State, county and local government officials, as well as traffic engineers and police chiefs, gathered at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton last Thursday to discuss what seemed like the most deadly summer on the roads and what they could do in their various capacities to help minimize the dangers.
Even the chief Suffolk County Medical Examiner made the trip to discuss how her office can work more efficiently with the local police departments, in light of accidents that shut down major thoroughfares for seven to nine hours this summer.
"It seemed this was the busiest summer we had since the beginning of the recession," said Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., who organized the highway safety roundtable discussion with state Sen. Kenneth P. LaValle to focus on the roads east of the Shinnecock Canal. With a down economy the past few years, and the relief that came after County Road 39 was expanded in certain areas, Thiele said he thinks "people had kind of forgotten what traffic and the accidents that come with them are like."
East Hampton Town Police Chief Ed Ecker said that while the overall amount of accidents in year to year comparisons has changed very little, fatal accidents are up in his jurisdiction.
The amount of accidents doesn't seem to be increasing, he said. As of Oct. 10, 2012, there have been 713 accidents reported. Using the same date to measure the accidents in 2011, there were 706 and, in 2010, there were 713.
So far in 2012, there have been six fatal accidents, three of which happened during the summer. In 2010, there were a total of four and in 2011 there was one.
The East Hampton Village police also investigated a fatal accident in their jurisdiction this summer — bringing the total fatalities in all of East Hampton Town in 2012 to seven, four of which occurred during the summer.
"It’s not the most we’ve ever had. None of them are acceptable though," Ecker said, though he told the group all of the accidents seem to be from different causes.
Only one of the fatalities — a single motorcycle accident in May — was alcohol-related. One was a suicide and two were caused by medical-related issues, he said. The only trend appears to be driver inattention.
For instance, a 19-year-old driver who was fixing his surfboard that had fallen inside his vehicle crossed into the opposite lane and hit another car head-on, killing the other driver, Gregg Saunders, of Wainscott, on Aug. 9 in East Hampton Village.
"If that happens in February, he might not hit anything, but in July and August, he’s going to hit something," Ecker said.
Southampton Town Police Chief William Wilson said his department analyzed the accident figures since 2000, before a work session with the town board, and got similar findings — the amount of accidents hasn't increased, but driver inattention is a main cause of many accidents.
As of Thursday, there were seven fatalities in the town police jurisdiction — but on Sunday, a young man died from his injuries after the car he was riding in swerved to avoid a deer and hit a tree in Hampton Bays, bringing the total to eight.
Wilson said that in 2011, there were seven fatalities and a total of 2,136 accidents. The high over the past 12 years was in 2002, when there were 15 fatalities and 2,132 accidents, he said.
Southampton Village Police Chief Thomas Cummings said accidents in his area are up 25 percent over last year and injuries proportionally so.
While driver inattention is a major concern, Wilson also noted his department is making more drug arrests for prescription drugs than illicit drugs, "which I think says a lot."
The perception, Thiele said, was that every week there was a major accident or a fatality this summer.
Ecker and Wilson agreed that while there have been a large number of fatal accidents — including highly publicized ones like the hit and run accident that left a nun dead in Water Mill — more people are finding out about these accidents fast than ever.
"People are becoming instantaneously aware," Wilson said, referring to online media publications and the cyber-world where news travels over social media networking sites, too.
The group agreed communication is key to how they deal with major accidents, and will discuss how to better get traffic bulletins out to drivers in working groups.
In July, County Road 39, where it becomes Sunrise Highway in Southampton, was closed for six hours after a commercial truck and an SUV collided, leaving one driver with serious injuries. Traffic was backed up for miles.
"We won't have a repeat of that hopefully," Wilson said. Making matters worse, Montauk Highway in Hampton Bays was under construction, preventing traffic being funneled there.
Communication between investigating agencies can also be improved, according to Dr. Yvonne I. Milewski, the chief county medical examiner.
Her office looked at calls from East End police agencies for the past two years and the average time it took for the ME's office to receive a phone call from police is 65 minutes, she said. The office's response time, once they were notified, was 79 minutes, she said.
"There is a very understandable delay in notifying us," she said, but she believes there's room to cut it down, which bring the overall average time of 2 hours and 24 minutes for the ME's office to get on an accident scene down.
East Hampton Village Mayor Paul F. Rickenbach Jr. said he wrote a letter to the ME's office after a fatal accident on Route 114 in July, when the body of the deceased remained in the vehicle for several hours.
Milewski said she is checking with the county attorney, but she thinks the protocols for how her office responds to motor vehicle accident could change. She said a body transport vehicle and an examiner are not always together, which sometimes adds to the amount of time it takes the ME's office to respond. If the police and detectives are already investigating, she said only a body transport vehicle has to respond.
"In East Hampton, we're under the impression the investigator wants to be there and do an assessment of the body," Ecker said. "I have a lot more comfort when an ME investigator does show up and starts his investigation and it parallels ours."
Milewski also suggested that an ambulance transport the body from the accident scene to a hospital if the transport vehicle is taking too long.
Violetta Zamorski, the Southampton EMS Advisory Committee Chairwoman, felt that would not work well on the South Fork "because you're tying up an emergency 911 service that is mainly made up of volunteers."
Thiele asked the group if they see a need for red light cameras, as a deterrent, which have been used in other parts of the state and western Suffolk County, but have not been put into place on the South Fork. In fact, the state legislature just approved another 50 for use.
While few said there is a major problem with drivers running red lights — perhaps due to the low numbers of them — there seemed to be some interest in speed cameras to deter speeding drivers on roads that all agree were not engineered to withstand this volume of traffic.
"The rest of the world uses them," Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne Holst said.
Thiele explained that the legislature has to approve them and that there has been some resistance from civil liberty groups.
East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson suggested looking at other tourist communities to find their best practices. "We aren't inventing her anything that hasn't already happened in Aspen, or other tourist places that swell."