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Many factors lead to pedestrian crashes
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Image courtesy of ELIZABETH WATTS
This graphic illustrates the most dangerous areas in Clearwater for pedestrian-related crashes.
CLEARWATER – The year-round mild weather in the Tampa Bay area means more than 12 months of swimsuits, sand and sun. It also means that the weather encourages people to travel by foot.

The weather, density, impatience and education are all major factors that city of Clearwater traffic engineers and police attribute to the higher pedestrian crash and fatality rate that Clearwater and the region have in comparison to the rest of the country.

“We have twice the exposure than most of the country,” said Paul Bertels, Clearwater traffic operations manager. “Our climate makes it possible for us to actually be out walking around and riding bicycles virtually 12 months of the year. The big metropolitan areas up north don’t have that ability. In New York and Chicago and stuff, you don’t find people out strolling around in the wintertime.”

Adding to that, Pinellas County is the densest county in all of Florida. According to 2010 census data, Pinellas is still more than twice as dense as the second densest county in the state, which is Broward County. Clearwater Police Sgt. Richard Harris with the traffic enforcement team said that this is another major factor.

Furthermore, in the already densest county, the population gets even denser at various times of the year.

“We have warmer weather down here, so we have a transient population that comes down because they like the warmer weather,” Harris said. “We also have our northern residents who come down, and when they come down here, they increase traffic flow on the roadways.”

Tourists also add to the seasonal population, Harris said

Bertels added that the Tampa Bay area has a “car culture,” where transportation is primarily designed for motorized traffic, not for pedestrians.

The combination of all of these factors makes it a perfect storm of exposure to danger for a high volume of pedestrians, they said.

However, what ultimately causes the majority of pedestrian-related crashes and fatalities are mistakes made on the part of the pedestrian, both Bertels and Harris agree.

“One of the things we have a problem with here is pedestrians don’t use the devices that we provide them,” Bertels said. “Every traffic signal that we have has pedestrian features. They push the button and they get a cross light that allows them to cross the intersection at a safe point in time. And it’s frustrating for my colleagues and I who provide these facilities to watch pedestrians cross 50 feet away from a crossing where they have pedestrian facilities. Or they’ll push the button but not wait for the light to change and will cross when they see a gap in traffic.”

Elizabeth Watts, Clearwater police spokeswoman, said that many of the pedestrian fatalities that happen in the area are especially sad because they happen a mere 20 or 30 feet outside of a crosswalk.

“If they had gone another dozen feet over and used a crosswalk or traffic devices, it could have been a different result,” Watts said.

Bertels said he often will be driving down the street and see pedestrians push the walk button a bunch of times but get impatient and then cross against traffic when they feel there is a big enough gap to try running across the street.

“When you push the button as a pedestrian, it thinks you are a car,” Bertels said. “It will give you your turn when it thinks it’s proper to have your turn. It’s not going to change immediately. If the light changed every time a pedestrian pushed the button immediately, the cars would never be able to go.”

The city works with the Florida Department of Transportation to specifically time the pedestrian crossing signals to allow ample time for a pedestrian to cross an intersection safely, Bertels said.

City workers measure the distance of the crossing and divide it by 2.5-feet-per-section, which is called the “pedestrian clearance.”

There are at least seven to 10 seconds of time when the “walk” signal will be lit, but even after that expires, the flashing red “don’t walk” symbol is timed to be long enough to finish out the pedestrian clearance time. A person has more than enough time to cross the road safely if they are following the rules.

The most dangerous and prevalent pedestrian-related crashes are when the pedestrian is displaying risky behavior and have impaired judgment, Harris said.

“It seems that the crashes involving pedestrians and bicyclists – but particularly pedestrians – a huge number of those involve alcohol on the part of the pedestrian,” Harris said.

When people are intoxicated, either through alcohol or drugs, their judgment is impaired, and they are more apt to cross the street against the rules and at times when it is unsafe, he said.

Another problem is that people need to be better educated about the rules of the road and the importance of following them, Bertels and Harris agreed. One source of confusion is right-of-way at crosswalks.

“We get complaints about cars not stopping for pedestrians at crossways,” Harris said. “And there’s a misconception with the pedestrian traffic out there, they think that if a pedestrian is standing next to a crosswalk that traffic has the obligation to stop. They do not. That’s a roadway. It’s for cars. Once you are in that crosswalk, yes they do (have to stop.) But you have to make some movement to claim that crosswalk. Carefully.”

For drivers, they should drive carefully and always stop if a pedestrian is in a crosswalk, Harris said.

“If a driver sees a pedestrian crossing the road, they should slow down and give them time to cross the road,” Harris said. “You don’t get five points if you get them. Give them time to cross the roadway. If you see someone standing on the side of the roadway in the area of a crosswalk, maybe give them the courtesy of slowing down and trying to get some indication of if they want to cross the roadway.”

Drivers should especially be cautious near schools, he added, because there are a lot of young people around. They should be aware that there is a higher chance of pedestrians breaking the rules and that there will be a higher than average volume of foot traffic.

Clearwater really stepped up its education about pedestrian safety about 20 years ago, said Bertels, which may seem like a long time, but that’s only one generation. Places like California started an aggressive pedestrian education program 50 years ago and also aggressively ticketed people who broke the rules.

Bertels hopes that with the increased education in Pinellas schools about pedestrian safety that the new generations will have more respect for traffic rules.

“We’ve also done several enforcement details,” Watts said. “We always do a back-to-school enforcement detail. And what we focus on is education. We educate the drivers and we also educate the pedestrians. Because there are certain rules that pedestrians need to follow and obviously there are rules that the drivers need to follow, and we need to address that on both ends.”

Drivers can get a citation for failing to stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk, Harris said, and pedestrians and bicyclists can get about an $84 fine for not crossing in a crosswalk. Personally, Harris says he generally prefers to educate the offender, inform them of the laws and give them a warning instead of a ticket. Especially with homeless people, when it is unlikely they would be able to pay the fine anyway, he said.

A few years ago, in 2010/2011 when Clearwater had grant money from the FDOT, they were doing regular safety patrols. In nine months, Clearwater Police performed nine pedestrian safety details. Now that the grant money is gone, they do specific safety details as particular problem areas arise, and it is up to officers to correct violations when they are on their regular patrols, Harris said.

An analysis of traffic crash data from 2006 to the present identified six general areas that are particularly dangerous for pedestrians. Harris and Bertels offered insight to why these areas have a higher rate of pedestrian-related crashes.

“I looked at these and all of these have one thing in common, and that’s commercial areas,” Bertels said. “They all have a lot of retail and commercial operations.”

Bertels said this is especially true in the problem spot in the 2800 block of Gulf to Bay Boulevard. Here there are a lot of pedestrians out in a hurry and cross mid-block, he said.

Harris added that this area is generally between Hampton to McMullen Booth Road, and this poses additional problems as well.

“In that stretch of roadway, there are no traffic lights there for anyone to cross,” Harris said. There are no pedestrian crossings. In the absence of a pedestrian crossing, people are supposed to go to an intersection and go straight across. But those are long blocks. People are crossing in the middle of blocks. We also have some homeless people in that area living in the city park at McMullen Booth (Road) and Gulf-to-Bay (Boulevard.)”

This is also true for the next problem areas, which are the 2100 to 2300 blocks of Gulf to Bay Boulevard, Harris said, and the 1700 to 1900 blocks of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard.

“That stretch of Gulf-to-Bay from Hampton Road to McMullen Booth, there are no traffic signals in there, and those blocks, if you want to call them that, they’re extremely long,” Harris said. “The intersections, there are only about three in that strip of road. You’ll see people run right across and people will get into the median of the roadway and because traffic is coming, they’ll be walking along the median, getting closer to wherever their destination is.”

In the 1300 of Cleveland Street in the Gateway area, the danger increases because fewer people own cars.

“Down there, a lot of people have to walk to get places because they don’t have cars,” Bertels said. “So here again, that increases the exposure rate. Because people with a car will just jump in the car and go somewhere. These people can’t do that.”

Harris helped to further explain the issues in this area.

“That’s going to be roughly 86th and Cleveland or Gulf-to-Bay because that’s when it makes a turn from Gulf-to-Bay up to Highland Avenue,” Harris said. “There are a lot of transient people in the downtown corridor. So a lot of people are there, no matter what time of day or night, a lot of people are moving around. A lot of foot traffic. And that’s one area we’re trying to clean up from problems associated with drugs, alcohol and homelessness, and people are moving around, walking out in the middle of blocks and not crossing safely.”

Countryside High School is the source of the problems at the 2900 block of State Road 580, Bertels said. So many kids were crossing mid-block and either getting hit or nearly hit by cars that FDOT finally had to install a chain-link fence down the median, he said.

“The high school kids were jaywalking across the median and getting hit,” Bertels said “And that was the only way we could stop them from doing it.”

Also, Harris added, there is a 7-Eleven across the street from the school, and many parents decide it is easier to drop off their teens there, rather than in the proper place at the school, because it is easier to hop back on the roadway from there, Harris said.

“Then the kids cross over and back to 7-Eleven to buy soft drinks or things of that nature, and they’re popping back and forth across 580, and they put the fence across the length of the median to try to stop it.”

Even with the fence, Harris said he has seen some kids climbing over the fence in order to cross where they feel it is more convenient for them.

The final major danger area is the 400 to 800 block of Missouri Avenue.

“That’s essentially a commercial area that kind of abuts a residential area, so you have a lot of people from the residential area crossing into the commercial area to get coffee or a meal or to go shopping,” Bertels said.

By state statute, pedestrians should always use the crosswalk or at least cross at an intersection if a marked crosswalk is not available, Harris said.

“Those are where you’re supposed to cross,” Harris said. “But if they’re not there, though, the most prudent thing to do if you’re going to cross anyway – is to cross in a straight line. Go in a direct line across that roadway as quickly as possible. The cars down here, we’re so densely populated, they’re not stopping.”

By late December 2012, there had been three pedestrian fatalities and one bicyclist fatality, Harris said, and 63 total pedestrian-involved crashes in the city. These numbers are actually down from recent years, he said. However, Harris also works with the traffic homicide investigation program, and they are called to a scene if paramedics believe there is a high possibility of death.

“I’ve had three or four of these just in the last three months,” Harris said in late November. “I was called out there and we treated it like a fatality, but they lived. A gas truck hit one man. Broke every bone in his face. He lived. He will be eating soup for a while, but he’s alive. So a lot of these have horrific injuries, but they don’t die. And what does it cost us as taxpayers? These people who get involved in things like this, especially the homeless, they don’t have health insurance, so it’s the taxpayers who pick up the expenses. It’s huge.”

Going forward, one of the measures the city is taking to help improve pedestrian safety is installing rectangular rapid flashing beacons. Bertels said the city already has some on the Ream Wilson Trail, Bayshore Boulevard and Old Coachman Road. They will also be putting some one Sand Key, and all the length of Gulf Boulevard will have them at all the crosswalks, he said. The city and county had to get special permission from the state for these ones because they are not yet officially approved for use on state roads.

Another area the city will install these – which activate a flashing light when a pedestrian presses a button, signaling to traffic that a pedestrian wants to cross the street – is on Chestnut Street and Palm Avenue by the Clearwater Courthouse, Bertels said.

“The people at the courthouse cross there to go to the Hess station to get their coffee,” Bertels said. “They go out and press the button (with the current wigwag signal) and the signal flashes and the cars, some pay attention and some don’t. Pedestrians still have to use crossings and wait for the gap.”

St. Petersburg has had great success with the RRFBs, but Bertels is more skeptical. He said they are one more tool that the city can use, but there are many tools out there, and one is not necessarily better than another.

Watts strongly urged everyone to exercise caution when out on the roads, whether as a driver or a pedestrian, and many more lives can be saved and injuries avoided.

“Just have some self-responsibility and preservation,” Watts said.

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