Viewpoint: Nassau must do more to improve traffic safety

Viewpoint: Nassau must do more to improve traffic safety
Karen Rubin, Columnist

We are entering the time of year when it is most dangerous to be on our roadways – it is the period of longest darkness, lots of holiday merrymaking and gatherings where people are more apt to party too hardy and then get behind the wheel.

Which makes Newsday’s recent headline all the more disturbing: “Long Island traffic deaths surge; reckless driving up, enforcement down since 2019, Newsday analysis finds” (

Newsday also reported that Long Island tops the entire state for the number of seniors 65 and older killed in vehicular accidents.

Traffic fatalities on Long Island last year surged to the highest levels since 2015, as dangerous driving increased post-COVID-19 and police traffic enforcement dropped, according to the Newsday analysis.

Another Newsday story reports that nearly 60% of drivers surveyed nationally by AAA admitted to engaging in risky behavior, including speeding, driving aggressively, distracted driving including texting behind the wheel or driving impaired (

“It is abundantly clear that something in the collective psyche has disintegrated in terms of careful driving,” Maureen McCormick, who established Nassau County’s and New York City’s vehicular crimes bureaus, told Newsday.

But none of these factors obviates the responsibility of municipalities, from villages to counties to the state, to do more to make roadways safer, much as they would like to ignore their own responsibility or accountability and make the excuse that roads are state, county or village (but not mine). And, of course, there’s not enough money.

There are things that should be done – the “low hanging fruit” – such as better lighting, better signage at major intersections and before coming to an intersection, also more visible addresses on commercial and residential buildings, better street lighting, and a better effort to get people out of cars – like more north-south mass transit (perhaps light rail?), and bike racks on buses like most cities have.

But the thornier – and costlier – problem is road design.

Long Island, America’s first Suburbia, was designed for automobiles, not pedestrians or cyclists, not the elderly or disabled, even though the state since 2011 has been dying to give money away for Complete Streets strategies. These involve traffic-calming measures like “road diet,” colored pavers at crosswalks, bump-outs for drop offs and even some trolley service to cut down on car traffic, medians where pedestrians can stop, better traffic light systems, to make downtowns safer and at the same time, boost the local economy.

“Grants are difficult to get,” says Great Neck Plaza’s former mayor, Jean Celender, who was successful during the course of her administration in winning several grants and redesigning the village roadways to calm traffic, improve safety and beautify the village.

That might have been true, but now there is absolutely no excuse. Nassau got $385 million in federal funding in 2021 from the American Rescue Plan Act (the funds have to be allocated for specific purposes by Dec. 31, 2024, and spent by the end of 2026, or lose it; the county has so far allocated $186.6 million and spent $69.5 million), and Biden’s Department of Transportation has been awarding billions for infrastructure improvements.

The obstacle is more that county public works departments have resisted design improvements that might improve safety.

“It’s uncomfortable for transportation agencies to talk about design issues because then they take accountability for their roads,” said Eric Alexander, director of Vision Long Island. “They would rather talk about enforcement, drugs and driver and pedestrian responsibility, than talk about speed because then have to be accountable for how their roads are designed for high speeds. Maybe it was never anticipated when roads were planned in the 1970s that more people would be walking, biking on roads, but they have to change.”

Alexander, whose organization has conducted “Complete Streets” and “Smart Growth” conferences for years and organized 20 “walking audits” to advise villages of steps they can make to improve safety, pointed to several communities on Long Island – Lindenhurst, Amityville, Hempstead among them – that are improving their downtowns in tandem Complete Streets principles, often in conjunction with the state’s $10 million downtown Revitalization Initiative grants.

Another evasion to avoid fixing roadways is that roads may be under some other jurisdiction – state, county or village. But that only means they need to work in collaboration.

This was the case when the old Village of Great Neck had the rarest opportunity to transform Middle Neck Road when the county repaved the length of the dangerous roadway, an opportunity that won’t likely come around again for 40 years. The county’s public works department (then under former County Executive Laura Curran) was almost begging the village to present a plan, which never came. Instead, the village replanted bushes in the median that now impede sight of oncoming traffic if you are making a left turn.

I think one of the reasons local electeds are afraid to advocate for “traffic calming” and safety measures is cowardice and laziness. I remember when then-Plaza Mayor Celender proposed putting Great Neck Road on a road diet that brought out mobs with pitchforks. But she has been proved absolutely right.

Celender is more generous. “These grant projects are extremely complex, take large amounts of grant funds and require coordination with agencies on their funding cycles, etc.,” she said. “We are talking about years to secure and implement construction funds. But to start off, a village could do a Walking Audit with Vision LI or a transportation engineering consultant and can make some common sense improvements.”

She cited repainting crosswalks, improving lighting for the dark winter months, resynchronizing traffic signals and implementing better roadway design.

“We need tougher laws focused on impaired driving, speeding, local road rage and wearing seat belts. Enforcement and public education are critical. There are proven solutions that crashes and accidents can be preventable. The 3 ‘E’s of Engineering, Enforcement and Education are necessary in a comprehensive program to reduce accidents and make roadways and sidewalks safer.”

And what about the highways and parkways? The state’s Department of Transportation site ( lists only two safety enhancement projects under construction in Nassau County and two others “under development” (“locations and scope to be determined”). Suffolk has one safety enhancement under construction and six vaguely listed as “future development.”

Long Islanders treasure our “suburban quality of life.” But not if it is cut short.

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