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Keeping Largo pedestrians safe
City works to educate residents, improve crosswalks and roads to reduce fatalities
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A pedestrian crosses Missouri Avenue at the intersection of Rosary Road, using a crosswalk that the city of Largo recently improved to make it safer. The city is using federal funds to make changes to the roadways, educate pedestrians and enforce the laws that are designed to keep pedestrians safe.
LARGO – For Largo Police Sgt. George Edmiston, no news – as in no pedestrians getting hit and dying while trying to cross Largo roads – means the city’s pedestrian safety enforcement campaign is working.

“It’s unfortunate: I don’t have the crystal ball to say how many lives we’ve saved this year. But I’m confident we’ve saved a few,” he said.

The Largo Police Department is in its third round of funding for the pedestrian safety program, a partnership with the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration and the Florida Department of Transportation, which started in July 2010 with $50,000. The program allows Largo police to address the problem of too many pedestrian traffic deaths through enforcement of pedestrian laws, educating the public about safety measures and working with city engineers to improve the design of the roads where crashes are occurring.

Confident that the program has improved the safety of pedestrians, the department has renewed the partnership twice: in April 2011 for another $50,000 and in April 2012 for an increase to $70,000.

“When we first started this program a year and a half ago, it was all about educating and conducting some engineering changes that we noticed were causing some of the issues that were leading up to serious injuries or fatalities,” Edmiston said.

In particular, the program has focused on specific corridors where statistics show pedestrians getting hit by vehicles more often. In Largo, that meant the stretch of Missouri Avenue south of Rosary Road, between the major Walmart and Kmart shopping centers on either side.

“On that particular corridor, there were several things that were affecting pedestrians,” Edmiston said.

For one, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority bus stops were placed in the middle of the block, a long enough distance from the nearest crosswalk at Rosary Road that residents would cross Missouri Avenue without it. After all, the shortest distance from A to B is a straight line, Edmiston explained.

“They were just crossing six lanes of traffic, walking through the landscaped medians, pushing strollers, running, in wheelchairs, you name it. We saw this time and time again throughout various studies when this grant started,” he said. “They were taking inherent risks that were actually causing injuries to themselves or resulting in fatalities.”

Conveniently, the start of the program coincided with a scheduled repaving of the roadway, and the city of Largo was able to coordinate with the state Department of Transportation to enact various changes. A series of signs, visible from the sidewalks, were installed in the median of the road to communicate “No pedestrians. Use crosswalks.” The bus stop was moved farther north, and the sidewalks were widened.

The intersection of Missouri Avenue and Rosary Road also was changed. Dedicated turn lanes that allowed drivers to turn right, but created a pork chop-shaped island median between the sidewalk and the main road were removed. Instead, the sidewalk that leads to the crosswalk was extended to make a tighter angle for motorists to drive around and to decrease the length of the crosswalk itself.

“The least amount of time in the roadway the safer the pedestrian is,” Edmiston said. “If you don’t have something that allows (drivers) to just whip around the corner and forces you to stop, that’s where it’s safer for the pedestrian as well.”

The program pays for off-duty police officers to work overtime and focus on pedestrian issues. Six days a week, usually for a three-hour shift during the mornings and afternoons, at least one officer is watching for pedestrians who aren’t using crosswalks or drivers who are failing to yield to them. The department issues about 200 citations a month, though citations have been declining as the program progresses.

“Folks see you and they double take and they push the (pedestrian crossing) button. Or they see you, and they walk to the crosswalks,” Edmiston said. “So it does work … Folks know that it’s not worth $62.50 – ‘I’m going to the light, and I’m crossing.’ And that’s the safest place for pedestrians to cross.”

At the beginning of the program, officers emphasized education, passing out mostly warnings and distributing pamphlets that explain the laws in both English and Spanish to pedestrians as well as at labor pool centers and residential neighborhoods. As part of the education aspect, the department gave out backpacks with reflective tape on them and most recently installed free lights on residents’ bicycles, both designed to make them safer.

The various changes have had a positive effect, Edmiston said.

“I’m sure we’ve made a difference. Since this program’s been in place, and we’ve made some changes along Missouri Avenue,” he knocked on the wood table. “No fatalities.”

Unfortunately, the city has identified another fatal corridor, farther south on the road, after it changes into Seminole Boulevard. In the 12600 to 12800 block, around the west entrance of Largo Mall, three people were killed in 2012 – January, April and November. Two of the victims were killed during a lapse in funding, before the pedestrian safety program was renewed in April.

“All three of my victims were residents of these mobile home parks,” Edmiston said. “What they were doing is they were crossing the road mid-block. They weren’t using the light at Lark (Avenue) and they weren’t using the light at 126th (Avenue), which is provided with crosswalks.”

The crosswalk at Lark Avenue, an entrance into Largo Mall, has a traffic signal. But for a while, it has turned to flashing yellow and red lights at night, telling drivers to be cautious but not stopping them to give pedestrians a protected crossing.

“It hasn’t been a problem for years because the development on the southwest corner was never developed. It’s now a McDonald’s 24-7 operation. So there is traffic volume there now,” Edmiston said.

The Lark Avenue intersection will have active red, yellow and green lights. Signs like those in the median of Missouri Avenue will be installed.

There’s also no street lights in that area, decreasing the chance that drivers will see a resident that does cross. City staff is working with Progress Energy to install street-level lighting along that corridor.

“It could take six months to get it done, but we’re working on it,” Edmiston said. “We want to at least give the motorist the opportunity to perceive the hazard and perform some sort of evasive action. Without street lighting out there, they’re not visible and they never have that opportunity.”

The current round of funding will last about another four months, Edmiston said. The department is already in the processing of securing a fourth round.

“Obviously, we’re going to seek that so we can continue to make a difference,” he said. “We’re always making changes to make things safer … We will continue with enforcement as long as the funding allows us to do that.”

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