PINELLAS COUNTY’S SHOCKING NEW DEATH TOLL FOR PEDESTRIANS AND CYCLISTS
The Tampa Bay Times just published an extensive story on the shocking rise in deaths of pedestrians and bicyclists in Pinellas County, home to some of the world’s top-rated beaches and vacation destinations.
The Tampa Bay area, like other parts of Florida, routinely ranks among the worst nationwide in these grim statistics. But in 2021, as other counties in the region saw slight year-over-year increases and even one decrease, and as state and national numbers appeared to remain steady, fatalities in Pinellas nearly doubled.
Deaths of pedestrians and bicyclists in Pinellas totaled 85 during 2021 compared to 49 in 2020, according to the Medical Examiner’s Office serving Pinellas and Pasco counties. The last time there were this many pedestrian and bicycle-related deaths was over 15 years ago. On average, a combined 51 pedestrians and bicyclists are killed each year in Pinellas, according to reports available for four of the past five years.
Pinellas County, like many local governments in Florida, has signed onto a transportation safety philosophy called Vision Zero, based on the principle that loss of life is not an acceptable price to pay for getting around. For now, at least, the county is heading in the opposite direction.
The numbers are shocking, said Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, the county’s land use and transportation planning agency. Possible explanations, Blanton said, include chronic problems — long stretches of roadway between crosswalks, poor lighting, concentrations of pedestrians and bicyclists in low-income areas.
In the past year, as of Dec. 31, 64 pedestrians died walking on a street or sidewalk in Pinellas County, the Medical Examiner’s Office said, and another 21 died riding a bicycle. That’s a combined increase of 73 percent over 2020, when 35 people died in pedestrian-related accidents and 14 people died riding a bicycle.
These deaths include victims who may have been injured in other counties and died in a Pinellas County hospital.
Comparing Neighboring Jurisdictions
In Pasco County, 18 pedestrians and five bicyclists died in 2021, fewer than the 21 pedestrians and 11 bicyclists killed in 2020, the Medical Examiner’s Office said.
In more populous Hillsborough County, the Medical Examiner’s Office does not separate out pedestrians and bicyclists from the total number of people killed in traffic incidents.
The most recent 2021 figures available in Hillsborough are for the 11 months through Nov. 30: 58 pedestrian deaths and 13 deaths among bicyclists, according to the Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles crash dashboard. That’s five more than the 52 pedestrian deaths and 14 deaths among bicyclists during all of 2020.
Statewide, the dashboard shows 2021 was on pace with 2020 — 850 pedestrian and bicyclist deaths through Nov. 30 compared to 884 during all the year before. National year-end figures for 2021 were not available through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Most pedestrian fatalities happen at night, and poor lighting on some roads in Pinellas County makes them dangerous. Lighting is concentrated at intersections, leaving long, dark stretches of roadway in between — stretches where people often cross rather than walking to an intersection.
“Most people aren’t walking out of their direction, so they’re crossing in the least well-lit area, and they’re doing what pedestrians do — making their own direct path,” he said.
Ramping up Enforcement in Problem Areas
U.S. 19 Alternate in Palm Harbor is one example, Blanton said. The distance between signals and crosswalks is about 2,000 feet, nearly half a mile — enough distance for motorists to reach speeds of 50 mph to 55 mph despite the 45 mph speed limit.
Some improvements are arriving in July 2023 through a state roads lighting program funded by the Florida Department of Transportation.
Another factor in the rise of pedestrian-bicyclist deaths, Blanton said, is that about half of them happen in lower-income neighborhoods where walking or biking are the only ways for many people to get around.
St. Petersburg police have responded to the rise in deaths, in part, by ramping up traffic enforcement.
For seven years, the department has taken part in a state-supported High Visibility Enforcement program, using data on where and when crashes occur to send out a sergeant and about four officers who distribute pedestrian safety pamphlets and bicycle lights. Each shift lasts about four hours, said police traffic Sgt. Mike Schade.
The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, other police agencies in Pinellas and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office also take part in the program.
Now, St. Petersburg police are escalating the effort through a concentrated program to issue warnings and cite offenders. As many as 15 officers converge at one time on areas prone to speeding and crashes. The goal is to reduce all traffic deaths, motorists included.
Changes in Speed Limits and Road Designs
Reducing speed limits can also help reduce danger, but state law requires that they be set at the speed traveled by 85 percent of motorists. One answer is to design roads from the beginning with all users in mind, pedestrians and bicyclists included — the goal of the Forward Pinellas Complete Streets program, Blanton said.
Some examples: adding curves or roundabouts to slow traffic and narrowing local road lanes from 12 feet to 10 feet. Community response often is divided over such changes, as has been the case with Drew Street in Clearwater, Blanton said.
The state is spending some $6.5 million improving a 4.3-mile stretch of Drew Street, between Osceola Avenue and U.S. 19. The western half of the project, a residential section, will include some pedestrian-friendly changes — sidewalk installation on both sides and narrowing the four-lane road to two lanes with a center turn lane. East of Keene is primarily commercial businesses. It’s not a contender for lane reduction.
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