Text stops planned in memory of Flanders Road crash victim

The rest areas on Flanders Road will be named in Barbara Tocci’s memory and turned into “text stops” where drivers can pull over to use their cellphones, under a proposal before county and state officials.

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 roadway is under state jurisdiction, but Suffolk County is responsible for the rest areas. The idea of turning them into text stops, suggested over 18 months ago by Tammy Olson of Flanders, was approved Monday by county parks commissioner Philip Berdolt, but still needs approval from the state Department of Transportation, according to Ron Fisher, president of Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association. 

“The DOT is the last piece, and I expect that to happen,” said County Legislator Bridgett Fleming (D-Sag Harbor), who has been working on the proposal.

Mr. Fisher, who owns a sign company, said he will donate signs for the text stops that are similar to the adopt-a-highway signs along Flanders Road. 

They will read: “The Barbara A. Tocci Text Rest Stop. Don’t Text and Drive.”

The rest areas were nearly shut down last year after residents complained that people were overfilling garbage cans there with household trash. Mr. Fisher said they have improved since the garbage cans were removed.

Ms. Tocci’s sister, Susan, described the new text stops as “very important.”

“Just look over while you’re driving — people are constantly texting,” she said. “It can save somebody. I don’t want anybody to go through what I went through.”

“No one has done more in Southampton Town — and possibly in Suffolk County — than Susan with outreach and education on the dangers of testing and driving,” Mr. Fisher said. “I think this is a fitting memorial. It’s terrible she lost her sister, but I think what she’s done in her memory — with Barbara’s Acts of Kindness and the education about the dangers of texting and driving — will be an important reminder.”

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.

One side pictures her sister with the words “Save a Life: Do Not Text and Drive. Barbara Tocci 1966-2014.” The other side carries a picture of Barbara Tocci’s granddaughter, Kadence, and reads: “Kadence will grow up without her mom. Do not drive under the influence. Hayley Riggins 1987-2014.”

Hayley Riggins, the fiancée of Barbara Tocci’s son, was killed April 24, 2014, in Redding, Calif., when the motorcycle she was riding was hit by a car. The driver of that car was charged with running a red light and driving under the influence of drugs.

“You’d be surprised, just from the billboard, how many people have sent me letters saying ‘I’ll never text after seeing that,’ ” Susan Tocci said. “My billboard is up there, but with these [text stops] there’s an actual spot where you can pull over.”

Correction: This story was updated to reflect the fact that the state DOT must still approve the proposal.

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Photo credit: Tim Gannon