Neighbor warned of danger before fatal crash

Posted at 11:35 PM, Aug 23, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-24 08:27:52-04

Eleven months ago, North Tonawanda resident Jason Gielow penned a letter to state officials, warning about what he says are the dangers on Shawnee Road.

"There will be fatalities, there will be more, but 11 months ago, I put them on notice saying someone is going to die here, and now we have two families without children," said Gielow.

It's a road where over the weekend two teenagers lost their lives after police say they were hit and killed. Eighteen-year-olds Melanie Aronow and Quincy Harper died at the scene. Eighteen-year-old  Quincy Byrd was also hit but has been released from the hospital.

The Niagara County Sheriff's Office says it is still investigating the crash, and police have not charged the 20-year-old driver.

It's the 55 mph speed limit that Gielow says he warned local officials about last year, hoping to see change. Gielow says he sent an e-mail detailing his concerns to Assemblyman John Ceretto, Senator Robert Ortt and Legislator Kathryn Lance. He says he only received a response from Assemblyman Ceretto, who promised to contact the Department of Transportation about the road.

"To me it seems like it was ignored," said Gielow. "Now, there's a fatality. I'm sure someone is going to jump on it and do something, but this is what it takes all the time is tragedy to happen, and I feel really badly for those children and families."

We took Gielow's concerns to each of the parties named in the e-mail. Assemblyman Ceretto's office says it did receive the letter and responded saying it would contact the DOT for further review. Ceretto's office says the DOT cited a 2014 traffic study of Shawnee, finding the median speed to be between 57-58 mph, and thus noting a natural speed of 55 mph.

Senator Ortt says he did not personally see the letter until 7 Eyewitness News showed up at his office Tuesday.

"I didn't see the e-mail. I don't know that had I this tragedy would have been avoided. My focus now is working with the DOT."

Ortt says he has contacted the DOT and will be requesting a new traffic study of the road. He says parking plans should be changed, and had parking been on one side of the street only, it may have prevented this tragedy.

Legislator Kathryn Lance sent the following statement to 7 Eyewitness News:

I appreciate the concerns being voiced by my neighbors.  These are issues that have dogged Wheatfield for years, and issues we’ve struggled to bring to the state’s attention.

As you are well aware, Shawnee Road is a state road.  In New York, under our Department of Transportation’s processes, it’s hard enough for the county to petition to change the speed on one of its own roads—I have a colleague who’s trying to lower the speed limit on a county road in front of Starpoint Central School, and the outlook, even next to a school with 2700 children in it, and where we own the road and are responsible for maintaining the road, is not good.  In the case of Shawnee Road, perhaps this tragedy will be the impetus for our state to finally review the speed limits along its length.  Certainly, that’s what it took with the Scajaquada Parkway.

As I’ve mentioned, many, many of my neighbors have called, emailed, and written to me about their concerns about the speed limits in Wheatfield, a town that saw its families and residents grow by 29% in the last decade.  People have contacted me about Shawnee Road,Sy Road, about Witmer Road, even about Krueger Road—the street I myself live on.  I can assure you, I share their concerns.  After all, getting the state to lower speed limits is a costly process that is too often impossible, never mind merely difficult, so, I, and my partners in county and town government have been proactive about measures we could actually put in place.  For Niagara County, for the Town of Wheatfield, our best tool has been enforcement.

When my neighbors came to me and asked for solutions, I worked with other leaders to generate real results, not just to fill out more paperwork with the state. That was certainly the case after a similar tragedy two years ago, when a 16-year-old neighbor named Ryan Fischer died right on my street.  I worked closely with the family and town officials to assure we were doing what we could to prevent another tragedy on Wheatfield roads. This past March, town officials came to me and asked me to help the town acquire a trailer-mounted radar that was set to cost the Town of Wheatfield approximately $8,600.  After reviewing the proposal, along with statistics that show radar trailers actually do get motorists to slow down, I went to the County Legislature and secured 50% of the funding for the radar.  Measures like this are under our town’s control, unlike the state speed limit.

That being said, after Saturday morning’s tragedy, it’s time to take this matter up with the state.  I’ve been in touch with Dean Lapp, our county’s highway director, and I plan to have Mr. Lapp and Wheatfield Highway Superintendent Paul Siegmann review where Shawnee Road stands and whether to pursue a formal traffic study, whether to jointly draft a TE-9 form requesting action by the state to lower speed limits, where the speed limit should be lowered.  We need to make reasonable, thoughtful policy decisions based on study, based on likelihood of measurable results, and based on, ultimately, what’s best for our community as a whole: our children, our families, our property owners, our motorists.

Legislator Kathryn Lance

Neighbors, like Gielow believe the fastest most effective change is lowering speed.

"Change the speed limit to 40 mph," he said. "You would have time to react to a pedestrian, day or night. You do not when the speed is 55."