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Driving

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I didn’t see a horrifying and preventable accident this morning. I didn’t see a little girl, let’s call her Erica, on her way to her first week of school.

Erica, who, in our story, is 10 years old, wants to be a veterinarian, and has pictures of animals all over her room. She begged her parents so long for a kitten that they relented. They saw how well she took care of the kitten, putting drops in her eyes when she needed them, making sure she got the correct shots and even holding her kitten in the office when they had to draw blood to test for feline leukemia, which, fortunately, her kitten didn’t have.

Two years after she got her kitten, Erica continued to ask for additional animals, adding a fish, a rabbit and a hamster to her collection. Each morning, Erica wakes up and checks on all the animals in her little zoo, well, that’s what her father calls it, to see how they’re doing.

Her mother is convinced that the animals respond to her voice, moving closer to the edge of the cage or to the door when they hear her coming. When mother leaves to pick up Erica from school, the animals become restless.

I didn’t see Erica walking with her best friend Jenna. Like Erica, Jenna has a dream. She wants to pitch for the United States in softball in the Olympics. Jenna is much taller than her best friend and has an incredible arm. Jenna hopes the Olympics decides to have softball when she’s old enough and strong enough to play. Jenna thinks bringing a gold medal to her father, who is in the Marines and has traveled the world protecting other people, would be the greatest accomplishment she could ever achieve.

I didn’t see a man, whom I’ll call Bob and who lives only four blocks from Erica and Jenna, put on his carefully pressed light-blue shirt with the matching tie that morning. I didn’t witness him kissing his wife Alicia, the way he does every morning before he rushes off to his important job. I didn’t see him climb into his sleek SUV and back quickly out of his driveway on the dead-end block he and Alicia chose more than a dozen years earlier.

I didn’t see Bob get the first indication from his iPhone 7 that he had several messages. I didn’t witness Bob rolling his eyes at the first few messages. I didn’t see him drive quickly toward the crosswalk where Erica and Jenna were walking. The girls had slowed down in the crosswalk because Jenna pointed out a deer she could see across the street in a backyard. Jenna knew Erica kept an animal diary and she was always on the lookout for anything her friend could include in her cherished book.

I didn’t see Bob — his attention diverted by a phone he had to extend to see clearly — roll too quickly into the crosswalk, sending both girls flying. I didn’t see the ambulances racing to the scene, the parents with heavy hearts getting the unimaginable phone calls, and the doctors doing everything they could to fix Jenna’s battered right arm — her pitching arm.

I didn’t see it because it didn’t happen. What I did see, however, was a man in an SUV, driving way too quickly through a crosswalk, staring at his phone instead of looking out for Erica, Jenna and everyone else’s children on his way to work.

It’s an old message that we should repeat every year: “School is open, drive carefully.”

This Column is reprinted from September 14, 2017 issue.

If your car is pulled over by a police officer, there is a good chance that you will be treated mercifully by the officer if you have the same first name as his or hers. How do I know this? There has been research that corroborates that statement.

Now in a possible scenario, it would be a little difficult for me to pass myself off as “James,” the name on the officer’s name tag, when my driver’s license clearly says differently, although I suppose I could try telling him that he can call me by my nickname, “James,” for short. Somehow, on reflection, I don’t think that strategy would work.

As I was considering the possibility, I remembered strategies that did work, deliberate or not, that at least got me out of a ticket. I’ll bet you have some such memories of roadside encounters with the law, too.

The first one to come to mind happened the day after I got married. My new husband was a medical student in Chicago, and he had flown into New York City for the Sunday wedding. We then flew back to his apartment that night, he returned to school the next day, and I got into his car and began to drive to an employment agency in the neighborhood. As I passed along the unfamiliar streets, I came up behind a large truck that was stopped just short of an underpass. When it didn’t immediately move, I assumed it was either stuck or parked there, and I drove around it to continue on my way. Immediately a police car appeared in my rear-view mirror, lights flashing. I should mention here that I had not been stopped before in my short driving career. I pulled over, rolled down the window and waited as the middle-aged policeman got out and walked toward me frowning.

“What’s the matter with you?” he inquired. “You just ran a stop sign.” I looked into my side mirror and realized that was why the truck was stopped. It had, however, blocked my view of the sign. I started to explain.

“Where are you going in such a hurry?”

“I’m going for a job interview with an employment counselor. I just got married yesterday in New York and I need a job.” Although I do not cry easily, I could feel myself beginning to tear up.

“What! You just got married? Where is your lazy bum of a husband? Why isn’t he out working?” (This was February 1963, years before women’s liberation was even an expression.)

“He’s a medical student here, and I’m the one who has to support us for now.” I was beginning to sob. My story must have had the ring of truth, because he stared at me for a moment, then took out his handkerchief — these were the days before tissues — and handed it to me. He looked stricken.

“Now don’t cry. Everything will be all right. You just go on to your appointment.” He started to turn away, then turned back for a moment. “You just make sure that husband of yours takes care of you properly as soon as he finishes school.” He turned on his heel, climbed into his car and pulled away. It was only then, as I was wiping my cheeks, that I realized he had left me with only his handkerchief — and not a ticket.

I have been stopped by police officers on the highways in the course of the ensuing years. But I have never again been able to cry on cue. If you have any surefire ticket beaters, please share them with the rest of us.

Is driving uninspiring for the next generation?

My daughter recently got her license and my son is attending driver’s education classes so he can join his sister behind the wheel. This should be cause for celebration for them, right? Nope.

When I ask my daughter if she wants to drive somewhere, she often shrugs and says, “Nah, that’s OK, you can drive.”

I recently took a long drive with my son, where I pointed out the magnificent trees along the side of the road and where I couldn’t help noticing the license plates of cars from Alaska, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and Oregon, just to name a few.

“Dad,” my son interjected, after the pitch of my voice rose when I saw the one from Alaska, “you really like license plates.”

No, he doesn’t get it, just as I don’t get his generation.

When I got my license, I couldn’t wait to visit my friends, to go to the movies, to drive to West Meadow Beach where I had spent so much of my time walking, jogging or biking. Driving meant I no longer had to count the curves until I was at the beach. I could also exhaust myself in the waves and run out to the end of the magnificent sandbar, which seemed to stretch halfway to Connecticut, without worrying about leaving the beach before sunset so I could get home in the light.

I could also offer to pick up my friends. I could drive to their houses, knock on their doors, show off my license to their parents and then laugh my way into the car with a friend, who would turn on the radio to music. It wasn’t the boring nonstop news stations that my parents listened to — and which I now play in the car when I’m alone.

I could drive to The Good Steer in Lake Grove and meet someone for a burger and a mountain of onion rings. I could make the car as hot or cold as I wanted. A driver’s license meant independence, freedom and maturity. I didn’t have to wait for anyone.

But, no, my children and, from what I understand, many kids just aren’t as enthralled with the opportunity to get a license. For starters, as we have told them endlessly from the time we handed them their first wonderful-terrible device, they can’t use their cellphones when they are driving.

When we drive, they can ignore the road signs and street signs. They don’t have to search the side of the road for deer, turtles or the rare and exciting fox. They can chat with their friends, who are similarly indifferent to their immediate surroundings, while the car, driven by someone else, magically carries them to their next destination.

We must have taken them to so many places where they wanted to go that they had no great urge to get behind the wheel and drive themselves. I know my mom was a chauffeur, too, driving the three of us hither and yon, but maybe we haven’t said to our children, “You can go when you can drive,” often enough.

Maybe all the FaceTime and Skype time means that they can see and laugh with their friends without leaving the comfort of their home. They can’t bowl, see a movie or drink an Orange Julius, but they can hang out together while being in different places.

Access to Uber and Lyft may also have reduced the need for them to drive.

Then again, maybe it’s much simpler than that. I recently asked my son why he wasn’t more excited about driving.

“Because,” he sighed, “when I get my license, you’ll ask me to do stuff.”

Suffolk County Police arrested a man for allegedly endangering the welfare of a child after he allowed his 13-year-old daughter to drive with a 3-year-old child in the backseat.

Alejandro Noriega. Photo from SCPD

A 2nd Precinct community support unit officer observed a 1995 Toyota Camry being driven erratically while traveling northbound on Oakwood Road in Huntington Station Jan. 27 at approximately 6:30 p.m. The officer initiated a traffic stop of the vehicle and noticed a young girl was driving. The girl’s father, Alejandro Noriega, was in the front passenger seat. The 3-year-old male child was in a child safety seat in the back of the vehicle. Noriega had been entrusted by a friend to baby-sit the boy.

Noriega, 45, of Huntington Station, was arrested and charged with two counts of endangering the welfare of a child. He was also issued a summons for permitting unlicensed operation. The 13-year-old girl was released to her mother at the scene. The 3-year-old boy was released to his mother at the 2d Precinct.

Noriega was held overnight at the 2nd Precinct and was scheduled to be arraigned Jan. 28 at First District Court in Central Islip.

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When a car runs a red light in Suffolk County, does it make a sound?

Yes. If you listen closely, you’ll hear your wallet being pried open.

Beware the daring driver who goes through a yellow light to traverse a busy intersection. It’ll happen so suddenly. You’ll see a quick flash of white light, followed by a sinking feeling: You just ran a red.

Flash forward weeks later when you get slapped with a $50 ticket. Let’s not forget the $30 administrative fee. And don’t be late with it, or else you could be hit with additional late fees of $25 or more.

Suffolk County’s Red Light Safety Program just feels unjust. Ask any Long Islander about it, and you’re likely to get that eye-roll or an angry tone.

It’s a “money grab,” they’ll say. And they already pay a ton in taxes to live here.

Remember that story over the summer about the Centereach man who used an expandable pole to push the cameras toward the sky? It attracted much attention and numerous shares on social media. To the public, he was known as the “Red Light Robin Hood.” In a follow-up interview with Newsday after his arrest, the man, Stephen Ruth, defended his actions.

“It’s abusive and it’s got to stop,” Ruth told Newsday reporters. “My taxes have doubled. … They keep taking more and more money from people. When is enough, enough?”

GOPers in the Suffolk County Legislature say they feel like Ruth. Some Republicans are calling for greater scrutiny in the program, and some flat out disagree with it all together. A press conference last week singled out the county’s red light program, dubbing it a cheap attempt at building revenue on the backs of everyday citizens.

We agree with that notion, but we do not outright disagree with the program’s premise. Those drivers who purposely whiz through a red light deserve that ticket they’ll eventually receive in the mail, but we don’t feel the same way about drivers slapped with tickets for not stopping enough before a turn at right-on-red intersections. Cameras don’t capture enough of the oncoming traffic in an intersection, in our opinion, to appropriately determine whether or not a right on red was executed safely, and that — to us  — is a textbook money grab.

The county says red-light-running is “one of the major causes of crashes, deaths and injuries at signalized intersections.” The action killed 676 people and injured an estimated 113,000 in 2009, the year before the county program was enacted. And nearly two-thirds of the deaths were people other than the red-light-running drivers.

But while it is a noble intention to stop speeders or those who flagrantly disobey the rules of the road, and to prevent fatalities from occurring, we agree with the notion that the measure is a money grab. We agree the county should stop and yield to the concerns of many and evaluate how to make the program better.

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It’s the start of the school season, and that should signal us to be a little more wary behind the wheel.

With some schools already in session and some schools opening soon, we are urging drivers who are rushing to and fro to bring their patience and common sense with them.

Just this week in Smithtown, a police checkpoint netted 11 individuals and charged them with DWI — most of those Smithtown residents. It’s a scary number.

Over in Cold Spring Harbor, on Woodbury Road, an elderly woman died after crashing into the woods on Friday evening.

With this kind of troubling traffic safety news becoming the norm lately, we all need to step up our defensive driving game instead of stepping on the gas.

When on the road, come to a full stop at a stop sign, not a rolling stop. Always stop behind a school bus with its lights on — a resident told us this week that she routinely witnesses cars blowing past buses that are stopped. Those are children that could potentially be put at risk. And it goes without saying that we should take extra precautions in school speed zones.

The list goes on. Always signal before merging into a lane. And if you’re in the wrong lane, don’t try to cut across multiple lanes, especially on major thoroughfares. Obey crosswalks — we can’t tell you how many times drives ignore them.

Following the rules of the road goes a long way in keeping our families safe. Let’s all be a little more courteous and careful behind the wheel.

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With warmer weather comes an urge to leave the house, and we expect, as usual, there will be a lot more cars on the road, so now is a good time to remind our readers not to lose their cool behind the wheel.

Whether a driver made a mistake — as we all do from time to time — or not, it can be terrifying for that person when another motorist becomes enraged and takes it out on them. We’ve all experienced tailgating or obnoxious horn-honking, and some of us have been victims of more dire cases of road rage, like prolonged following and actual physical violence or threats. In the less confrontational incidents, frustrated and angry drivers often lash out because it’s easy to hide in the anonymous bubble of a car, when they would not have been so bold to display such anger in person. In the more extreme cases, the mad drivers may have had a screw or two loose to begin with and might have acted out no matter the location or circumstance.

We understand that daily stresses factor into this problem, and Long Island’s immense traffic congestion doesn’t help the frustration we might already be feeling while in the car. But consider this: The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reports that aggressive driving is a factor in more than half of all traffic fatalities, according to 2009 data. In those cases, “motorists are concerned with the others’ aggressive driving while many are guilty themselves.”

Terrible accidents involving mangled cars happen all the time, but they don’t have to happen over things as petty as payback for being cut off or revenge on a slow-moving vehicle. We urge our readers to slow down when they’re seeing red behind the wheel and take some time to think about what the other person’s situation might be before lashing out. Give each other the benefit of the doubt because we are all humans who make mistakes. Let small road infractions go with a deep exhale. Rising tempers don’t give us license to rage on the road. And the consequences can be deadly.

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