New text stop areas where drivers can pull over to use their cellphones on Flanders Road were dedicated in Barbara Tocci’s memory Friday.
The beloved 47-year-old grandmother was killed Jan. 16, 2014, when a utility truck driven by a man authorities said was texting while driving crossed into her lane near Spinney Road in Flanders and struck her vehicle.
The new signs, which read “Please Don’t Text and Drive In Memory of Barbara A. Tocci,” were unveiled Friday. Ron Fisher, owner of Fisher Signs and Shirts in Southampton and president of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association (FRNCA), donated the signs.
Ms. Tocci’s sister, Susan, fought back tears while explaining the importance of the new text stops.
“There’s a lump in my throat,” she said. “It’s still as difficult today as it was three years ago. I’m hoping this will help save someone else’s life.”
Michael Pepe of Bayport was charged with criminally negligent homicide following the fatal Flanders Road crash and was accused of having “an extended text message conversation with his girlfriend at the time.”
Authorities have said evidence showed Mr. Pepe, who was driving a PSEG-LI truck, had sent and opened a series of text messages between 7:28 and 7:53 a.m. A 911 call reporting the accident was received at 7:57 a.m., but state Supreme Court Judge Fernando Camacho ruled in August 2015 that not enough evidence had been brought forth to prove exactly what was responsible for what happened in those few intervening minutes. Southampton Town police said at the time that potholes in the area also played a role in the crash.
Last May, the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office confirmed that all charges against Mr. Pepe would be dropped after he completed 140 hours of community service.
Susan Tocci has campaigned against texting while driving since her sister’s death. In September 2014, she had a double-sided billboard placed on her Flanders Road property with a message urging people to drive safely.
With news that concrete at the rest areas on either side of Flanders Road were nearly removed and replaced with grass do to resident complaints of overflowing garbage at the site, she worked with local officials to turn the space into designated texting areas.
“In this day and age, when we’re trying to get people to pull over, it’s very important to keep this open,” Ms. Tocci said. “There’s nowhere on Flanders Road to pull over safely. It’s just a dangerous road. I’ve done more fatalities on this road when I was with the ambulance than I can possibly tell you. Never thinking that one of them was going to be my sister at some point.”
Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming, who said she also lost her sister in a “terrible accident,” emphasized the need for these text stops.
“Texting while you’re driving is a terrible scourge on our community and on our roadways,” she said. “I think people don’t recognize because texting takes so little effort and is such a small physical movement. They don’t realize how incredibly dangerous it is.”
During Friday’s dedication, Ms. Tocci was joined by her family members, including her parents and siblings, as well as local elected officials and residents.
Commissioner of County Parks Phil Berdolt, Southampton Town council members Julie Lofstad and John Bouvier, Southampton Town Police Captain Larry Schurek, members of the New York State Police Department and dozens of other family and community members, who spoke to Barbara’s memory and the importance of safe driving.
“Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the Tocci family on their loss of Barbara,” State Assemblyman Fred Thiele said. “While nothing can replace Barbara, one of the things I think is special about the Tocci family is — even in the face of tragedy — they try to do something positive for their community that we can all benefit from.”
Top photo caption: The Tocci family with elected officials and community members unveiled the new signs for text stop areas on Flanders Road. (Credit: Nicole Smith)