Road Kill

The dead boy lies among the folds of blue satin in the box at one end of the room. His long reddish hair and clipped goatee are framed by handwritten notes of farewell, two packs of Marlboros and a can of Mountain Dew.

Will Zimmardi, not yet 18, had been struck by a car while trying to walk across 10 lanes of heavy traffic on Sunrise Highway in Bay Shore. The accident happened November 9, nearly a year to the day after 13-year-old Mary Bennett was run over on the same stretch of road while she hurried home on foot from the mall.

Clutching copies of the newspaper, mourners at Davin's Funeral Home in Mastic stand outside the visiting room and whisper about the spate of pedestrians recently killed on Long Island roads. In early November, Zimmardi wasn't the only one. Four elderly people were struck and killed while crossing streets, walking back to their cars or, like 77-year-old Donald Murray of Huntington Station, just stepping around the corner to mail some letters.

People around Zimmardi's age had been hit, too. A 16-year-old boy skating in East Meadow had been critically injured on Salisbury Park Drive. Ernest Alicea, 15, had walked only three doors down from his Brentwood home when he was killed crossing Fulton Street. "That's three kids this week," says one man in the funeral parlor, shaking his head at the news.

Islanders have had to get used to reading reports of people mowed over by automobiles. For walkers and bicyclists, Nassau and Suffolk counties are two of the most dangerous places in the country. In the seven years from 1992 through 1998, more than 7,400 pedestrians were struck in Nassau alone—a rate of nearly three a day. The situation in Suffolk was even worse, with so many people crushed under wheels that the county was nearly three times as deadly to pedestrians as suburban Los Angeles, and nearly five times as fatal as any borough of New York City.

Forced to compete with a torrent of automobiles on wide, straight streets with few crosswalks and poorly timed lights, Islanders are killed on their morning constitutionals, on the way to school, coming back from the store or hustling home from work. "If I knew you needed a ride," wrote Zimmardi's uncle on a card in the visiting room, "we would have picked you up."

On the Island, sooner or later you'll face the prospect of dashing across one of the four-lane roads that slice through the centers of villages. And sooner or later, someone you know—maybe even you—won't make it to the other side, or will end up as the driver who has a kid appear out of nowhere and bounce off your windshield.

In the funeral home, Bruce Fogel of North Babylon sits down near Zimmardi's father and tells how he lost his own son two years ago near the divide of Route 231 and Deer Park Avenue. Michael Fogel was in the crosswalk on his bicycle, heading to his summer job, when he was struck by a morning commuter. The Fogels buried their son on what would have been his 17th birthday.

Shoulders slumped, Fogel talks in a quiet, even voice about the tree planted by Michael's fellow students in his memory and the football concession stand they dedicated to him. He raises a slender hand toward Will's casket. Memorials are "all well and good," he says. "But the bottom line is, when you go home at night, you're never going to see his grandchildren."

The planner who was supposed to steer Long Island toward building livable communities has watched for 35 years as people instead turned their counties into deathtraps.

Lee Koppleman, director of the Long Island Regional Planning Board, says he tried haranguing the towns of Suffolk, in particular, into adding lanes for bikers and walkers whenever they widened roads. But the farther east people built their homes, the more they insisted on keeping out any signs of city life. Sidewalks, crosswalks, public transit and pedestrian signals belonged in boroughs, the suburbanites insisted, not in hamlets.

In 1975, Koppleman got a $100,000 grant that towns could use to make streets safer for pedestrians. "It was hard even to spend that," he says. "The local communities don't want the urbanization. It's foolish."

Years later, those communities woke up to realize they'd created a sprawling version of the asphalt-covered city they'd tried so hard to escape. Rather than towering apartment complexes linked by subways and generous sidewalks, they'd constructed mile after mile of strip malls and ranch houses, linked by high-traffic streets so wide and so straight that speed limits of 35 miles per hour appear to motorists not as the law, but as a suggestion.

The former city dwellers may have lessened their chances of being shot by a mugger, but they have vastly increased the odds of being flattened by a delivery truck. In Middle Island, junior high school teacher Connie Kepert has mourned more than one young student who met death trying to cross local roads. "People came to the suburbs because they thought it was going to be a safer place to raise their children," says Kepert, president of the Middle Island Civic Association. "Meanwhile, more children die from getting hit by cars than are killed by gunfire. People don't realize that."

Next Page »