A Hampton Bays woman died last Thursday morning, January 16, after a utility truck struck her vehicle head-on on Flanders Road, killing the 47-year-old grandmother of three and raising fears that the condition of the mostly two-lane highway was to blame for the accident.
Barbara Tocci was driving northbound on Flanders Road in a black 2000 Ford Explorer at around 8 a.m. when a Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG) utility truck, driven by Michael Pepe, 53, of Bayport, crossed into the oncoming lane and struck her vehicle head-on near the intersection of Spinney Road, according to Southampton Town Police.
Town Police detectives said immediately following the fatal two-vehicle crash that they were investigating whether the surface of Flanders Road, which is owned by the state and riddled with potholes, contributed to the accident.
Detectives did not immediately return calls on Monday seeking additional information regarding the investigation.
PSEG employees on scene shortly after the crash, and who declined to give their names, said Mr. Pepe’s truck struck a pothole, which caused it to cross into the northbound lane.
On Wednesday, PSEG issued the following statement regarding the accident: “We take the safety of our employees and the public very seriously and will review the circumstances of this incident once all the facts are known. We are deeply saddened by the incident and our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends affected by this loss.”
State Department of Transportation (DOT) crews were on scene shortly after last Thursday’s crash, filling in potholes along the highway. In a statement, DOT officials said they were “saddened by the news of the fatality” and would coordinate with police and take appropriate action.
Ms. Tocci was pronounced dead at the scene, and volunteers with the Flanders Fire Department had to extricate her body from the SUV, which sustained heavy front-end damage.
Ms. Tocci’s brother, Paul Tocci, said Tuesday that some potholes along Flanders Road were left unrepaired, even after the accident that claimed his sister’s life.
“I guess they’re going to wait for a tragedy on those holes to fix them,” he said. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen. It’s terrible.”
A Flanders-Northampton Volunteer Ambulance transported Mr. Pepe to the Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, where he was treated for non-life-threatening injuries, police said. Authorities said they did not expect to file criminal charges against Mr. Pepe.
Flanders Road was closed for several hours as detectives investigated the scene.
Eileen Peters, a spokeswoman for the DOT, said the agency’s Long Island office has spent 40 percent more so far this winter to repair potholes than it did at this point last winter.
“The relatively early cold temperatures and the fluctuating hot-cold temperatures so far this winter have caused more frequent freeze/thaw cycles, which is what creates potholes,” Ms. Peters wrote in an email. “Keeping the roads safe is NYSDOT’s highest priority, so any and all feasible measures are be taken to continue pothole repairs.”
State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele said last week that he sent a letter to the DOT in June inquiring about possible resurfacing on Flanders Road, also known as State Route 24, after he received complaints from constituents. The road was last repaved in 2003, he said.
“I’ve been on the road in the past couple of days,” Mr. Thiele said. “I certainly can speak to the fact that it is in need of some work.”
The challenge, he explained, is securing the estimated $10 million to $12 million needed to repave the highway. In March, he announced that the DOT had agreed to spend some $12.53 million—a combination of state and federal funds—to repave the 10-mile stretch of Montauk Highway between Southampton and East Hampton.
“We struggled with getting the money set aside for [Montauk Highway], which hasn’t been repaved in over 15 years,” he said. “We were banging our heads against the wall.”
Ms. Peters said there is no repaving project currently scheduled for Flanders Road. She also explained that the temperatures prevent the DOT from paving in the winter months.
“You can repair the potholes now, but all we need is another freeze and another warm-up, and we’ll be right back in the same spot again,” Mr. Thiele said.
Police closed the stretch of Flanders Road between Pleasure Drive and Bellows Pond Road for several hours last Thursday to conduct their investigation. The New York State Police Forensic ID and Collision Reconstruction Unit also responded to the scene to assist with the investigation, as did the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Vehicular Crimes Bureau.
Both vehicles involved in the crash were impounded and transported to Town Police headquarters in Hampton Bays for routine safety checks. The results of those inspections was not immediately known.
Funeral services for Ms. Tocci, who worked for a title insurance company in Riverhead, were held Monday morning at the McLaughlin Heppner Funeral Home on Marcy Avenue in Riverhead. Burial followed at the Flanders Cemetery.