of Queens’ Other Boulevard of Death
In the early morning hours of New Year's Day, when most of the City was finally lulled to sleep from the festivities of the night before, an elderly woman was struck and killed as she crossed Northern Blvd. at 71 St. in Jackson Heights.
And so the elderly woman, who police have declined to give a name, became just a statistic. Number of accidents on Northern Blvd., 2002: 1. Number of fatalities: 1.
The accident was no aberration for Northern Blvd. According to information compiled by Transportation Alternatives, a transportation advocacy group, 20 fatalities occurred on Northern Blvd. between 1998 and 2000, ranking it number one on their list of the top ten worst streets in New York City. The statistic, which reflects the total number of pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, and passengers killed, designates Northern Blvd. as a more dangerous road than even Queens Blvd., the notorious "Boulevard of Death." Queens Blvd. ranks second on the list with 18 fatalities over the three-year span.
TA’s findings have inspired scrutiny of Northern Blvd., which was up until recently virtually ignored as a traffic trouble spot. At the helm of the publicity campaign to institute stricter safety measures on Northern Blvd. has been Assemblyman Ivan Lafayette [D – Jackson Heights], whose consituency has suffered the most casualties of any along the speedway. "The high number of traffic accidents, incidents, and injuries along Northern Blvd. in the 115th Precinct continue to be intolerable," said Lafayette at a rally a week ago.
The Assemblyman’s protests have provoked the Department of Transportation to commence a massive 75-block study of the boulevard, from 69 to 114 Sts., to determine if additional left turn signals can be installed at corners along the busy artery, as Lafayette has insisted must be done. The study, slated for completion in October, will be the first of its kind for Northern Blvd.
Lafayette, however, is not satisfied by the DOT’s step. He complains that a long study is a waste of money and time, during which more pedestrians will surely die. He also believes that the study will eventually call for the same safety measures he is already advocating.
"I don’t believe that [the safety needs] have been addressed at all. [The DOT] said that their priority is moving traffic along, and any attempts to slow it down would not be in the best interest of moving cars along Northern Blvd." The Assemblyman added, "You’ve got to consider the traffic locally, rather than thinking of Northern Blvd. as a major highway connecting the Queensboro Bridge with Long Island. I think the DOT has their priorities backward."
Tom Cocola, a DOT spokesman, concurred that additional safety measures must be instituted, but disagreed with Lafayette that the study was extraneous. "With a left turn study you have to document whether or not the signal meets the warrants. It must be done scientifically," said Cocola. He explained that if a left turn fails to meet the DOT’s criteria it could become a hindrance – even a danger – rather than a benefit.
Cocola also raised questions as to how TA’s statistics should be interpreted. Northern Blvd. is the longest east-west street in the borough, stretching 12 miles within the border of Queens, approximately 5 miles longer than Queens Blvd. Thus, there is a far greater area in which accidents can occur.
Moreover, the traffic volume on Northern Blvd. is astronomical. According to Cocola, the boulevard carries 26,217 passengers a day; 5,700 during rush hours. So, the 20 total fatalities represent a miniscule ratio of the millions of people who used the road between 1998 and 2000. "If you consider the sheer volume of cars traversing Northern Blvd. – three-quarters of a million vehicles each year, conservatively – it puts it in perspective, but still the optimal number for us is zero."
Cocola said that the majority of accidents were caused by "human error," rather than faulty road construction. The umbrella of "human error" encompasses drunk driving, jaywalking, and drag racing, said Cocola. While not negating the importance of safety measures, such as those implemented last year on Queens Blvd. – sidewalk fencing to prevent pedestrians from crossing outside of the intersection, synchronizing the lights to insure a uniform 30 m.p.h. speed limit, extending the pedestrian crossing time from 45 to 60 seconds – Cocola encouraged people to act sensibly, obey the law and take responsibility for themselves.