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Officials focus on safer crossings
Editor’s note: This is the first part of a series of stories called “Watch Your Step” on pedestrian safety issues in Pinellas County. The series continues next week.
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Seminole Boulevard from Bay Pines Boulevard to Ulmerton Road is considered a problem area for pedestrian safety. Shown is traffic heading north at Seminole Boulevard and 110th Avenue.
Crossing Pinellas County’s busy roadways can be scary even when pedestrians and motorists are paying close attention. And when they’re not, the results are fatal.

In 2008, state and local officials began looking for ways to decrease the number of pedestrian crash fatalities. Florida’s numbers were worse than any other state except New Mexico. Florida’s rate was 50 percent higher than California, 62 percent higher than Texas and 85 percent higher than the national average.

And Pinellas County’s rate was even higher – 3.02 fatalities per 100,000 persons compared to 2.99 per 100,000 statewide. Over a five-year period, on average, 28 people died each year in Pinellas and almost 100 suffered an incapacitating injury. Another 250 a year suffered less severe injuries.

So on Sept. 8, 2008, representatives from the cities of Clearwater and St. Petersburg, Pinellas County’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, Sheriff’s Office, Public Works, School District along with staff and consultants from the Florida Department of Transportation participated in a daylong workshop presented by Federal Highway Administration’s pedestrian safety experts.

Those “stakeholders” formulated a Pedestrian Safety Action Plan, which was finalized in August 2009.

“If the Pinellas County per capita crash rate was reduced to the rate of California or Texas, 40 to 45 people per year could be spared death or incapacitating injury,” according to the PSAP’s purpose statement. “If the county’s rate could be brought to the national average, lives saved would increase to nearly 60 per year.”

Pinellas County Commission Vice-Chair Karen Seel, incoming chair of the MPO, gave examples of pedestrian safety improvements done since 2008.

She pointed to installation of more than 8,000 countdown and pedestrian activated signals and more than 50 school zone flashers throughout the county. She talked about implementation of state legislation requiring motorists to stop at crosswalks with traffic signals or signs and FDOT’s “Stop and Look” pedestrian awareness campaign. She included the Safe Routes to School Education Program for elementary and middle school students and the Walkwise Tampa Bay Program.

“These examples reflect a three-pronged approach to pedestrian safety that focuses on engineering, enforcement and education,” Seel said. “Based on what we found with the recent MPO bicycle and pedestrian crash study, educational initiatives designed to raise the level of awareness of pedestrian laws and safe practices by walkers as well as motorists would have the most direct impact on the reduction of pedestrian crashes in Pinellas County. Therefore, to make significant gains in the reduction of pedestrian crashes, this is an area that needs more attention moving forward.”

Education and enforcement

Education and enforcement is how the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office is contributing to the solution. The agency received an additional $70,000 in pedestrian safety grant money from FDOT in April to continue work started with grant funding of $20,000 in 2010.

The money will pay for traffic enforcement details and education outreach programs throughout the county.

Sgt. David DiSano, PCSO public information officer, said off-duty deputies sign up for details scheduled, most often, in areas where high numbers of pedestrian crashes occur or where the most potential exists. Deputies go out and look for people not crossing at marked crosswalks and for motorists not yielding to pedestrians as required by law.

He said it was surprising to see the number of people not using a crosswalk when there was one within walking distance.

“Our main objective is education,” DiSano said. “We’re not just out there writing tickets.”

However, deputies will issue warnings or citations when necessary, which is more of a “financial infraction,” DiSano said. According to the Pinellas County Clerk of the Court’s Office, the fine for pedestrian violations is $62.50.

Deputies often speak to groups, such as neighborhood watch, homeowner’s associations and schools, where pedestrian safety is a topic of conversation. DiSano said people want to know the best spots to walk in areas without sidewalks. They ask questions about crossings where it is legal to turn right on red.

Deputies teach the basics.

1. Always stop, look to the LEFT, to the RIGHT and to the LEFT again.

2. Stay within the crosswalk and briskly walk straight across the street.

3. Wear bright colored clothing.

4. When walking at night, carry a lighted flashlight and wear reflective clothing.

5. Walk facing traffic.

6. Watch for vehicles backing up.

7. Don’t walk near traffic after taking medication or drinking alcohol.

8. Don’t assume a driver will see you.

9. Always stop at the curb or the edge of the road.

DiSano said some people walk when they’ve had too much to drink thinking it is a safer alternative to getting behind the wheel of their vehicle.

“The last thing they need to do is drive,” he said. “But walking is not necessarily good either, especially on our congested streets. The best plan is to already have a designated driver. If not, they should call a cab or a friend or someone to come pick them up. The objective is safety.”

DiSano took a moment to talk about what a motorist should do if they are involved in a pedestrian crash.

“Stay at the scene,” he said. “A motorist that hits a pedestrian and drives off – there’s no excuse for it.”

He said most likely the motorist drives off in the heat of the moment or because they’re intoxicated.

“But they will just end up with a bunch of other charges,” he said. “Leaving the scene of a crash with injuries is very serious. It will just make a bad situation worse. They don’t need to worry about a ticket or charge when someone’s life is at stake. Stay at the scene. Call 911.”

The Department of Highway Safety and Vehicles recently released the latest numbers for pedestrian crashes. In 2011, Pinellas had 3.59 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 people – up from the 3.02 reported in 2008. Thirty-three people died from injuries suffered in a pedestrian crash in 2011 and 298 suffered injuries.

“That’s a lot, especially when you consider that 3.02 to 3.24 is not just a number, this is people’s lives,” DiSano said.

Plan update and latest proposals

During the Dec. 12 meeting of the MPO, the board was presented with an update to the Bicycle and Pedestrian Master Plan. Pedestrian crash statistics did not include 2011, but for the years 2007 to 2010, there was no substantial decrease despite stepped up efforts to improve safety.

In 2007, 262 pedestrian crashes were reported, jumping to 345 in 2008, 351 in 2009 and 350 in 2010. In 2007, 80 people died or suffered serious injury due to a pedestrian crash. In 2008, the number grew to 104, 112 in 2009 and 114 in 2010.

The report listed a number of countermeasures that could help bring the numbers down, including better lighting, lane striping, enhanced pedestrian crossings, infrastructure improvements, livable community approaches and pedestrian, bicycle and transit-friendly land design.

Susan Miller, a planner with Pinellas County’s Planning Department, explained that pedestrian safety included all “vulnerable users,” those who walk, ride bikes, skateboards or scooters.

“They have different needs, nonmotorized issues and facilities that they need to feel safe,” she said.

These needs are a big part of the ongoing planning process for pedestrian safety, she said. She said the latest report shows several areas with a high number of incidents and most common crash types, which allows analysis of what, where and how to improve.

Making improvements to pedestrian safety involves many moving parts. Education plays a big part, as does “making better choices” on the part of pedestrians and motorists, Miller said. “Pedestrians have to take some responsibility over their own movements,” she said.

And motorists should be watchful for high-risk pedestrians, such as children, who have no understanding of the “rules of the road and don’t think before they run out into the road.” The elderly also are at high-risk because they may not be able to move as fast and have slower reaction times.

“It is a complex solution,” Miller said. “There’s not just one thing. It takes working together to make things safe.”

The county’s Planning Department provides staff for the MPO and thus is an intricate part of the work being done to improve transportation and movement. Safety is a very important component, Miller said.

Coordination is a necessity

Everything takes coordination by numerous agencies and municipalities. PSTA is one of the agencies heavily involved in planning for transportation and pedestrian safety.

Bob Lasher, PSTA Community Relations manager, relayed information gleaned from PSTA staff members who plan stop locations and safety countermeasures.

“In many ways, stop safety and placement is all about flexibility and adaptation for the given location,” Lasher said. “Sometimes we’ll get requests for stops that can be installed in a few hours, others, due to safety concerns may have to be held up until we can install proper landing pads. In other cases we may even have to re-route the line.”

Most transit systems, like PSTA, prefer to locate stops as close to safe crossing areas and intersections as possible, he said. Most prefer the far side of the intersections, so that the bus has already passed through the light when it makes the stop.

The exception will be when there is a crosswalk only on the near side, then agencies put the stop where the passengers don’t have to cross the intersection twice to get across the street, he said.

“Normally, when a rider gets to the end of a route and they’ve bought a one-way fare, they’ll have to buy another fare after the bus makes the turnaround, however, on PSTA, riders who are making a turn around to get to a safe stop on the other side of the roadway are always allowed a free turn around to get to the stop,” Lasher said. “This is particularly popular and effective on routes like U.S. 19.”

Transit agencies around the world struggle with roads along major thoroughfares.

“We have to serve the businesses and communities along those roads yet we can’t just limit stops to intersections as they are often too far apart,” Lasher said. “At the same time, we don’t want people making unsafe crossings on those roadways. In those cases, we prefer that riders take a bus on their side of the road to an intersection where they can cross safely and catch one going in the other direction if needed.

“It may take a few minutes longer, but it’s worth it for safety’s sake.”

Problem spots and solutions

PSTA travels along corridors identified as problem spots. According to the pedestrian safety plan update, one such area is on Park Boulevard from Park Street to U.S. 19, where people are crossing between intersections and mid-block to access the buses.

Suggestions for improvement include installation of raised medians to provide “pedestrian refuges and make intersections feel safer” and looking for ways to enhance mid-block crossing coupled with moving or modifying bus stops.

West Bay Drive from Indian Rocks Road to 58th Street is a spot where increased education for pedestrians and motorists is recommended along with enhanced mid-block crossing and possible bus stop changes.

Fourth Street in St. Petersburg from Ninth Avenue South to 46th Avenue North provides a number of challenges, including people crossing between signals, crashes due to motorists not seeing pedestrians in crosswalks and crashes by motorists making a right turn on red and not seeing pedestrians in crosswalks.

The consultant recommends raised medians, installation of signal lights that give pedestrians a head start when crossing the street and elimination of the right turn on red when a pedestrian requests a walk signal.

Other problem spots include Fort Harrison Avenue from Belleair Road to Drew Street, Seminole Boulevard from Bay Pines Boulevard to Ulmerton Road and Tampa Road from Orange Street to Race Track Road.

Gulf to Bay intersections at Belcher Road, Old Coachman Road South, U.S. 19 and Park Place Boulevard are additional problem areas as are intersections on 34th Street.

Good news and bad news

Fatalities from traffic crashes in the state decreased almost 2 percent between 2010 and 2011. Fatalities have dropped every year since 2005, resulting in a 32 percent reduction.

However, the news is not so good for pedestrians.

On Dec. 22, Florida Highway Patrol reported an “observed” increase in pedestrian crashes, with one in eight being a fatality crash. During 2012, FHP investigated 331 traffic crashes involving pedestrians in which 43 were fatalities.

“With Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties totaling the highest number of pedestrian fatalities this year for Patrol’s Troop C with 12, 11 and 12 fatal crashes respectively, pedestrians are urged to increase their awareness along Florida’s roadways,” said Sgt. Steve Gaskins, FHP public affairs officer. “With 87 percent of fatalities occurring at night or in low-light conditions, pedestrians are urged and reminded to wear bright color attire for conspicuity.”

Dale Lee Roberts, 24, of Pinellas Park died Dec. 22 when he was hit by a vehicle about 3:30 a.m. on Gandy Boulevard west of the Gandy Bridge. According to FHP’s report, Roberts was walking in the roadway with no reflective clothing.

The driver, “unable to see in the dark, collided with Roberts who suffered fatal injuries and expired at the scene of the crash,” the report said.

Nearly two-thirds of pedestrian fatalities involve a failure to yield on the part of the pedestrian, Gaskins said.

“As such, pedestrians should understand that Florida traffic law requires obedience to laws designed for the safety of all parties and most especially the pedestrian,” he said. “The use of pedestrian crosswalks, sidewalks and other similar roadway designs has been specifically engineered with pedestrian safety in mind.

“When sidewalks are not available, pedestrians should travel in a manner facing oncoming traffic and understand that especially in low-light conditions, drivers may not see or expect pedestrian traffic.”

Miller said a great deal of effort goes into planning for what some might say is a small number of crashes when compared to motor vehicle crashes.

“But every one of the statistics represents a person,” she said. “This is about safety for our most vulnerable. It takes everyone working together to make a difference.”

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