From the look of the damage sustained by a charter bus after it crashed into the Eagle Avenue Bridge on the Southern State Parkway in early April, the incident should have been a mass tragedy. We should be thankful that all of the students and adults on board escaped with their lives, though three dozen of them were injured — six seriously.
The students were returning home from a trip to Europe. The bus driver, who was from out of state and unfamiliar with Long Island’s parkways, was using a non-commercial GPS to guide him.
The incident should, at the very least, have been a wake-up call for state transportation officials. The roof of the bus was nearly shorn off. We can only imagine — and shudder at the thought of — the terror that the young people and their chaperones must have felt at the moment of impact.
Trucks and buses are prohibited on New York’s parkways, which were built with private cars in mind in the 1920s and ’30s as part of developer Robert Moses and the Long Island State Parks Commission’s vision of connecting all residents and visitors to Long Island’s parks by way of scenic thoroughfares. The parkways were actually designed to be “linear parks,” acting as grand entrances to iconic gems such as Jones Beach State Park. They were never intended for commercial traffic.
This year, after much public outcry, the state has begun taking down a slew of unsightly “I Love NY” tourism signs that dotted the parkways and, officials and drivers contended, were distractions for motorists. That was a start. However, last month’s horrific bus crash signaled the need for the state to do more to make the parkways — where speeding and dicey merges already make for harrowing rush hours — safer.
According to the state Department of Transportation, highway signage keeps commercial vehicles off parkways. Clearly, the signs aren’t working to the degree they should be. Year in, year out, there are reports of commercial vehicles that crash into bridges. The Meadowbrook Parkway, which extends from the Northern State Parkway to Jones Beach, is notorious for such crashes, most often involving tractor-trailers. In fact, earlier this month, only weeks after the Southern State bus crash, a Walmart tractor-trailer slammed into a Meadowbrook overpass, tying up traffic for hours.
The existing signage clearly isn’t enough.
The state has also installed infrared over-height detection systems at five sites, which will indicate on flashing screens when a vehicle is too tall to drive on a parkway. In the days after the Eagle Avenue crash, officials said that eight more of these systems were yet to be installed. As State Sen. John Brooks noted, they need to be a priority.
Additionally, the Herald has heard reports of systems that have been installed but are not functioning properly. Given the threat posed by crashes like the one in April, if the systems don’t work 100 percent of the time, they might as well not work at all.
Brooks also asked the DOT to install low-clearance bars at the entrances to parkways — a simple warning system that, according to the senator, would cost all of $80 per bar.
Finally, we have to wonder why a commercial driver was on a parkway with a non-commercial GPS. The state should move to require commercial navigation systems for commercial vehicles.
Whatever the DOT’s next steps might be, we urge that they be swift and comprehensive. When lives are on the line, half measures and vague timelines are just not enough.