Whether it is a Tuesday or a Saturday, there is a good chance traffic on Niagara Falls Boulevard will be backed up for several blocks on either side of I-190 in the City of Niagara Falls.
The combination of commuter traffic and the steady stream of cars headed to the nearby Factory Outlet Mall has earned that section of the Boulevard a reputation for incessant traffic jams.
It has also earned another, far worse, designation: It is the deadliest 1-mile stretch of road in Erie and Niagara counties.
Eight people died in traffic accidents on Niagara Falls Boulevard from 56th Street to 72nd Street from 2010 to 2019, a Buffalo News analysis of federal transportation data found.
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Two of them died at the same corner – 56th Street and the Boulevard – three years apart.
“With the volume of traffic and the commercial density in that area, you have the recipe for an inordinate number of traffic accidents,” said Frank Soda, who serves on the Niagara Falls City Council.
Vehicle accidents have claimed the lives of 652 people in Erie and Niagara counties over the…
While all the fatalities occurred within blocks of one another, there is no overriding pattern among them, police say.
Only one of the accidents involved drinking. Half were in winter, while the rest were in warmer months. Some were in daylight, while others were at night.
Of the eight people who died, one was a pedestrian. One was a bicyclist. Another was riding a motorcycle.
“It’s a little bit of everything,” said Niagara Falls Police Capt. Angela Munn, who runs the department's Traffic Division.
On another nearby stretch of the Boulevard that straddles Military Road, from 82nd Street to 89th Street, four people died in accidents from 2010 to 2019. Three of the four were pedestrians.
It was dark that evening when Williams, a 76-year-old widow, crossed the five lanes of the Boulevard. Although she crossed at an intersection, there was no crosswalk there, police say.
She was crossing near 82nd Street, on her way to mail cookies to one of her sons, when she was hit by a car. It was two days after Christmas a decade ago.
The driver did not stop; Williams suffered broken bones and a head injury. She died in the hospital two days later, leaving behind seven children and more than two dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“It’s a perfect storm on Niagara Falls Boulevard, why you have these accidents,” said Ken Hamilton, one of her cousins. “These pedestrians are trusting that people are going to stop for them.”
That area of the Boulevard is the busiest in Niagara County, with an average of 36,000 vehicles passing through each day – nearly twice as many as near I-190.
This year, one block away from where Williams was struck, a 58-year-old man using a walker was crossing the Boulevard at 81st Street when he was hit by a car and killed just past 9 p.m. on Aug. 23. A month after the accident, police are declining to release the man's name because they have not been able to contact his next of kin. The man’s health conditions might have been a factor, police say, noting that he wore an external defibrillator.
Investigators are still trying to determine whether he was hit before he reached the other side of the Boulevard, or whether he fell backwards into the road after reaching the other side, according to Munn. The driver of the car was not at fault, she said.
As with Williams, the man did not cross at a crosswalk, she said.
Outlet Mall draws traffic
The residential areas south of the Boulevard in Niagara Falls were built long before most of the businesses there opened. Once businesses began to proliferate, the volume of traffic increased.
When the Factory Outlet Mall opened on Military Road in 1982, its stores became a destination not only for people living nearby, but for shoppers throughout Western New York.
Nearly two decades later, Benderson Development purchased the former LaSalle High School on land adjacent to the Outlet Mall and built a sprawling retail complex that now includes Walmart, Sam’s Club, Hobby Lobby and other stores.
In pre-pandemic times, countless Canadians crossed the border to take advantage of favorable exchange rates and shop at the Outlet Mall and nearby stores. And Niagara Falls Boulevard was the route that many of them took from the 190 to those stores.
“All that residential traffic is competing with the commercial traffic,” Soda said. “And then in the summer, you have the tourist traffic to compound everything.”
'You can't just say it's on the DOT'
There is another one-mile stretch of Niagara Falls Boulevard that is the second-deadliest in the region.
Five people died in accidents on the Boulevard along the town line between Tonawanda and Amherst, from I-290 north to Willow Ridge Drive, from 2010 to 2019.
The News' analysis found only one other road in Erie and Niagara counties where there had been five fatalities within one mile: a stretch of Transit Road near Clinton Street, on the Lancaster/Elma town line. Among them were two pedestrian fatalities, according to the analysis of data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System.
The federal database, which is compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, draws information from police reports, state highway data and other local and state sources regarding vehicle crashes that result in the death of a person within 30 days.
Along the stretch of Niagara Falls Boulevard on the Amherst/Tonawanda line, three of the five fatalities were pedestrians, all of whom were struck by a vehicle in the predawn darkness.
Two of them were killed at the T-intersection of the Boulevard and Willow Ridge Drive in accidents three years apart. There, where the speed limit is 40 miles per hour, three lanes of traffic head in either direction on the Boulevard, with a turning lane in the middle.
That portion of the Boulevard is part of a longer, 2.4-mile stretch that became a focus for town leaders from Amherst and Tonawanda a few years ago, after six pedestrians were killed in five years.
“As a community, you can’t just say it’s on the DOT,” said Brian Kulpa, the Amherst town supervisor, referring to the state Department of Transportation. “We have to figure out ways we can affect it. It might be a state-controlled road, but it’s a road in our town.”
Prompted by the fatalities, officials from Amherst and the Town of Tonawanda conducted their own safety audit of the Boulevard, identifying changes that the towns could make.
The state DOT was not involved in the audit, but did later conduct its own study of pedestrian accidents, including fatalities, over a five-year period along a 6.5 mile stretch of the Boulevard that included the area that the towns focused on.
The majority of the 26 pedestrian accidents involved pedestrians not using the crosswalks, the DOT found. After the study, the state re-striped crosswalks, added signage and made upgrades to pedestrian push-button signals. The state also recommended increased enforcement of traffic laws for motorists, as well as pedestrians.
Improved lighting was chief among the changes that the towns identified in their audit. Just before the pandemic began, Amherst spend $2.6 million to install lighting along the Boulevard. Tonawanda soon will install lighting on its side, as well.
Since the lighting went up on the Amherst side, visibility has improved, and there have been no pedestrian fatalities, Kulpa said.
Still, there is more that needs to be done, he added. Ultimately, he would like to see changes made to the Boulevard that would prioritize pedestrian safety over moving vehicles through the area quickly.
In the portion of the Boulevard along the Amherst/Tonawanda line, much like the deadly stretches in Niagara Falls, heavy commuter traffic combines with traffic headed to various stores and restaurants, and residential neighborhoods lie just on the other side of the busy thoroughfare, he noted.
“Maybe the state ought to address the entire corridor,” Kulpa said.
What can be done
In Niagara Falls, city leaders and police officials acknowledge that an excessive number of fatal accidents occur on the Boulevard.
Two years ago, the state took steps to improve conditions on the Boulevard between 56th Street and 89th Street, according to DOT spokesperson Susan Surdej.
“These improvements included isolated sidewalk repairs/replacement, placement of high-visibility pavement markings at pedestrian crossings, traffic signal system improvements with upgraded pedestrian features, sign replacements, concrete pads at bus stops, and signs/pavement markings for bike lanes,” she wrote in an email.
The DOT did not respond to requests for a copy of the safety investigation they conducted, nor to questions regarding any plans for additional safety measures.
Niagara Falls officials say they think increased police patrols are likely to be the most effective in reducing fatal accidents.
“It’s all about traffic enforcement, having a presence,” Niagara Falls Police Chief John Faso said.
Starting this summer, both the State Police and the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office have been designating patrol cars to help with traffic enforcement in Niagara Falls, much of it on the Boulevard.
“I’d love to say to you that we’ve got a formula to make Niagara Falls Boulevard accident-free, but the human element is not something we’re going to be able to eliminate,” said Niagara Falls Mayor Robert Restaino. “It all comes down to operator attentiveness.”