Streets may get safer for pedestrians


Published: Sunday, April 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE - On the night of March 25, an 85-year-old Largo man was killed and his wife injured as they were using a crosswalk to get across a six-lane road in their Pinellas County community.

Police said the driver had swerved to miss another pedestrian but didn't see the couple before she ran over them.

It's another sad incident in a state where pedestrian injuries and fatalities are all too common. In 2005, with 576 deaths, Florida was second in the nation in pedestrian fatalities - trailing only California with 742, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

More disturbing, Florida led the nation when the fatalities were measured against population. In Florida, there were 3.24 fatalities per 100,000 residents, compared to a national average of 1.65.

State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he didn't realize the state's pedestrian safety record was so bad until he was approached by some of his local officials asking him to back a modest safety measure.

"Anything we can do to save the life of a pedestrian we ought to do,'' Fasano said. "They're so vulnerable out there.''

Fasano, along with state Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, are sponsoring bills (SB 670 and HB 331) that would require drivers to come to a complete stop when approaching a crosswalk that pedestrians have legally entered. The current law only requires drivers to "yield the right-of-way'' to the pedestrians.

Drivers who violate the law would face a noncriminal traffic infraction that carries a $60 fine and would put three points on their driver's licenses - which is the existing penalty.

Lawmakers said the change can make a difference.

Kriseman said requiring drivers to come to a complete stop will make them more attentive.

"With a yield, you get a rolling stop,'' the former St. Petersburg city councilman said. "You have a tendency to not pay quite as much attention.''

He also said requiring a full stop will make violations easier to enforce.

"It's not as subjective,'' Kriseman said. "There is no question whether somebody is stopped or not.''

As to why Florida continues to be one of the worst states when it comes to pedestrian safety, lawmakers and transportation experts said they don't have a simple answer.

Based on his own experience, Kriseman said drivers in other states seem to be more cautious about approaching intersections with pedestrians. He said passing the full-stop bill is a step toward changing the attitude of Florida drivers.

"It's never been the law here,'' he said. "The behavior of our drivers is such that they are not used to this. We have to re-educate our drivers.''

Researchers mention the large number of tourists in the state who might be unfamiliar with their surroundings, as well as the state's warm weather, which promotes more walking and outdoor activity, as possible factors in Florida's pedestrian safety problem.

"Nobody knows the exact reason,'' said Xeuhao Chu, a senior research associate at the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research.

Chu said the proposed legislation may help improve the state's safety record. But he said the measure's effectiveness has to be weighed against the fact the majority of pedestrians fatalities don't occur near crosswalks.

In 2005, federal safety statistics showed 80 percent of the pedestrian fatalities across the nation happened at "nonintersection locations.''

Chu said attempts at reducing pedestrian accidents would need to involve changing the behavior of drivers and pedestrians. For instance, he noted that alcohol often plays a role in the incidents. Nationally, 44 percent of the fatalities in 2005 were linked to alcohol use either by the pedestrians or drivers.

Another factor in reducing the severity of the pedestrian accidents would involve modifying the speed of the vehicles, Chu said. That could be more important in reducing or eliminating accidents in nonintersection or noncrosswalk areas, he said.

But he acknowledged that drivers would likely complain if the speed limits were restricted.

"You have to balance'' the safety concerns against the desires of the driving public, he said.In 2005, Florida had 3.24 pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 residents - the highest rate in the nation, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.Pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 people (2002-03):

National average 1.65

Florida 2.98

Daytona Beach4.01

Tampa-St. Petersburg3.69

Ocala3.26

Sarasota-Bradenton3.18

Miami-Ft. Lauderdale2.94

Lakeland-Winter Haven2.78

Gainesville1.35

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