While the number of traffic related fatalities in East Hampton and Southampton towns did not break any records this summer season, for many, including Sag Harbor Volunteer Ambulance Corps President Ed Downes, the roads on the East End felt busier — and more dangerous.
And for the most part, the general consensus among emergency service workers, government officials and law enforcement is much of the danger felt on roadways this summer stems from a general lack of concentration by drivers.
Distracted and aggressive, fast driving was largely blamed for the spate of accidents this summer by local government officials, law enforcement and volunteers who met at the first gathering of the South Fork Highway Safety Roundtable at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton last Thursday afternoon.
According to New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. — who organized the forum with New York State Senator Ken LaValle — about 30 local officials attended the event, including the Suffolk County Medical Examiners Officer and the New York State Department of Transportation.
“Clearly the response all of us have heard in our offices — this feeling that there were a lot of accidents this summer and very serious ones at that,” said Thiele on Tuesday. “And while according to the statistics it does not appear accidents are way up, people do feel less safe on the roads so this is a public safety concern.”
Both East Hampton and Southampton town police departments had four fatalities related to traffic accidents this year, as well as a series of other accidents that were serious, although not fatal in nature.
While texting was not proven in these cases to have caused an accident, both police chiefs attributed many of the accidents to distraction, intoxication and aggressive driving all occurring on small roads not designed to handle the influx of cars in the summer, said Thiele.
Downes, who was fighting a fire in Southampton at the time of the meeting, but plans to stay involved in the roundtable group, said he believes driver distraction in general is at the root of increases in accidents. He said education is critical moving forward to create safer roads.
“People just don’t seem to be thinking when they are driving,” said Downes. “All of the accidents we went to this year, it wasn’t because of a bad roadway, it was because a driver made a mistake. People need to be more aware of what they are doing and where they are when they are behind the wheel.”
According to Thiele, education will be one of three major issues addressed by the roundtable this fall, winter and spring, with the goal of implementing programing and projects in advance of the next summer season.
The roundtable broke into three sections, said Thiele. Engineering to look at road improvements that could increase safety, Enforcement to address what can be done from a law enforcement perspective and Education to make drivers aware of the impact distracted or aggressive driving can have on the safety of our roads.
In terms of education, Thiele said that public service announcements about the dangers of texting and drinking while driving was important, but so was communication from town officials and police departments about lengthy road closures when an accident occurs.
From an engineering perspective, Thiele said the group discussed putting lit crosswalks — similar to the ones installed in East Hampton Village — in Bridgehampton and Water Mill to increase safety.
Red light cameras were also discussed said Thiele. Suffolk County already has 50 in place and is about to include 50 more into its program, although Thiele noted none currently have been placed on East End roadways. Speed cameras — where drivers are sent a ticket in the mail after being caught speeding by a camera in certain corridors — were also discussed, though Thiele noted the New York State Legislature would have to pass legislation to allow those cameras to be used in New York.
Thiele said for now, the plan is for each of the three working groups to continue to get together during the winter with the goal of drafting a final report with recommendations on how to increase traffic safety. That report, said Thiele, will then be shared with the public who can also weigh in with their ideas.
“I think the goal would be to implement as many recommendations as we can before Memorial Day of next year,” said Thiele, noting anything requiring a major capital improvement or approval from the state legislature will likely take longer to get off the ground.
“But I think other things, like the crosswalks, coordinated enforcement or education programs are possible by this summer,” he said.