadly combination of factors make the Southern State Parkway one of the most dangerous in the country, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The parkway features narrow lanes, sharp blind turns, short entrance and exit ramps, numerous hills, and overcrowding, a recipe that led to a total of 11 fatal accidents in 2012.
The Southern State Parkway serves as one of the veins to the beating heart of New York City, connecting the borough of Queens to Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island. It runs east to west on the south shore of Long Island, passing through mostly residential areas.
Atop the chart for fatal car accidents in New York state sits Suffolk, followed by Nassau county, according to the state department of transportation. Long Island’s counties have stayed at the top of that list from 2008 to 2012, the most recent year of data available.
Although it is the shortest of the three main parkways on Long Island, the Southern State’s fatal accident count towers in comparison. The Northern State Parkway, just 3.33 miles longer than its southern counterpart, saw one-third as many fatal accidents in 2012, according to the NHTSA.
While comparing fatal accident data from 2010, 2011, and 2012, The Little Rebellion found that for every 1 mile, the Southern State had 1.1 fatal accidents. The Northern State Parkway, in comparison, had only .21 fatal accidents per mile. This could be because the Southern State Parkway is more heavily traveled daily than the Northern.
Originally designed by Robert Moses to improve access to Jones Beach, the Southern State parkway’s construction began in 1925, and was completed to its current eastern-most point by 1962. At first the parkway had a total of four lanes, similar to the Northern State Parkway, but it was expanded in 1950 to provide for six lanes. The parkway was meant to be a scenic route to the beach, and was never meant for commercial vehicles or large buses like it sees today.
Daily drivers on the Southern State complain of constant construction with no completion date in sight. “They’re always doing some kind of construction, but I see no changes. It just adds to the crazy traffic,” said Anthony Bianco, a Long Island resident who uses the parkway every day to pick up his children and travel to work at Nassau Community College.
A simple check to the New York state daily roadwork information shows that on Dec. 2, one lane of the Southern State would be closed between 14 exits from 10:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m.
Even in stop-and-go traffic, the Southern State Parkway can be dangerous. In December 2010 Bianco was involved in an accident in which a young woman in a 2010 BMW hit the back of his 2008 Ford Explorer while going about 25 mph. Jerked forward violently, Bianco and his three children suffered neck injuries and some cuts and bruises.
The parkway’s short entrance and exit ramps lead to a large amount of fender benders and accidents while drivers are trying to merge.
The parkway has many sharp turns that are difficult to negotiate when driving. The speed limit on the Southern State is 55 mph, but many negligent drivers cruise far faster than that. “People drive way too fast and can’t handle themselves on the turns,” said Charlene Cano, a daily driver on the Southern State. “I’ve seen everything from overturned cars to people losing their entire bumper. It’s crazy.”
The parkway itself has no guardrails protecting drivers from nearby trees and overpasses. On Dec. 5 at around 6:35 a.m. a man was driving eastbound to work at 60 mph when he was rear ended, drove off into a tree, and died, according to state trooper Steve King. “It’s the trees and the overpasses that lead to the fatalities. In 2013 and 2014 it’s been much worse than previous years,” King said.
According to King, a company called Com-Star won the bid to install guardrails onto both the Northern and Southern State parkways. Since July 2013, 70 percent of the Northern State parkway has been lined with guardrails, while the Southern State is currently being worked on. Old, rusted, brown guardrails are being replaced with galvanized steel, in the hopes that motorists will bounce off of them instead of driving into nearby trees.
In addition to the lack of protective guard rails, the Southern State also finds itself as a host to young people driving under the influence, racing, and driving recklessly. “People will speed on their motorcycles doing 165 mph, and then when they come up to a 45 mph turn, they can’t make it. I see it all the time,” King said.
From a national perspective, the Southern State parkway racks up more fatalities per mile than some of the country’s most dangerous interstates. In South Carolina, I-26 stretches for a total of 220.7 mi. Listed as one of the most dangerous roads in the U.S. by Popular Mechanics magazine, the stretch of I-26 in South Carolina boasted 30 fatal accidents in 2012. Statistically speaking, I-26 in South Carolina has .14 fatal accidents per mile. In 2012, the Southern State Parkway had .43 fatal accidents per mile.
The addition of new guardrails will hopefully be enough to improve the safety of the Southern State parkway, after several online petitions have started up in hopes of some action. Until then, Long Island drivers will just have to set their cruising speed at 55 mph and keep their eyes wide open.
Written December 2014