In the last decade, the stretch of the New York State Thruway between exits 15 A and 16, a section of roadway approximately 13 miles in length, has claimed the lives of 25 people, the last three in March of this year. The irony is that the thruway in this area between Sloatsburg and Harriman, New York, which this writer travels regularly, is a pleasant, mostly straight and altogether unremarkable section of highway, looking every bit the prototypical interstate designed to take drivers quickly and safely from city to city.
After considerable analysis, state troopers and transportation officials cannot seem to find anything wrong with the roadway. “They are basically flukes,” said Sgt. James A. Whittel of the New York State Police, referring to the long string of deadly crashes. “It’s usually that the driver did something bizarre that causes the accident.”
In a March 17, 2006 automobile accident, on March 17, 2006, the driver of a minivan stopped in the middle of the right traffic lane to check a tire. A tractor-trailer slammed into the van, killing four people, including three children. It was the third of four crashes between Feb. 7, 2006, and June 18, 2006, that killed 10 people.
In comparison, through all of 2006, there were 47 fatalities along the entire length of the 641-mile Thruway, which is the longest toll road in the United States.
It has been speculated that one of the possible causes of the high death toll could be speeding. This writer has repeatedly observed drivers in both lanes of the thruway operating at excessive speeds, seemingly with no difference between the passing lane and the right lane. Additionally. there is more truck traffic than ever, and the trucks are bigger.
After last year’s deaths, a group of Thruway employees with experience in highway engineering and traffic safety examined the section in an effort to determine possible deficiencies in the roadway.
Sarah Kampf, a spokeswoman for the New York State Thruway Authority, said, “The team did not find anything wrong with the highway itself, and had no reason to suspect that there’s anything about this section of roadway that would account for what seems like an unusual number of accidents.” She said that the Thruway as a whole had a relatively low fatality rate, which is the number of deaths per miles traveled. In 2005, for example, the fatality rate on the Thruway was 0.28 deaths per 100 million miles driven, compared with the national highway fatality rate that year of 1.47.
Since June 2006, the New York State Police has dispatched extra patrol cars between Exits 15A and 16. One other theory that Sergeant Whittel has suggested for the high rate of accidents is that south of Exit 15A, the exits are bunched close together, keeping drivers alert and providing opportunities to get off, but once you get past Exit 15A, there’s no place to pull over for several miles, and drivers may become less alert during this stretch of the road.