County Road 39 was again the scene of tragedy on Friday night. But this time, at least, the all-too-familiar flashing lights of emergency vehicles was not accompanied by miles of gridlocked traffic lanes that trapped thousands in an accident’s aftermath.
But with summer’s heavy traffic loads fast approaching, the near-miss of another rush hour calamity sent a reminder that when the South Fork’s main artery is the scene of a serious accident—like Friday’s fatal involving a vehicle and a bicyclist, which closed the roadway for more than seven hours—traffic snarls are going to follow.
In three weeks, the town and state will be installing new roadside electronic information signs to warn commuters of bad accidents that could cause extended delays. Beyond that, officials said, there is frustratingly little they can do to alleviate the impacts of tragic accidents on County Road 39.
“In particular situations, extended closures will be unavoidable,” said the town’s transportation director, Tom Neely. “We’ve been trying to find ways to speed up the process so the closure can be minimal … but in these instances they have certain things they have to do.”
Friday’s crash and long road closure came not long after the tail end of rush hour commuters headed west for the weekend. The comparably light traffic and the location of the crash, on the fringe of the village where numerous roads allowed for short detours, meant motorists were easily rerouted around the accident scene, pushing heavier traffic onto village streets but causing few substantial delays.
The opposite has more typically been the case.
In each of the last two summers, serious accidents involving the loss of life or potential criminality have struck at the height of the commuting hours, both morning and evening, and in the midst of the summer season. In 2012, a crash scene criminal investigation just a few miles west of this week’s accident shut the highway just as the Friday afternoon commute was beginning. That gridlocked all of Southampton Village’s roads and brought bumper-to-bumper traffic on Montauk Highway to a halt all the way east to Amagansett, more than 20 miles away, stretching typically 40-minute commutes to four or five hours for some motorists. Almost exactly one year later, a fatal accident struck the morning’s eastbound commute, leaving many offices and businesses—even Southampton Hospital—unexpectedly without many employees.
After both incidents, police and government officials tried to identify ways to avoid the severe consequences of such incidents. They came up with few options, and after Friday’s accident were left to be thankful that at least the timing wasn’t worse.
Parallel Montauk Highway’s two lanes are insufficient to handle the full volume of traffic from County Road 39’s four lanes. Even if the incident is west of Sebonack Road, like in 2012, even well-traveled backroad bypasses are typically rendered useless by volume.
“When there is a fatality, there are protocols that have to be adhered to by the police, and we have very limited rerouting capabilities,” Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst lamented. “That’s the reality of it.”