NEW YORK - A freak parkway accident that wiped out three generations of a Bronx family is being touted by some transportation advocates as more evidence that New York City's aging highway system needs major upgrades.
Seven people died, including three children, when the family's SUV hit a concrete divider on the Bronx River Parkway, veered off a bridge, and fell onto the grounds of the Bronx Zoo. Speed was a factor in the crash Sunday. Police said the vehicle was going 68 m.p.h. in a 50-m.p.h. zone. Still, the wreck seemed to validate the worst fears of motorists who navigate the city's pinball-machine expressways with white knuckles.
"The Bronx River Parkway is a glaring example of the deficiencies we see on area roadways," said Robert Sinclair, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association. "These roads were never envisioned as being the commuter arterial roadways that they are now. The roads are twisty. They are hilly. The lanes are narrow. There are no breakdown lanes. The on-ramps are too short."
Yet federal, state, and municipal transportation safety statistics show the city's intimidating roads are far less deadly than their rural and suburban counterparts, and have probably never been safer.
In New York City, 243 people were killed in traffic accidents in 2011, the lowest total in at least a century, according to the city Department of Transportation.
A majority of those deaths involved pedestrians struck by vehicles on sidewalks and streets. Excluding pedestrians and bicyclists, the death count was 82, meaning you are many times more likely to die of accidental poisoning in New York than in a car wreck.
Most of the deaths were on surface roads, not highways, although last year's deadliest crash - a bus wreck that took 15 lives - happened on a wide-open stretch of I-95 at the city limits.
By comparison, North Carolina, which has a population not much larger than New York City's, typically has more than 1,300 motor vehicle fatalities per year.
National statistics have long shown that the highest death rates per mile driven are on rural roads where people can go fast and maybe get lulled into complacency.
The national average for motor vehicle fatalities in 2010 was 1.11 deaths for every 100 million vehicle miles. That's nearly twice the fatality rate of 0.64 in urban areas in New York state.
Fatalities aside, groups such as the American Automobile Association argue that New York City's arterial roads are still undeniably outdated, in poor shape, and lacking important features. For example, the lack of breakdown lanes on many highways means every time someone gets a flat, a lane of traffic gets blocked, causing a huge tie-up.
Replacing highways, however, isn't at the top of many urban planners' wish lists.
One factor is the enormous cost. The New York Metropolitan Transportation Council estimated in a recent report that operating and maintaining the present road and rail network would cost $951 billion between 2010 and 2035.
Also, in one of the world's largest and densest cities, there is simply no space for larger, straighter roads. Widening some highways even a little might involve seizing and razing thousands of houses and apartment buildings.