Crossing guard Carol Ann Mills ensures a group of students safely cross the busy intersection of 66th Street and Park Boulevard.
PINELLAS PARK – On Dec. 8, a vehicle struck Scott Alan Benedict, 48, a transient with no known permanent address, at U.S. 19 near Mainlands Boulevard. At the time of the accident, he was attempting to cross the busy highway by foot while pushing his bicycle. He died at the scene.
This was the first – and only – pedestrian fatality in Pinellas Park last year, said Sgt. Rick Leshick, who is in charge of the Pinellas Park Police Department’s Special Operations Unit, which includes the department’s Traffic Unit. “We almost made it through the year without a pedestrian death.”
Overall, the city saw six traffic-related deaths in 2012, and nine the year before, said Leshick.
“It was a very low year for fatalities on the roads for us,” said Sgt. Brian Unmisig, a public information officer for the department.
But Pinellas Park police are especially interested in the number of pedestrian deaths in the city. After all, the Tampa Bay metro area – Pinellas County included – is known for having a higher pedestrian crash and fatality rate than other regions in the state.
Leshick said several factors come together in a perfect storm to create potentially dangerous scenarios for those travelling by foot or bicycle: year-round warm weather, a large number of vagrants and transients, and a densely populated area. The idyllic weather means more people spend more time outside.
“Pinellas County is the most populous in the state,” he added. “When you have more people, you have more accidents. It’s just going to happen.”
City police have been targeting pedestrian safety for the past three years, since receiving a special grant from the State Department of Transportation. The department first received $20,000 from the Pedestrian Enforcement Grant in 2010, followed by another $25,000 in 2011 and $20,000 last year for $65,000 total.
The grant provides local police departments with the funds needed to monitor pedestrian traffic on state roads. Leshick said his department conducts special traffic details once or twice a month. The most recent detail was on Jan. 7. Pinellas Park police have issued around 750 violations and more than 250 warnings since the program’s inception.
“We pull over everybody violating the pedestrian’s right of way,” Leshick said.
Each pedestrian traffic detail focuses on different intersections around the city that are on a state road, targeting the busiest, most dangerous areas. The most treacherous areas for pedestrians typically fall along Park Boulevard, at any point on the roadway, Unmisig said, and on U.S. 19 by the mall.
“U.S. 19 is an especially dangerous area because of the speed of individuals driving on it,” Leshick said. And he notes a correlation between the number of lanes a roadway has and how dangerous it is for pedestrians. “The more lanes of traffic, the more difficult it is to cross.”
“Any major roadway has the potential for a violent crash involving an individual and a vehicle,” Unmisig added.
Traffic details target both drivers and pedestrians, which some might find surprising, Leshick said. “But usually pedestrians are at fault in fatalities, from what I’ve seen.”
The most common pedestrian violations include crossing against the signal and crossing in the street when a crosswalk is available.
“Often you’ll see them cut across the street about 50 feet or so out from the crosswalk and walk between cars,” Leshick said.
And sometimes impatience causes them to cross against the signal. “They’ll push the button, wait a few minutes, get impatient, and go,” he said. “Then when you stop them, they tell you they pushed the button, and the light never changed.”
As for drivers, the most common violation comes when they make right turns on red. Many don’t realize that if someone is in the crosswalk, “even if it’s on the other side of the street, then they can’t turn,” Leshick said. “People often only look to the left and sometimes don’t look to the crosswalk at their right.”
Fines for pedestrians are $66 and they also receive points on their license. Fines for those driving vehicles vary and start at over $100. They also receive points.
Each stop a police officer makes during these details is a chance to educate the public on pedestrian safety and traffic rules, Leshick said.
There were only three pedestrian deaths in 2010 and four in 2011. So only one pedestrian fatality occurring in 2012 isn’t a substantial drop. But it’s something.
“I’d really like to think that we’re making a difference,” Leshick said.