clubhouse, east hampton, indoor, tennis, cornhole, bar, happy hour, bowling, mini golf

Story - News

Aug 15, 2012 8:33 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Traffic Jam Prompts Southampton Town To Examine Accident Response

Aug 15, 2012 10:19 AM

After a serious accident at the junction of Sunrise Highway and County Road 39 on July 24, which closed the main artery to the South Fork for six hours and left many commuters stuck in miles-long traffic jams, the Southampton Town Board queried Town Police Chief William Wilson on the situation that led to the tie-ups, and sought ways to prevent such delays and to better provide updates about road conditions to the public.

“This couldn’t have happened in a worse spot, at a worst time, a worse day or a worse time of the year,” Chief Wilson said of the head-on collision between a large truck and an SUV, which left the driver of the smaller vehicle seriously injured. “There was a large debris field, there was a commercial vehicle involved, and it had to be treated as a potential fatality. It’s a little-known fact that the commercial vehicle that was involved should not have been on the roadway—it had a suspended registration—and that fact exacerbated what was already a bad situation. It was literally a perfect storm.”

Chief Wilson said that with the potential of a fatality, detectives had to do a detailed report, essentially re-creating the accident, before either of the vehicles, which blocked both the east and westbound lanes of County Road 39, could be moved. He said they also had to wait for investigators from the State Department of Transportation, because of the commercial vehicle’s role in the accident.

The traffic jam was magnified by the fact that there was a construction project east of the Shinnecock Canal on the only alternate route, Montauk Highway, which narrowed that road’s two lanes. Chief Wilson said that, in hindsight, police should have shut down the construction work early and moved the barrels restricting traffic to help things along—but that such a small step likely would not have had a major impact as the afternoon rush hour got under way.

He noted that despite the hardship and irritation the 
backups caused thousands of motorists, the jam itself did not pose a safety hazard for 
the motorists that might have warranted more drastic measures to get traffic moving.

“Public safety-wise, it was an inconvenience,” the chief said. “Nobody was in harm’s way. If they were, we would have done things differently. That’s not excusing the tie-ups—we’re going to look at our procedures. If I could have opened up one westbound lane, I would have done that.”

Town Transportation Department Director Tom Neely said that with a total of only six lanes of traffic crossing the canal east of Hampton Bays, the transportation system for the South Fork is fragile.

Board members added that improving the communication to motorists would have helped the situation, if only to tell them not to get into their cars and add to the congestion, which caused gridlock on nearly every major road in Southampton Village, with cars trying to get from County Road 39 to Montauk Highway.

“The question that was asked of us is, how do we let this happen?” Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said. “How do we at least let people know what is going on? They didn’t know what was going on, they didn’t know how long it was going to impact them, they didn’t know [alternate] routes.”

Ms. Throne-Holst said the town has since signed on to the county-operated Code Red system, an emergency alert system that allows residents to register to receive message alerts about public emergencies and notices on their mobile phones.

Chief Wilson added that the length of time the roadways were closed was not entirely up to the Town Police—though he said he supported the decisions that were made—and that he couldn’t say that in the same circumstances a similar problem couldn’t happen. But if a similar accident were to occur during a public emergency, such as an evacuation of the South Fork, the chief said, the protocols for the accident scene would be different, and getting traffic moving again would become the number-one priority.

“I had one resident ask me how we are going to get everybody out if there’s a hurricane,” he said. “If that happens, we’re going to open everything up and get everybody out of here.”

You've read 1 of 7 free articles this month.

Already a subscriber? Sign in