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By Eric Holden - How did Hempstead Turnpike become New York's most dangerous road for pedestrian traffic, and what can be done to make it safer?
Those are the questions Long Island residents have been pondering since 16-year-old Division High School student Anthony D'Alessandro was struck and killed by a minivan in early 2012 while crossing a dangerous strip of the turnpike in Levittown.
D'Alessandro was the second Long Island teen in a 10-month period to pass away after being hit by a vehicle while trying to walk across a Nassau County strip of the turnpike.
Just a few months prior to D'Alessandro's tragic passing, 19-year-old Levittown resident Peter Thearle was fatally struck by two vehicles while walking north across Hempstead Turnpike near Gardiners Avenue in Levittown.
According to a 2012 report from Newsday, 32 people died between 2005 and 2010 while attempting to walk across Hempstead Turnpike, making it the most dangerous road in New York. In comparison, Manhattan's Broadway saw 13 pedestrians killed between 2008 and 2010, according to the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, despite having much more foot traffic than Hempstead Turnpike.
Hempstead Turnpike stretches for 30.84 miles and runs from Hillside Avenue in the Queens Village section of New York City all the way to NY-110 in East Farmingdale. It is essentially a six-lane boulevard with not many winding turns, making it somewhat of a mystery as to why so many pedestrians are hit while crossing it.
Between 2005 and 2010, there were over 450 reported cases of pedestrians being struck on the Nassau County strip of the turnpike.
One Long Island teen attributes the deaths to a perfect storm of danger. "When I think about how Hempstead Turnpike is set up, it's a recipe for disaster," said Fallon Flanagan, 18, of Island Trees, New York. "Island Trees High School is right off one side of the road, and Division Avenue High School is on the opposite side. Tons of teenagers walk across the turnpike, and most of them are too impatient to wait for traffic lights to turn red so that they can cross in a safe manner. I also don't see many people using crosswalks."
Flanagan said other factors play into the equation, like underage drinking and boredom associated with teenage life in suburbia. "Most of us Long Island teenagers don't have cars, so we hang out with friends wherever we can," she said. "Usually, that means partying in 7-Eleven, Taco Bell, or Dunkin' Donuts parking lots at all hours of the night. It's easy to find alcohol. Kids get drunk and start wandering around to various parking lots on the turnpike, and that's when bad things happen."
Perhaps Flanagan is onto something, as Thearle and D'Alessandro were both struck and killed by cars after the sun had set. Thearle was hit at 4:18 a.m., and D'Alessandro was struck at 9:18 p.m.
Flanagan thinks the only way to make the turnpike safer is for parents to implement a curfew on their children. "A lot of these deaths seem to be happening at nighttime," she noted. "Obviously, visibility is an issue any time cars are driving in the darkness. It's hard to see when kids are crossing a busy turnpike, even if they are using the crosswalk. Long Island parents should make sure their kids are home safe before dark."
In September, New York State transportation officials launched an effort to make Hempstead Turnpike safer. There are new traffic-signal times at night, when drivers may be more likely to speed and more pedestrian deaths take place cars and trucks going too fast will now hit more red lights. Drivers staying at the 35-mph limit on Hempstead Turnpike's western portion will encounter more green lights.
Some bus stops are now closer to crosswalks to encourage more pedestrians to cross at crosswalks rather than run across the turnpike to catch a bus. The new initiatives seemed to be working until the news broke that a bus killed a 6-year-old boy on November 27, 2012, after it swerved out of control to avoid a jaywalking pedestrian on Hempstead Turnpike.
The recent tragedy brought up even more questions about pedestrian safety on Hempstead Turnpike.
28-year-old Merrick, New York, resident Matt Baard has been dealing with the dangers of Hempstead Turnpike his entire life, including several years as a student at Hofstra University. "Hempstead Turnpike runs right through Hofstra, so there are a ton of college-age drivers who aren't as observant of speed limits and don't have a lot of driving experience," Baard said. "Also, there are a lot of bars around there, so people get drunk and then drive home or walk across Hempstead Turnpike while intoxicated. It's a dangerous situation."
Lindsay Chastain, a 26-year-old Glen Cove, New York, resident, thinks that accidents are bound to happen no matter how many new safety initiatives are implemented by Nassau County. "When you have a high volume of traffic -- both cars and on foot -- there are going to be accidents," Chastain said. "There are multiple bars, hospitals, and schools along Hempstead Turnpike. The county can try to make it safer, but accidents are tough to avoid when there is so much going on in that area."
Eric Holden, a lifelong Long Island resident, lives just miles away from Hempstead Turnpike, and he deals with the dangers associated with it on a daily basis. Follow him on Twitter at @ericholden