On a typical summer weekend, about 80,000 vehicles use Coastal Highway, the main artery at the Delaware beach.
But during a 32-hour span last weekend, a six-mile stretch of the roadway had three horrific crashes involving the three main modes of transportation: motor vehicle, bicycle and walking.
A speeding 23-year-old driver from Lewes died Saturday near Dewey Beach when she slammed into the slower car in front of her, causing a four-car, chain-reaction crash. Two other drivers were hospitalized after the noontime incident that tied up traffic for hours.
Just after midnight, a 40-year-old man walking across the road near the popular Big Fish restaurant outside Rehoboth Beach was killed by a state trooper who police said was responding to a call for service. The trooper is on administrative leave while authorities investigate the circumstances, but police said the trooper had his siren and lights activated.
And at dusk on Sunday, a 24-year-old bicyclist from Poland living with a host family at the beach was hit by a car. She was pedaling northbound in the southbound lane when the car pulled out of a convenience store and hit her, police said. The woman was not wearing a helmet and was airlifted to Christiana Hospital near Newark with serious head trauma.
The weekend’s carnage has renewed longstanding concerns about Coastal Highway by safety advocates such as James Wilson, executive director of the nonprofit Bike Delaware, which also focuses on improving routes for pedestrians.
Wilson said five miles of sidewalks were installed along Coastal Highway three years ago to improve safety for cyclists and walkers. Since then signage was added near commercial and residential driveways along the congested corridor that is home to Sussex County’s thriving outlet store operations and scores of restaurants and other businesses.
But Wilson said it’s time for more than “band aid solutions” to address the shortcomings of the road that has been steadily expanded to accommodate the throngs who descend to the popular seashore area. The devastating spate of deaths and serious injuries, especially during the summer vacation season, should be evidence enough for policymakers and politicians to take swift and comprehensive action to protect lives, he said.
“Putting up dozens or scores of signs is not nothing either but we’re going to be into next year before somebody can say, ‘well signs haven’t solved that problem either,’’’ Wilson told WHYY.
“I think what we should do is take advantage of that time is really push for the Office of Highway Safety or DelDOT for the first time to really look into the crashes.”
‘A problem our predecessors have created’
State officials were asked Monday for statistics comparing this year’s fatalities and injuries on the Coastal Highway to previous years, but they did not provide data Tuesday.
Through Aug. 6 statewide, 62 people had died on Delaware roads this year, down from 66 this time a year ago, according to the state Office of Highway Safety statistics. Seventeen of those killed were pedestrians, 14 were motorcyclists and three were bicyclists.
Beebe Medical Center in Lewes, the only hospital at the beach, is compiling data about serious bicycle injuries that doctors in its emergency room treated during the three-month period from May 1 to July 31.
This year Beebe doctors treated 13 victims with traumatic injuries, which include head trauma, broken bones and organ lacerations. That figure does not count the woman hurt Sunday night.
In 2018 during the same period, the hospital treated nine traumatic bike injuries.
Wilson stressed that Delaware officials must spend and do what is necessary to make Coastal Highway and other dangerous roadways in Delaware as safe as possible for drivers, cyclists and walkers.
“When you have this cluster or concentration of these crashes, that is screaming at you that you have an infrastructure problem,’’ Wilson said. “An infrastructure problem is not like a tornado problem or an act of God. It’s a problem our predecessors have created and left for us to solve.”
In the aftermath of the weekend crashes, state police issued safety tips for the roadways.
They urged drivers and bicyclists to obey stop signs and red lights and “never ride against the flow of traffic” or check your cell phone while on the road.
Police also reminded cyclists that they can use the sidewalks on Coastal Highway in the Lewes-Rehoboth beach area but must yield to pedestrians.
Front headlights are required by law at night, and police urge that they add “white front lights and red back lights to your bike” and use “reflective tape or clothing.”
Police urged motorists to be extra cautious on weekends, stay at least three seconds behind bicycles and motorcycles, and “check your mirrors carefully” when near them.