Route 52 rises out of Pine Bush, crosses into Ulster County, climbs through Walker Valley and Warwarsing, and, before descending sharply into Ellenville, offers expansive views of Highland Lakes State Park and the Catskill foothills.
It’s a beautiful drive, and more and more often, a deadly one.
There were five fatal crashes on the road in 2006 and 2007, the latest years for which data is available, and earlier this year a teen driver was indicted on manslaughter charges in the death of another teen in a 2008 crash.
The spate of road fatalities has lifted Route 52 in Ulster County to the top of the list of the region’s deadliest roads, based on a Times Herald-Record analysis of data maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
But don’t blame the road, says Shawangunk police Chief Frank Petrone.
“The accidents we have out there are caused strictly by operators, not by road conditions,” he said. “Operator error and carelessness.”
The old saw is true: Speed kills
When Petrone remembers the crashes he’s responded to, he remembers cases like one in October 2007 when a 49-year-old man sped around two eastbound vehicles in Walker Valley and collided with a vehicle traveling in the opposite direction. “That was attributed to speed,” he said.
Indeed, excessive speed was the No. 1 factor cited in crashes across the Hudson Valley, followed by driving in the wrong lane, inattentiveness and drowsy driving. Most crashes occurred in good weather with clear visibility.
Route 52 is not where the most fatal crashes have occurred in recent years — that dubious distinction belongs to the Thruway and the Orange County section of Route 17. But those crashes are the result of a far larger volume of traffic.
The good news is that crashes and fatalities have dipped. The 83 fatal crashes in 2007 were the fewest since 2002, when there were 81.
But more than 840 people have perished on area roads from 1999-2007, and based on traffic volume, the most deadly roads are rural highways. Ranking behind Route 52 in Ulster are Routes 97 and 211 in Orange County and Route 97 in Sullivan County. Police Chief Philip Mattracion of the Village of Ellenville said the wrecks on those types of roads, Route 52 in particular, are caused by a false sense of security.
Summer’s deadly in Sullivan
It’s a combination, he said, of summer tourists unfamiliar with the road, which is well-maintained and has clear sight lines. Almost every fatal crash on Route 52 has happened in the summer.
“When you have an influx of traffic, you’re going to have more accidents,” he said. “People are in a hurry to get somewhere. It lends itself to accidents.”
Both departments step up speed enforcement in the summer. Ellenville does aggressive driving patrols and frequent road checks for registration and seat-belt use. And in Shawangunk, they set out mobile signs that remind drivers of their speed and encourage them to slow down.
“Just be safe,” Petrone said. “Drive defensively.”
Fatalities by the numbers
By speed limit, ’06-’07
10 mph: 1
30 mph: 17
35 mph: 8
40 mph: 17
45 mph: 17
50 mph: 3
55 mph: 90
65 mph: 38
The following are some highlights from the Record’s analysis of federal fatal crash data for roads in Orange, Ulster and Sullivan counties and the stretches of the state Thruway and the Palisades Parkway in Rockland County:
• With 91 deaths, 2007 was the region’s least deadly year since 2002.
• In 2006, 22 out of 177 drivers most responsible for crashes were teens; 144 of the 177 drivers were men.
• Of the 198 crash victims in 2006-07: 136 were drivers, 43 were passengers, 17 were pedestrians, 2 were bicyclists.
• The median emergency response time to a fatal crash in 2006 and 2007 was about 8 minutes, down from 10 minutes in the 1990s and 9 minutes earlier in the 2000s.