Another year, another crash, another traffic jam on County Road 39. And another discussion about what can—and cannot—be done to prevent such long delays the next time a bad accident occurs on the South Fork’s main artery.
A year after they held an almost identical roundtable meeting following a serious accident that forced the closure of the road for nearly six hours, Southampton Town officials met again last Thursday, August 1, to again hash out the details of how emergency crews respond to major traffic accidents on County Road 39, and what can be done to help alleviate the maddening gridlock that ensues at the choke-point and typically lasts for hours.
With few alternatives to the time-consuming protocols for emergency crews, police and transportation officials following fatal and some serious accidents, the discussion ultimately shifted to possibilities for encouraging people to stay off the roads when such emergencies occur.
A year ago, when an accident shut down the main artery in the middle of a summer afternoon, gridlocking traffic in the entire Southampton Village corridor, commuters had little option but to wade into the maelstrom and wait until it cleared in late evening. But last month, when a fatal, early morning accident on County Road 39 effectively halted traffic on the only two roads that lead all the way through the Southampton area, many commuters simply turned around, abandoning their workday. Officials said that if more could have been warned about the true extent of the delays they faced, more might have done so earlier, easing the logjam, to some degree, for those who remained.
Town Board members asked whether traffic information signs on the Long Island Expressway could be used to warn commuters and service workers coming from points west, and whether new electronic billboards could be put up on Sunrise Highway and used in an emergency to warn commuters that they faced epic delays.
“If we can use those signs to let people know … it may at least give people the heads-up that there is going to be a road closure,” Councilman Chris Nuzzi said during a Town Board work session on August 1. “What about … requesting the state to put permanent signs [on Sunrise Highway] to make people aware, turn it on when you need to? They’ve got the existing infrastructure.”
Other options were bandied about in a brainstorming session seeking ways to speed up the road closure, such as the use of Suffolk County Police helicopters to shuttle emergency crews to the scene of accidents, or to photograph accidents scenes from above so that they could be cleared quickly and analyzed later. Both suggestions were quickly dismissed as impractical by other officials.
Town Transportation Director Tom Neely said the average time of road closure on County Road 39 following a serious accident is 255 minutes—nearly four and a half hours. The number of severe accidents has gone down markedly since the highway was widened in 2008, but the accidents that occurred almost exactly a year apart show that the when they do happen, the options are still very limited for getting them cleared up and the roadway opened again quickly.
Town Police Chief Robert Pearce said the complications of severe accidents are so many that clearing them quickly is essentially impossible.
“When it’s a fatality, certain protocols immediately go into effect,” Chief Pearce said. “This one was horrific in nature, and the debris field stretched a quarter of a mile,” he added, referring to the crash that claimed the life of 29-year-old Carissa Castillo of Shirley. “The duty officer can send out traffic alerts, but the damage is done. It bogs down very quick.”
The chief noted that both this year’s accidents and the one last summer involved commercial vehicles—two of the crashes occurring just four days apart involved Hampton Jitney buses—which means that a crash investigation team from the State Department of Transportation must come to analyze the scene before debris can be cleared away. In instances when criminal charges may be filed, police must also do their own accident reconstruction and painstaking evidence gathering. Officials said neither process can be wrapped up quickly.
The other main protocol that causes long delays at the scene of fatal accidents is the presence of a coroner from the Suffolk County medical examiner’s office to oversee the removal of the victim or victims from vehicles so that they can be examined at a mortuary. The county coroners are often scattered around the far reaches of the county and prevented from responding quickly by the same traffic snarls they are rushing to alleviate.
“The real problem is we don’t have alternative routes for traffic,” Councilwoman Bridget Fleming said. “We are a one-road town. When that road is clogged, how do you get people off the island?”
The conversation then turned to ways to possibly reduce further the likelihood of bad accidents, so that the catastrophic tie-ups are at least less common. Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst suggested that the town look into getting speed cameras posted on County Road 39 to slow down traffic, a proposal that Mr. Neely said has already been discussed with the county.
Chief Pearce said his department was already preparing to start an aggressive driving enforcement effort, with the help of state funding, specifically to encourage a crackdown on speeding—which has been indicated as a contributing factor in last month’s fatal crash.