On Saturday, November 8, 1997, Michelle Lafontaine and her fiancé,
Thomas J. Powers, began the first leg of a weekend trip from Glens Falls, New
York, to attend a Sunday afternoon birthday celebration for Michelle's
grandmother in Durham, Connecticut
. The party
was to begin approximately mid-day on Sunday.
Mr. Powers was driving Michelle's vehicle, a 1995 Honda Civic sedan. It was a
wet morning. Rain was falling at the start of their trip and was falling heavily
when the accident occurred. The evening of November 8, 1997 was spent at the
home of friends in Coxsackie, New York. On Sunday morning November 9, 1997 they
departed from Coxsackie and resumed their trip southward on the New York State
Thruway, intending to then take I-84 eastward into Connecticut.
There is no direct highway interchange between the New York State Thruway and
I-84. Thruway travelers wishing to access I-84 exit the Thruway at the Exit 17
toll barrier in Newburgh, New York, travel a short distance northward on State
Route 300 and enter I-84 at its Interchange 7.
Although not overly familiar with the area, Mr. Powers had reviewed maps and
had some knowledge of the highway interchange. He had no difficulty leaving the
Thruway through the toll barrier or in following the directional signs to the
entrance for the eastbound lanes of I-84. It was raining heavily and
persistently as the couple drove from the Thruway toll plaza onto and along
Route 300 northbound to the entrance ramp for the eastbound lanes of I-84. The
vehicle's headlights were on and the windshield wipers working to maintain what
Mr. Powers referred to as "adequate" visibility.
As of November 9, 1997 the posted speed limit for Route 300 North was 45 mph,
and the posted speed limit for I-84 eastbound was 55 mph. There is a ramp speed
sign on Route 300 prior to the entrance ramp indicating a speed of 25 mph.
Approximately halfway down Ramp J - the ramp leading from Route 300 North to
I-84 East - there is a right-curve sign with an advisory speed of 25 mph on the
right side of the ramp, and near the bottom of the ramp there were four chevrons
on the left side of the ramp pointing to the right.
Ramp J is 1600 feet long. It has three curves as it descends to the same
elevation as I-84, and becomes parallel with the travel lanes. After the final
ramp-approach curve, that has a radius of 477 feet, an acceleration lane begins
and tapers into the rightmost through-lane of I-84 eastbound. On the right-hand
side of the acceleration lane there is a shoulder, a ditch and a rock
Mr. Powers indicated he was traveling at a rate of between 10 and 20 mph when
he entered the ramp from Route 300 North. Stating that he anticipated the need
to merge with the flow of traffic from the interstate, he immediately began to
accelerate once he was on the ramp. He did not recall seeing any recommended
ramp-speed sign, curve sign, advisory speed sign or chevrons marking the final
curve of the ramp. At the last curve of the ramp, as the car was turning
eastward in the acceleration lane to travel parallel to the oncoming traffic,
the rear end of the vehicle slid to the left, pointing the car to the right,
toward the southerly shoulder of the acceleration lane. In order to correct the
slide, Mr. Powers moved the steering wheel. The car was thrown into a
counterclockwise rotation, entered the interstate's travel lanes and was struck
by an eastbound tractor-trailer. Neither Mr. Powers nor Ms. Lafontaine was
wearing a seatbelt, though the car was equipped with functioning, three-point
The actual impact occurred in the passing lane of the highway. The truck,
driven by Curtis E. Meyers,
had moved to the
left to avoid hitting the Honda, but was unsuccessful. Its right bumper struck
near the front passenger door area of the car. After the impact, the car
continued to move and the passenger door opened. Mr. Meyers described the car as
"doing a donut . . . in front of . . . [him]." [Exhibit 44, Page 11]. When the
car came to a stop Ms.
Lafontaine did not make any sounds or exhibit any signs of consciousness that
Mr. Powers observed, although he did see that she was breathing. [Exhibit 95,
Page 15]. It was noted that she was apparently dead in the accident report
completed by Trooper Robert Russell who had responded to the scene. [Exhibit
Traffic citations for speed unreasonable under the circumstances and failure to
use available seatbelt restraint were issued to Mr. Powers, but resolved by a
guilty plea to a lesser violation. [Exhibits 1 and I]. No citation was issued to
Alan T. Gonseth, a professional engineer
called as Claimant's expert, testified at length based upon his review of
transcripts of the testimony of Mr. Powers and Trooper Russell, photographs of
the scene, the accident reconstruction report of Trooper Michael Voss
Exhibit 2], the report of Heather Guay, the 1968 "as-built" plan of
the interstate [Exhibits 87, 88, 89], various contract plans relating to the
subsequent reconstruction of Route 300 and the interstate, changes or
replacement of signing on the interstate, a proposal for the reconstruction and
reconfiguration of the Thruway/State Route 300/I-84 interchange [Exhibit 43] and
reports of accidents occurring at or near the location of the ramp for a 15-year
period. He was the only witness to testify on Claimant's direct case. In his
opinion, although the design and construction of the ramp comported with the
accepted engineering standards at the time when the interstate highway was
constructed, over time, given the progressive increase in the number and speed
of vehicles using the ramp, its basic geometric design features would tend to
"encourage" motorists to drive the ramp at too great a speed.
He testified that in order to slip into a gap in the traffic stream generally,
as one would when entering a highway, the driver has to be traveling at the same
speed as the traffic stream of the highway. [T-109]. Although the posted speed
for I-84 was 55 mph, the so-called "85th percentile speed" - or the speed at
which 85% of the drivers traveled - was actually 65 mph. Similarly, the posted
speed along the ramp was 25 mph, yet 85% of the drivers would travel at 49 mph.
[T-314-315]. As the ramp neared I-84, in addition to curving left, then
straight, then right, there was a steep downgrade of 4.5 percent leading into
the right-hand curve just before the end of the ramp. The terminal curve to the
right has a 477 foot radius.
The whole idea behind an acceleration lane, he said, is to allow the driver
the opportunity to accelerate and move smoothly into the ongoing traffic.
Because of the downgrade and the high rate of speed the main traffic was
traveling at, a driver on the ramp would tend to travel faster, he opined,
putting a lot of side pressure on a vehicle as it approaches the steep downgrade
and hits the tight curve just before entry onto I-84. Vehicles would tend to
slip to the left side because of the right-hand curve into the oncoming traffic.
Mr. Gonseth described the surface of the pavement as asphaltic cement. He
defined the term coefficient of friction as the action between the tires and the
road surface that allows a driver to brake, accelerate, sideslip or yaw. It
varies depending on the type of road surface, so that the greater the
coefficient of friction, the better it allows tires to grip the surface. The
co-efficient of friction for Portland cement as a road surface is higher than
the coefficient of friction for asphalt, for example. The presence of water
lowers the coefficient of friction for asphalt road surfaces. He opined that
with dry pavement, the range of between 0.5 and 0.6 is accepted in the traffic
engineering profession for asphalt. The newer the asphalt, the higher the
number. With wet pavement, the coefficient of friction would be lower than 0.6
Trooper Robert Russell, whose Traffic Hazard Report dated September 11, 1997
was reviewed by Mr. Gonseth and admitted in evidence, notes that people tended
to lose control of their vehicles as they entered I-84 from this ramp, and would
either cross two lanes of traffic were they to slide to the left, or spin out
into the ditch on the right shoulder near a rock outcropping. [See
Exhibit 42]. Because they are generally traveling too fast on the ramp, he said
there is a tendency to oversteer at the intersection. Trooper Russell suggested
that yellow caution lights on the curve and/or a Jersey
at the intersection of the ramp and
the road might cause drivers to slow down, or at least prevent their entry onto
the eastbound lanes should the car lose control. In his report Trooper Russell
recommended that the Jersey barrier and the yellow caution lights be installed
at the last, tight curve just before the ramp joins the acceleration portion.
Mr. Gonseth opined that exactly what Trooper Russell suggested could occur at
that ramp happened when Mr. Powers was driving on November 9, 1997. Mr. Powers
steered hard to the right,
and when he began
spinning, he overcorrected by turning to his left, and ended up going into a
counterclockwise spin and being sent into the two eastbound lanes of I-84. [T -
119; Exhibit 1].
Mr. Gonseth reviewed a chart [Exhibit 103] taken from a project proposal dated,
initially, September, 1993 and expanded in August 1995 [Exhibits 43-1, 43-2]
that was prepared by a consulting engineering firm for the New York State
Thruway Authority (hereafter Thruway Authority) to suggest ways of providing a
direct connection between I-84 and I-87. He noted that with reference to this
interchange, there was an accident rate of 4.72 accidents per million vehicle
miles. [T-128]. From the same chart, he identified the State average for
accidents at interchange connections to interstate highways as 1.28 accidents
per million vehicle miles, and the rate of accidents for mainline sections
without interchanges as 1.01 accidents per million vehicle miles. He found the
difference between the accident rate at interchanges statewide, and the accident
rate at this interchange a "very significant difference." [T-129].
Using the "key" [Exhibit 98] utilized by the Department of Motor Vehicles and
police agencies to interpret the contents of an MV-104A accident report prepared
in connection with any accidents - including the present one - Mr. Gonseth also
reviewed other accident reports and was able to testify as to the roadway
surface and weather conditions at the time.
The similarities found among the 19 accident reports that predate the subject
accident include either wet roadway pavement or excessive speed, or both,
vehicles losing control at the final tight curve on the ramp before the ramp
reached the acceleration lane, and spinning either into the rock ditch to the
right shoulder or into the active lanes of eastbound I-84. [T-204]. Mr. Gonseth
opined within a reasonable degree of engineering certainty that the design and
construction of the ramp with a relatively straight steep downgrade into a tight
curve at the bottom of the ramp encouraged people to travel too fast on the
ramp, resulting in skidding and spinning either into the right-hand ditch or
through overcorrection into the active eastbound lanes. [T-205]. All the
accident reports between January, 1987 and November, 1997 that he indicated were
similar contained one of those scenarios and involved either single vehicle
accidents or impact from through-vehicles on the main line of I-84. [See
Exhibits 47, 49, 50, 51,108, 109,110, 111, 112, 113, 114, 118,
122, 125, 126, 127, 128, 130].
accident reports describing accidents occurring after the subject accident
Exhibits 57, 58, 59, 62, 64, 65, 68] having similar conditions were
considered as well. Although there was some colloquy concerning whether
additional chevrons had been placed at the end of the curve since the subject
accident, and/or an additional 25-mile-per-hour speed limit sign, Mr. Gonseth
opined that the design and construction flaws of Ramp J would still be there,
regardless of signage.
On cross-examination Mr. Gonseth agreed that Ramp J was built in or about 1965
in accordance with what he presumed were the engineering standards of the day,
and pursuant to highway plans. [Exhibits 89, 90, M; T-302-306; 311]. To his
knowledge no physical modifications were made in intervening years. [T-303]. He
stated that the design speed for the ramp was 29 miles per hour, and reiterated
that the terminal curve on the ramp was at a radius of 477 feet and had a
superelevation of 0.6. [T-308-309; 311; see Exhibit 103, Table C-4].
Based upon these factors, Mr. Gonseth opined that a maximum speed for traveling
on that curve on wet pavement would be up to 55 miles per hour. [T-313]. A
driver ". . . would start to feel discomfort at a much lower speed . . . start
to feel a shifting in your body weight . . . But you would be able to negotiate
right up to about 55, and then you would go into a yaw, depending upon the
conditions of your tires and whatever." [Id]. He hypothesized that
decedent's vehicle was traveling at about 55 miles per hour as it rounded the
curve. [Id]. It is noted that Mr. Gonseth later indicated that the
actual design speed for the terminal curb were he to select it would be 50 miles
per hour, and that when an entire ramp is involved it is the lowest design speed
for all the curves that is used, here, 29 miles per hour. [T-337]. He concurred
that Mr. Powers disregarded a sign posting a 25-mile-per-hour speed on the ramp
before entering the ramp, and the additional 25-mile-per-hour speed sign on the
ramp itself, but said that ". . . most drivers, if they are going to enter a
high speed interstate highway, attempt to get up to the mainline speed prior to
trying to merge into a gap . . . [in] a high volume interstate highway . . .
[where] gaps are infrequent." [T-316-317].
In terms of this compulsion to speed, Mr. Gonseth viewed a photograph [Exhibit
96] taken approximately midway on the ramp looking toward I-84, showing the ramp
approximately 800 feet before it reaches the acceleration lane, at the point at
which Mr. Powers estimates he accelerated. [Id]. He then admitted that
a motorist at that location would not see a gap in traffic to fit into. [Id].
At the actual point where the ramp and the acceleration lane meet, a
driver would have 770 feet to accelerate to a speed that would allow him to get
on the highway. Although Mr. Gonseth could not calculate whether a driver could
accelerate from the posted speed limit of 25 miles per hour to 55 miles per hour
along the 770 feet of the acceleration ramp, he did say that at 49 miles per
hour - a speed at which a driver would not lose control on wet pavement - a
driver could accelerate to highway speed. [T-318-319].
Mr. Gonseth again reviewed the project proposal completed by the consulting
engineers for the Thruway Authority in 1995, whose stated objectives, among
others, were to ". . . provide efficient, (sic) connector roadways for
major traffic movements between I-84 and I-87, . . . [reducing] traffic
congestion, . . . provid[ing] an interchange system that will reduce the
accident potential in the interchange area through direct interchange
improvements . . . "[Exhibit 43-1, Page I-2] [T-233]. The primary thrust of the
report is to facilitate the interchange of traffic between I-87 and I-84.
[T-299-300]. Three proposals are contained therein, all impacting Ramp J, as
well as other ramps, and all either eliminating Ramp J or altering its
configuration to increase the radius of the terminal curve, or straighten it
As an interim measure between implementing any of these proposals, Mr. Gonseth
opined that Trooper Russell's suggestion concerning adding a Jersey barrier and
caution lights was a good one. The barrier ". . . would prevent people from
going into the I-84 eastbound lanes where they would be impacted by mainline
traffic going at a high rate of speed." [T-239].
On cross-examination Mr. Gonseth conceded that it was not known exactly where
Mr. Powers' vehicle left the acceleration lane since no measurements were given
in the State Police Investigation Report [see Exhibit 2], but he
nonetheless opined that a Jersey barrier would have prevented this accident.
[T-240-241]. He also could not say exactly where the Jersey barrier would best
be placed but noted that the concrete barrier would be between the acceleration
lane and the travel lane, commencing at some point "[d]own around the curve and
along the beginning of the acceleration lane for some distance . . ." to be
determined after site and engineering study.
Viewing a photograph [see Exhibit 76] depicting the eastbound travel
lane, the shoulder next to the travel lane, the acceleration lane as it connects
to the travel lane, and the shoulder adjacent to the acceleration lane, Mr.
Gonseth conceded that placing a Jersey barrier would allow eastbound traffic to
stop in a shoulder lane before the connecting point, and beyond the Jersey
barrier as well, but would not allow access across the acceleration lane to the
shoulder at its side for whatever distance the barrier was in place. [T-243].
More importantly, he conceded that a Jersey barrier would not prevent vehicles
from spinning out on the pavement of the curve, and while it would redirect a
car on impact with it into the acceleration lane, that lane would be narrower by
2½ feet because of the width of the barrier itself. [T-247]. The
acceleration lane is 12 feet wide. Mr. Gonseth admitted that reduction in its
width to 9½ feet would not comport with good and accepted engineering
standards for a highway. [T-248]. He did not measure the shoulder to the right
of the acceleration lane. He noted that rather than having a too narrow
acceleration lane it would be likely that space would be taken from the
rightmost shoulder, and that the shoulder lane would in turn need to be widened
so it was not too narrow. As a result, the road would be closer to the rock
abutment on the right for the length of any barrier. [T-251-252].
Additionally, by adjusting these lanes a curve would have been introduced to the
acceleration lane, also against good and accepted engineering practices.
[T-252]. When reminded of the traffic history involving impact with the rock
abutment, Mr. Gonseth indicated that perhaps another Jersey barrier would be
placed on the rightmost side of the acceleration lane. He conceded - somewhat -
that a 36-inch-high barrier on either side of the acceleration lane might cause
visibility problems for motorists both in the travel lanes and in the
acceleration lanes. In other words, the interim measure of one or two Jersey
barriers would not necessarily be the reasonable course and could create other
traffic issues, including the problem of a fixed object next to a high speed
road in contravention of engineering principles. [T-351-352]. Moreover, although
it might contain the vehicle on the ramp by redirection, it would not prevent
it from losing control. [T-354].
Mr. Gonseth agreed that 11,292 vehicles use the ramp daily. [T-265]. His
conclusion that this was nonetheless a "dangerous location" was explored on
cross-examination. [T-284]. As noted earlier, he found significant the
difference between the statewide average accident rate for mainline sections of
the highway with interchanges of 1.28 accidents per million vehicle miles, and
the accident rate on the subject ramp - after elimination of accidents not
occurring under the same or similar circumstances as the subject accident - of
3.2 accidents per million vehicle miles. [T-285-288; see Exhibit 43-1].
When pressed, Mr. Gonseth conceded that the accident rates given by the State in
its study were all based upon sections of highway with or without interchanges,
versus actual ramps. [T-296].
When the actual accident reports Mr. Gonseth relied on were examined, he
admitted that if consideration were limited to those substantially similar
reported accidents occurring before the State transferred jurisdiction over the
interstate highway in August, 1992, to the Thruway Authority [see Exhibit
H], that history did not give reasonable notice of similar accidents recurring
on the ramp with such frequency as to warrant consideration of a need to study
and possibly improve its safety. [T-350; 381 See Exhibits
108,109,110,111,112,113]. Indeed, there were only two accidents in 1991
[Exhibits 108, 109]; and four in 1992. [Exhibits 110,111,112, 113]. Mr. Gonseth
nonetheless reiterated that while the design of the ramp was not defective when
it was first constructed, sometime in the interim before Claimant's decedent's
accident the State should have done something to modify the ramp. He stated,
"[a]s the operating speed increased and as the accident rate increased on that
particular ramp, . . .it should have been known by the appropriate authorities
that modification should have been made." [T-372].
In terms of accident reports admitted in evidence regarding accidents occurring
after August, 1992, it is noted that on October 21,1992 there was an accident at
the ramp involving unsafe speed where the merging vehicle struck the embankment
[Exhibit 114]; there was one accident in December, 1993 [Exhibit 118]; there
were no accidents in 1994; there were two in 1995, in May and November,
respectively [Exhibits 122 and 125]; there were four in 1996 [Exhibits 47,
126,127, 128]; and four in 1997 [Exhibits 49, 50, 51,130].
Halsey Peter Gustafson, the Director of Traffic Engineering for the Thruway
Authority since January, 1987, was called as a witness by the Defendant. He
testified that after a recommendation by field personnel after a serious
accident occurring in November, 1995, and review of the other accident history
of Ramp J, he determined in July, 1996 to place 4 chevrons at the terminal curve
of the ramp. [T-421]. At the time it was not deemed necessary to propose that
any capital improvement be required on the ramp. [T-422]. In order to initiate
a capital project, that is, to do more than place additional signs at a
particular location as he did, more would be required than the accident history
that existed in 1996. [T-423]. Had there been an identified problem, his
department would contact the New York State Department of Transportation
(hereafter DOT) and would ask that they initiate a capital project.
It was his understanding that since 1992 the Thruway Authority has had the
responsibility of identifying problem locales on I-84 in need of capital
improvement. Prior to the date of the accident, the witness had not notified New
York State of the need for a capital improvement at this location. [T-424].
On cross-examination however, Mr. Gustafson stated he was aware of the project
proposal created in August, 1995, proposing a connector between I-87 and I-84 [
Exhibits 43-1 and 43-2], and agreed that it was a large capital project.
[T-425-426]. He also noted it was to be shared between the DOT and the Thruway
Authority. He could not recall if there had been other fatal accidents at the
ramp location between 1992 and 1997 other than the one in November, 1995 [see
Exhibit 125], and reconfirmed that in 1996 when he directed that additional
chevrons be placed along Ramp J he did not consider the ramp a severe problem.
[T-426]. He also stated that the DOT maintains track records of accident
reports ". . . Statewide, every road," [T-427] but could not say what the DOT
did with records concerning "Thruway jurisdiction roads" such as I-84, including
whether the DOT analyzed any records. [T-428].
Heather Ann Garrison, an Assistant Traffic Supervisor for the Thruway Authority
in November, 1997, also testified. She was responsible for the New York
Division extending along I-87 from the Bronx to New Paltz; I-84 from Connecticut
to Pennsylvania; I-287 in Westchester; and I-95 from New York City to
Connecticut. Those responsibilities included responding to ". . . any
large-scale incident that may negatively impact traffic, . . . review[ing]
safety issues items, oversee[ing] construction work zones, traffic control
plans, towing services on the Thruway [and] tandem operations." [T-431]. When
there were "serious" automobile accidents on the highway her department would ".
. . do an overall investigation and document evidence and [prepare a] report . .
. " [Id].
She responded to the accident scene on November 9, 1997, observed the
tractor-trailer in the median as well as decedent's black Honda Civic off to the
right in the acceleration lane and took numerous photographs. [Exhibits 3-38].
She walked the area with the New York State Police "reconstructionist", Michael
Voss, took measurements, and prepared a written report. [Exhibit
According to the report and her
testimony, after her investigation, she concluded that the probable cause of the
accident was unsafe speed for the conditions. [T-440].
Nicholas Pucino, Defendant's engineering
also testified. He indicated that
speeds indicated on signs are considered advisory. The recommended speed as
calculated by using the Uniform Manual of Traffic Control Devices given the
degree of slope on the super-elevated portion on the terminal curve of Ramp J
was between 37 miles per hour based upon .04 degrees of banking, or slightly
higher based upon .05 degrees of banking. Any advisory speed would generally be
rounded down to the nearest 5 miles per hour. [T-488-489]. He opined that the
design speed for the terminal curve was 35 miles per hour, and was safely
traversable under wet pavement conditions at between 40 and 45 miles per hour.
[T-496-497]. "Critical speed" - another term used by Mr. Pucino - was defined
as ". . . the speed at which you're right at impending skidding, just ready to
slip [off the roadway]." [T-502]. He said that the "calculation of the critical
speed is exactly the same formula. . . . [used] for both the design speed and
the recommended speed." [T-503]. Without a skid test on the particular pavement
to determine its coefficient of friction however, you could not accurately
determine the critical speed of the curve.
Mr. Pucino noted that after his examination of the various accident reports
furnished, he found that there were three accidents prior to August 28, 1992,
two occurring in 1991 and one occurring in 1990. [T-506]. There were four more
accidents after August, 1992 up to November 9, 1997, that he found comparable.
He did not find that this number of accidents would be indicative of a high
accident location. Additionally, he disagreed with Mr. Gonseth's conclusions
that the statewide accident rates developed for highway sections with
interchanges could be compared to accident rates on ramps, although, the two
witnesses appeared to concur that no statewide accident rates for ramps alone
have been developed. [T-512-513]. He also disagreed with Mr. Gonseth's
acceptance of Trooper Russell's suggestion concerning installation of a Jersey
barrier as a good and accepted engineering solution. [T-516]. With such a
barrier, he opined, there would be an absence of a clear recovery area, more
difficulty in merging, and sight line issues, with the resulting potential for
more accidents. [T-517-518]. He said that warning signs are there ". . . to
advise motorists of conditions that they have to make adjustments for conditions
ahead; their speed or position . . . " and stated that "[y]ou can't design out
all problems." [T-519].
Mr. Pucino, too, had reviewed the proposals for changes to the interchange, but
thought the major focus of the proposal - which he noted was only a draft and
not a design document - was the creation of a direct interchange between I-87
and I-84. [T-520] [See Exhibits 43-1, 43-2]. He noted that the need
for the direct interchange would of necessity alter the various ramps already in
place, not necessarily safety concerns. It was his opinion that when the ramp
was constructed and as it existed on the date of the accident, it complied with
good and accepted engineering standards applicable at the time of its design.
He also opined that the geometrics and design of the ramp did not have anything
to do with the accident at issue. [T-523]. Mr. Pucino also stated that nothing
in his review of the project proposal suggested that the proposed changes to
Ramp J were anything but a side-product of the overall object to provide direct
access from I-87 to I-84. [T-522; Exhibits 43-1, 43-2].
On cross-examination, Mr. Pucino conceded that he had been a 23 year employee
of the DOT, had testified perhaps 30 times as an expert on their behalf over a
12 year period and had also testified as an expert for the Thruway Authority.
[T-554-555]. When shown a table extracted from the project proposal [Exhibit
43-1], Mr. Pucino agreed that there was an indication on the table that the
design speed for the first curve - not the terminal curve - was deficient at 29
miles per hour based upon the superelevation noted at 4.5. [Exhibit 103].
Additionally, he testified that he measured the acceleration lane as 979 feet,
when design standards for acceleration lanes in 1957 was recommended at 1000
feet. [T-565]. He also indicated that his measurements could be off by 20 or 30
feet because of the paint lines. [T566]. He reiterated that the State does not
compute accident rates applicable only to ramps, and that the statistical
accident rates for interstate highways were computed based upon accidents
occurring over the entire highway system, without regard to geographical or
topographical features. The accident history, he reaffirmed - particularly when
taking into account only the two accidents he found factually similar to
decedent's - was not indicative of the existence of a problem on the ramp, given
also the volume of traffic passing through safely on a daily basis.
William D. Fitzpatrick, the Director of Traffic Engineering Safety for the
Hudson Valley for the DOT, also testified. The geographical area he is
responsible for includes all of I-84 as it passes through the State of New York.
[T-526]. He testified that when I-84 was first built and up until 1992, I-84
was a responsibility of the DOT. [T-527]. Since 1992 however, he testified that
the DOT retained responsibility for capital improvements on I-84, but the
Thruway Authority took over the maintenance and operational responsibilities. He
noted that maintenance and operational responsibility encompasses review and
analysis of accidents occurring on the highway. For those State highways in the
seven county geographical district that the DOT is responsible for, his staff
maintains operational safety reviews.
Mr. Fitzpatrick identified the agreement turning over the maintenance and
operational responsibilities of I-84 to the Thruway Authority in 1992. [Exhibit
H]. The agreement, dated March 19, 1992, but effective on August 28, 1992,
provides that the State of New York, through its agent the DOT, transfer and
convey all interest the State had in I-84, and its exit and entrance ramps among
other areas, to the Thruway Authority. [See Id]. According to the
agreement, as well as the legislative authorization for entry into same
[see Laws of 1991, Chapter 53; Sections 10 and 11; see also Public
Authorities Law §356(3) and Title 9 generally], as of the effective date
the Thruway Authority assumed responsibility for the operation and maintenance
of I-84, but did not assume responsibility for the financing or performance of
any capital projects on I-84 or the adjacent areas.
Mr. Fitzpatrick indicated that since 1992 his division has not reviewed any
accidents occurring on I-84, nor was it obligated to in his understanding. With
respect to capital improvements he outlined two ways the DOT is notified of any
need for improvement on I-84. If operational difficulties have been identified
by the Thruway Authority mandating capital improvement, then the Thruway
Authority notifies the DOT. The second circumstance not applicable here has to
do with ". . . periodic rehabilitation policies and procedures on . . . roadways
and bridges, culverts . . . structures that . . . [the State] routinely
Mr. Fitzpatrick - who stated
that he would be the person given such information - had never been informed of
the need for a capital improvement of Ramp J at the intersection of Route 300
North to I-84 East based upon safety needs. [T-531]. He also noted that
repaving would not necessarily be a State capital improvement, nor would
placement of signs, or Jersey barriers.
On cross-examination, Mr. Fitzpatrick agreed that the DOT maintains the State
accident surveillance system (hereafter SASS), a database that records ". . .
locations on the State highway system, or even the local system, relative to
high accident locations, or locations that have higher than normal accident
statistics, it provides that information to the Department." [T-532-533]. This
includes all highways in New York State, regardless of jurisdiction, including
I-84. Additionally, the DOT publishes Statewide accident rates every year based
upon two prior years of information. The information is compiled in Albany at
the main office of the DOT as part of the SASS system. The New York State
Department of Motor Vehicles (hereafter DMV) is the source for accident reports
obtained from DMV computers. [T-534]. Since 1992, he reiterated, the DOT only
collects the information and stores it in its database; but does not engage in
No other witnesses testified.