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Crash that killed 7 fuels debate over safety; Aging highways in need of updates

A freak parkway accident that wiped out three generations of a Bronx family is being cited by some transportation advocates as more evidence that New York City's aging highway system needs major upgrades.

Seven people died, including three children, when the family's SUV hit a concrete divider on the Bronx River Parkway, veered off a bridge and fell onto the grounds of the Bronx Zoo. Speed was a factor in the crash last Sunday. Police said the vehicle was moving at 68 mph in a 50 mph zone. Still, the wreck seemed to validate the worst fears of motorists who navigate the city's pinball-machine expressways with white knuckles.

"The Bronx River Parkway is a glaring example of the deficiencies we see on area roadways," said Robert Sinclair, a spokesman for the American Automobile Association. "These roads were never envisioned as being the commuter arterial roadways that they are now. The roads are twisty. They are hilly. The lanes are narrow. There are no breakdown lanes. The on-ramps are too short."

Yet, federal, state and municipal transportation safety statistics show that the city's intimidating roadways are also far less deadly than their rural and suburban counterparts, and have probably never been safer.

New York City saw 243 people killed in traffic accidents in 2011, the lowest total in at least a century, according to the city's Department of Transportation.

By comparison, North Carolina, a state with a population not much larger than New York City, typically has more than 1,300 motor vehicle fatalities per year.

Fatalities aside, groups like AAA argue that New York City's arterial roadways are still undeniably outdated.

Replacing highways, however, isn't at the top of many urban planners' wish lists.

One factor is the enormous cost. The New York Metropolitan Transportation Council estimated in a recent report that merely operating and maintaining the present road and rail network would cost $951 billion between 2010 and 2035.