Road Kill

Raw tallies of pedestrian fatalities on the Island are impressively grim, but they paint only part of the picture. Body counts kept by the Nassau County Traffic Safety Board show that 113 walkers and bicyclists were killed by cars from 1995 to 1998, placing the county among the top 10 most dangerous in the state. During the same period, 124 walkers and bicyclists died in Suffolk, putting that county also high on the list, but lower than the boroughs.

Yet to really understand the level of risk, say advocates of alternative transportation, you have to consider how few Island residents regularly walk anyplace.

Analysts at the Surface Transportation Policy Project, in Washington, D.C., use U.S. Census figures to compare the percentage of people who commute on foot with the number of pedestrians killed. In Manhattan, nearly a quarter of the residents walk to work, so even though dozens lose their lives in traffic each year, the borough has a danger index of just 12 out of 100. By the same calculation, the Bronx rings in at 20, Brooklyn at 35 and Queens at 38.

But in Nassau, only 3.4 percent of the population walks to work, yet people still die in droves, earning the county a danger rating of 72, nearly twice that of neighboring Queens. In spread-out Suffolk, just 2.1 percent of all residents walk to their jobs—giving that county an off-the-chart danger rate of 141.

It's no wonder Islanders prefer traveling in cars to walking. Roads here are designed to keep traffic moving, so crosswalks on some major streets are a mile apart, and pedestrian signals take up to 100 seconds just to acknowledge someone pushed the button.

Conditions like those all but force people to jaywalk, even on major thoroughfares like Hempstead Turnpike. Robert Lemoine, 60, was killed there in October after being struck by three cars while trying to cross. Michael Fortunato, 11, died in July when he cut across the highway on his way home from swimming. In June, Vivian Correa, 22, was fatally struck in the eastbound lanes as she walked to catch a bus for a shopping trip. Mark Kibak, 47, lost his life on the turnpike, crossing near Hamlet Road in Levittown last year, as did Frank Battaglia, 83, in Farmingdale. A decade ago, Raju Sethi, 31, made it halfway across and was standing in the median when two cars collided with such force that one left the roadway and wiped him out.

When Nassau officials talk about people getting killed, they point to mistakes made by walkers and cite statistics showing one-third of fatalities happen when someone darts into traffic. But with intersections a half-mile or more apart, says Jon Orcutt of the Tri-State Tranportation Campaign, pedestrians have little choice. In exchange for being able to move hundreds of thousands of cars around the Island, he says, we have accepted that people like Robert Lemoine and Vivian Correa and Michael Fortunato will die.

"People call them accidents, instead of looking at it as a systematic feature of the transportation system," Orcutt says. "It's not an accident. You know it's going to happen."

Connie Kepert's nightmare looms just down the road in Selden, a Brookhaven community carved in half by the five lanes of Route 25. Strip malls there have replaced local shops, and many walkers and bicyclists have given up contending with shoulders that disappear without warning and crosswalks that take 10 minutes to reach on foot.

Wherever Route 25 has been expanded, the landscape is a danger zone. In November, Mauricio Soto, 34, died in Huntington Station beneath the wheels of a driver who said she never saw him. In August, an Asian man in his 20s died in Selden, caught halfway across. Joseph Bonanni, 67, was killed crossing there two years ago.

For years, state engineers have considered widening Route 25 east of Selden, and for years, Kepert has captained a sometimes lonely effort to stop them.

Keeping roads walkable hasn't been a top priority on an island where the number of cars has grown almost nine times faster than the number of people. Content in their woodsy suburbs, a lot of middle-class homeowners don't buy into Kepert's vision of slow, narrow streets with curves and crosswalks and trees that buffer sidewalks. Some in Middle Island don't want sidewalks at all. "Many, many people object to that," she says. "They want what they have in Selden."

State Department of Transportation spokeswoman Eileen Peters calls her agency's plans for widening Route 25 a "safety project." Peters, based in Hauppauge, admits to being a bit surprised at the objection of Kepert and others to adding traffic lanes. In all its projects for the past five years, Peters says, the department has improved the situation for walkers and cyclists—and engineers intend to do the same on the five miles between Middle Island and Coram.

"We do whatever we can to give the community something they're happy with," Peters says. "They deserve nothing less."

Those words do little to soothe Islanders who've watched the death toll mount as state roads like Sunrise Highway were widened. After Mary Bennett was killed there last year, the DOT cordoned off the median in front of the South Bay Shore Mall with a fence that's hard to climb. Yet Will Zimmardi ignored a nearby underpass and died while crossing a quarter-mile from where the barrier ends. The flimsy wire that guards the rest of the highway is bowed and twisted from all the people who've attempted the crossing despite the danger.

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