Safer Streets

MAYVILLE – Chautauqua County Sheriff Joe Gerace has seen hundreds of fatal motor vehicle accidents.

Some stick out more than others.

“This one guy killed an entire family,” Gerace recalled in a recent interview. “He crossed the center line and crushed an oncoming car; killed everyone, including a 3-year-old child and a grandmother.

“He was coming from a bar, and just hit them. It was appalling, and it was devastating.”

Gerace started his career as the first full-time crime scene investigator for the Sheriff’s Office. At one point he responded to almost every fatal accident in the county, many of which he noted involved drunken driving.

Aggressive driving, also known ubiquitously as road rage, has been cited in many accidents. According to AAA, more than half of all fatal accidents are the result of aggressiveness while on the road. In fact, AAA found that half of all drivers have admitted to driving 15 percent over posted speed limits in neighborhoods and on the highway.

More drivers on the road, however, hasn’t equated to more deaths. At least not here.

Since 1980, Chautauqua County has seen a sharp decline in the number of fatal accidents. The sheriff attributes safer cars, aggressive police enforcement and better education from parents.

“I think there are a variety of reasons,” Gerace said. “There is better enforcement, education, highway design and construction. It’s hard to say exactly what is the main reason.”

Statistics from the Sheriff’s Office show there have been around a dozen fatal accidents annually in the county in recent years. That’s down from more than 40 a year on multiple occasions.

Investigator Joseph Smith of the State Police, Jamestown barracks, noted advances in medical care as a possible explanation. He said many hospitals now specialize in trauma care, which could lead to less fatalities.

“With medical responses and better care, many are surviving these traumas,” Smith said.

In Jamestown, officers have targeted high-traffic areas and routinely patrol major thoroughfares in the city. The state-funded Selective Traffic Enforcement Program has allowed police to monitor dangerous driving habits, with the hope of reducing future accidents.

“We put guys out there, and we look for motorists who are operating and violating traffic laws,” Capt. Todd Isaacson of the Jamestown Police Department said recently. “The idea is to be out there aggressively and target these individuals in a zero-tolerance approach.”

Gerace, an outspoken proponent against unsafe and drunken driving, speaks a dozen times a year in schools throughout the county. Through his presentations and driver’s educational classes, the sheriff said it takes only one child to make a difference.

“It’s highly impactful,” he said. “Sometimes it’s the shock that does it. If we can get to just one and make them understand, then it’s worth it.

“I had a mother once come up to me, point a finger and said, ‘It’s because of you my son doesn’t drink.’ I feel that this then has a purpose.”

New York state, meanwhile, is doing its part to encourage safe driving. Drivers with learners’ permits are required to obtain 50 hours of supervised training, with at least 15 hours of supervision at night.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles suggests teen drivers take professional lessons and educational classes. Some insurance companies even offer discounts for taking the classes.

But even with a heavy emphasis on education, will fatal accidents ever be 100 percent eradicated? It’s tough call, Gerace admits, noting the country’s love for alcohol and fast cars – the combination of which is devastating.

“It’s going to take many, many years,” he said. “It’s not something that can be done overnight. We have this mentality in this country where people view things as the Wild West. It’s deeply embedded.”