At Corzine crash scene, it's still fast

The same place, time, and day of the week as the accident: No one was doing 91 in the 65 zone, but most vehicles topped 70.

Posted: June 02, 2007

You don't need to ask a police officer to know that New Jersey drivers love speed. Just ask Gov. Corzine, whose 91-m.p.h. wreck without a seat belt almost killed him.

An Inquirer radar-gun check - conducted at the same location, time, and day of the week as Corzine's April 12 crash - found most Garden State Parkway drivers easily topping the 65 m.p.h. speed limit.

A dark-green Buick led the pack at 84 m.p.h. Nobody matched the speed of Corzine's Chevrolet Suburban, even though the governor says he thought he was traveling with the flow of traffic when his state trooper-driven SUV was struck by a car that sent it spinning into a guardrail.

"We regard speeding as a major problem on our roads," said Stephanie Mensch, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic's South Jersey office. "It doesn't just affect the safety of the perpetrators, but everyone traveling around them. This is a problem before the governor's crash, and it remains after."

Corzine has confessed his seat-belt mistake and helped make a dramatic "I should be dead" public-service announcement advocating seat-belt use. He paid a $46 fine for not wearing his seat belt. His state police driver, Robert Rasinski, has been neither charged with any traffic offenses nor disciplined.

Corzine has been silent on speeding, and a spokesman issued a blandly worded statement the other day.

"The reality is that speed can kill," spokesman Brendan Gilfillan wrote in an e-mail. "Gov. Corzine urges everyone to remember that, especially during the busy summer travel season."

Safety advocates want the governor to go further.

"Excessive speed plays a part in nearly every crash," said AAA Mid-Atlantic's David Weinstein. "It's a scourge of the roads, and it's overlooked."

Each year, the state Department of Transportation collects a thick file of speed data that confirm what New Jersey motorists already know. Garden State drivers - including the vast numbers of cars and trucks using the state's thick network of highways to travel the Northeast corridor - love life in the fast lane, where the flow of traffic is far beyond the speed limit.

On I-295 in Mount Laurel, 75 percent were exceeding the 65-m.p.h. limit, according to this year's DOT report. Of those, 16 percent were going faster than 75 m.p.h.

On Route 55 in Deptford Township, 64 percent were above the 65-m.p.h. limit. Almost 10 percent went faster than 75 m.p.h.

Using a rented Stalker Pro radar gun, The Inquirer clocked northbound traffic on the Garden State Parkway for 30 minutes on a recent Thursday and found most vehicles going above 70 m.p.h. Several exceeded 80 m.p.h. Few were traveling at 65 m.p.h - the speed limit. None were going below the limit.

Nobody was going as fast as Corzine's SUV before it wrecked.

Jackson Fu, 26, a car enthusiast who owns a screaming-yellow, 300-horsepower Honda convertible, knows the joys of rapid acceleration. Even he is sometimes surprised at how fast traffic moves on some South Jersey roads.

"Sometimes I can be going 80 to 90 m.p.h. up I-295 at night and there's still people flying by me," Fu said. "I'm amazed at what I see passing me out there."

Emergency workers are sometimes amazed, too.

Brian Rainey, who has responded to more than 1,000 crashes in his 21 years as a volunteer emergency medical technician with the Elmer Rescue Squad, has seen plenty of people maimed or killed by speed-related wrecks.

"Our bodies aren't designed to go 65 m.p.h. and come to an abrupt halt," Rainey said. "We're designed to walk."

Corzine will be lucky to resume walking any time soon. He broke a leg, 11 ribs, and his collarbone and sternum, and spent almost three weeks recuperating at Cooper University Hospital in Camden.

"People are going faster and faster, and it's been showing up in the injury and fatality statistics collected by the states," said Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, a nonprofit organization that represents the each state's highway safety offices.

"The nation has completely failed on the public-policy issue of speeding," Harsha said. "The public's perception is that police don't enforce the limits and it's OK to go 5 to 10 m.p.h. over it."

In 2005, more than 43,400 people died in the United States in road accidents. An additional 2.7 million were hurt. More than 30 percent of the fatal wrecks were judged speed-related, according to the National Highway Transportation Administration.

Highway crashes killed 728 people in New Jersey and 1,616 in Pennsylvania in 2005.

Despite the carnage, critics say, there's no will and no way for police to sustain a crackdown.

"People don't see speed as being a big safety problem," said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "There isn't the political will to enforce speed limits. You see it in the fact that even politicians flout speed-limit laws, as we recently saw in New Jersey."

In the entire state, about 1,300 troopers are available for highway patrol. On one stretch of I-295 in Cherry Hill, traffic counts say there are more than 65,000 vehicles traveling each direction in an average weekday.

Troopers can't get every lawbreaker, noted Sgt. Stephen Jones, a state police spokesman.

"We want to stop the most dangerous violators," Jones said. "It's the aggressive drivers, the tailgaters, the ones who weave in and out of traffic, who cause the most serious accidents. Those drivers are the priorities."


Contact staff writer Sam Wood at 856-779-3838 or at samwood@phillynews.com.

Staff writers Troy Graham, Elisa Ung, and Jennifer Moroz contributed to this report.

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