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Report criticizes stretch of road where SUV plunged off highway

The section of highway where an accident sent seven members of a Bronx family flying over a guardrail and plummeting to their deaths has narrow lanes, steep hills, tight turns, inadequate guardrails and no breakdown lane, an auto safety group said Monday.

The Bronx River Parkway "lacks modern transportation engineering features," said Robert Sinclair, spokesman for the American Automobile Association's New York City affiliate. He said it was conceived in 1907 and opened in 1925 as "the first limited-access multilane highway in the U.S."

Three sections of the parkway in the Bronx, including one at or near the accident site, are on the state Transportation Department's 5 Percent List, a federally mandated report of locations "exhibiting the most severe highway safety needs."

The driver, Maria Gonzalez, clipped a highway divider and damaged a tire Sunday afternoon before her SUV plunged off a highway and six stories down into a ravine on the grounds of the Bronx Zoo, killing three generations of a family, including three children, police said.

Juan Gonzalez, the driver's husband, blamed the state, at least in part, for the crash.

"He says it's very careless of the state to let that happen," a relative said, translating Gonzalez's Spanish at a funeral home. "There's been several incidents before this. Accidents such as this, and they haven't done anything to prevent this."

The state Department of Transportation's only comment was an email that said, "We are working closely with all agencies involved to determine the cause of this tragic accident."

The accident was the second in the past year where a car fell off the same stretch of the parkway; the earlier accident wasn't fatal. In 2006, six people died on the parkway when one car crossed into oncoming traffic.

Police said Maria Gonzalez of the Bronx was driving south at 68 mph when she bumped a concrete barrier separating the northbound and southbound lanes. With one tire damaged, her Honda Pilot skittered across three lanes of traffic, hit a 2-foot-high concrete curb and went airborne, clearing a 4-foot-tall guardrail.

"It is very strange that there is a curb there," Sinclair said. "You don't put curbs on high-speed roadways because they can serve as launching pads, which appears to be what happened here."

Gonzalez was driving well above the posted 50-mph limit, but she may have been simply keeping up with traffic, said New York Police Department spokesman Paul Browne.

All the victims were wearing seat belts.