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Driver in tragedy at Delaware Park told officials he fell asleep, source says

Concrete barriers were put into place along Ring Road in Delaware Park on Monday and commuters adjusted to the dramatically reduced 30 mph speed limit on a large section of the Scajaquada Expressway, all in the hopes that another tragedy like the one that unfolded in the park over the weekend might be prevented.

The safety measures were taken as a police source revealed that the driver of a gray Chevrolet Malibu that struck two children in the park just before noon Saturday, killing one, told investigators he had fallen asleep at the wheel.

That claim jibes with the observation of one eyewitness, who saw the driver slumped over the wheel immediately after the crash that claimed the life of 3-year-old Maksym Sugorovskiy and critically injured his 5-year-old sister, Stephanie.

It is not clear whether a medical condition or some other factor would explain the man’s falling asleep while driving.

An eyewitness also saw the driver, whose name has not been released, kneeling outside his vehicle after the crash, openly weeping. Authorities believe the driver was one of several people who called 911 after the crash.

“He claims that he fell asleep,” one local law enforcement source said Monday. “But then he got out of the car with the cellphone in his hand, according to witnesses ... Maybe the crash woke him, and he grabbed his cellphone.”

But the source quickly added that authorities don’t know exactly what happened before the crash.

The driver, believed to be in his late 20s or 30s, has not been charged in the case.

A preliminary estimate of the vehicle’s speed suggests that it was going between 55 and 65 mph where the speed limit was 50 mph, but sources emphasized that those aren’t definitive findings.

The driver was given a sobriety test at the scene, and authorities have not said whether there was any indication of alcohol use or a medical condition that could have caused the driver to fall asleep in the middle of a sunny day.

Investigators with the Buffalo Police Accident Investigation Unit are doing various tests, including a check of the vehicle’s computer and the driver’s cellphone, and are making further attempts to pinpoint the speed at the time of impact.

Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown would not identify the driver during a news conference at the crash site Monday morning, noting that no charges had been filed as of that time.

“The investigation is ongoing. It will be quite thorough,” Brown said, adding that it could take weeks.

In the meantime, state and local officials and park advocates wonder whether Saturday’s accident, which saw a westbound vehicle leave the expressway and enter the park’s Ring Road, would speed the conversion of the busy four-lane highway into a parkway.

One thing is for sure: With the speed limit set at 30 mph for a 2.2-mile section of Route 198 between Grant Street and Parkside Avenue, state officials no longer have the option of maintaining the Scajaquada as an urban highway.

“It would be a major change in the landscape of the City of Buffalo,” said Joan McDonald, commissioner of the New York State Department of Transportation. “It was unfortunate that the Scajaquada was built as an expressway and not an urban boulevard. We are now considering whether the four lanes should be cut down to two, which would have a big impact on surrounding city streets. We’re also looking at where to install traffic signals and light posts and where to construct pedestrian overpasses.”

Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan applauded the news about the changes to Route 198.

“That debate is over,” Ryan said. “The community has been crystal clear at least for a decade on what they want. Whatever happens, the days of maintaining a highway through Delaware Park are over.”

DOT officials recently met with City of Buffalo engineers to explore design options. Results of a traffic study begun last year that focus on maintaining a 30 mph speed limit using either two or four lanes are expected to be released in July, McDonald said.

“It’s important to highlight aesthetics as well as safety improvements,” she said late Monday afternoon.

McDonald pegged the cost of the projects at between $50 million and $100 million, depending on the number of lanes. A two-lane parkway with one lane of traffic in each direction would be the most expensive, she said.

It’s not the first time that a facelift has been suggested for the circuitous state highway. What distinguishes this movement from those in the past is its focus on public safety.

Back in 2009, the plan to restore the Olmsted parkway vision was the subject of a series of community meetings engineered by former Assemblyman Sam Hoyt. At the time, Hoyt said, the community focus was on the aesthetic appeal of adding bike lanes, pedestrian access and curbside parking.

“I initiated the process as an assemblyman to look into ways of improving the situation and make it either go away completely or make it more acceptable, given the damage that had been done,” said Hoyt .

“Something had to be done,” said Hoyt, who resigned in 2011 after being appointed regional president of Empire State Development Corp. “I want the process completed. Ultimately, let’s implement whatever is decided based on the availability of funding to do so.”

Ryan initiated three meetings to discuss the future of the Scajaquada with DOT officials in 2013, April 2104 and in March 2015.

In 2014, state transportation officials favored an option that would keep the expressway as a high-speed roadway at 45 mph but give it attributes of a parkway, said Cody Meyers, Ryan’s chief of staff.

“Traffic-calming measures would make the expressway more of an urban boulevard,” Meyers said. “The on- and off-ramps would be eliminated, a bike path would be installed, as well as tree-lined medians.”

The directive issued Sunday by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ordering DOT officials to immediately reduce the speed limit on part of the expressway to 30 mph was met with approval by city and park officials who attended a news conference Monday morning near the site of the fatality.

“Ultimately, this is no longer an expressway,” said Stephanie Crockatt, executive director of the Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy. “This is a parkway, where the speed limit is 30 miles per hour, and this is no longer an intrusion running through Delaware Park.”

Crockatt was quick to answer those who may have wondered about the expressway being so close to the park. The park opened in 1868, she noted, while the Scajaquada Expressway was built in the 1950s.

The swift action taken by Cuomo sent a clear signal, Ryan said.

“The governor is not going to tolerate a highway going through Delaware Park any longer,” Ryan said.

“One lane of Richmond Avenue is wider than one lane on the Scajaquada,” he said. “There are no shoulders, and there are accidents at entrance ramps. Exiting is a problem, too. You’re idling on the highway waiting to exit. For too long we’ve accepted this highway system, which is a scar on our city.”

News of the tragedy and the erection of the new 30 mph signs had virtually all motorists traveling between 26 and 33 mph along one stretch where an electronic sign quickly recorded vehicle speed Monday.

Deputy Police Commissioner Kimberly L. Beaty stood near the crash site on Ring Road, watching the markedly slower expressway traffic. She provided an epitaph of sorts for the 3-year-old: “That’s out of respect for little Maksym, an adorable little boy,” she said.

Users of Delaware Park, predictably, supported the lower speed limit.

“I think it’s an absolutely beautiful idea,” said Kim Ignatowski, of West Seneca, who was power-walking with her friend, Cindy Orsolits, of North Buffalo.

“I think that this never should have been 50 miles per hour,” Orsolits added. “It should have been 30 from the get-go. It’s just too dangerous a spot.” But one passer-by, George Thornton, 64, of Buffalo, questioned how effective the new speed limit would be.

“Let the police cars leave, and see how long it is before people go back to driving the regular speed,” he said.

A reporter told Thornton that a check of several electronic signs that record motorists’ speeds showed them ranging from 26 to 33 mph.

“That’s because people know the police cars are there,” he replied.

So how much will the new speed limit help in reducing the accident rate, if people start driving 30 to 40 mph, as opposed to the former 50 to 60?

“You’ll still have human error, and you’ll still have people on their cellphones, but it will decrease it,” Ignatowski said.

email: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com and gwarner@buffnews.com