Pedestrians have long been an afterthought when building roads in Florida, often with tragic consequences.
The death last October of a Chamberlain High School student struck by a car while attempting to cross Busch Boulevard has sparked a concerted effort to reduce pedestrian deaths and injuries on Hillsborough County roads.
The problem demands cooperation among state, county and city officials who have a say in how our roads are designed and whether the safety of pedestrians is a priority. For guidance, local officials are turning to an initiative called Vision Zero. The idea is to reduce the number of pedestrian deaths to zero by incorporating design elements that can make roads safer for pedestrians and by educating the public about the need to follow common-sense rules when on foot.
Vision Zero started in Sweden and has spread to the U.S. cities of New York, San Francisco and Seattle. In New York, the renewed focus has reduced the number of pedestrian deaths to levels not seen in decades.
At the core of the initiative is changing the mentality about pedestrians. In Florida, as in other states, a primary consideration of road designs is to get motorists as quickly and safely as possible to their destination. But that can conflict with the rights of pedestrians, who are sometimes faced with crossing six, eight or even 10 lanes of traffic.
Simple changes can make a big difference. Better signage, added street lighting, more sidewalks and crosswalks, narrower driving lanes to slow traffic, and public education efforts can play a part in creating a Vision Zero initiative.
Coming up with a plan can’t happen soon enough. Hillsborough County set a record in 2015 for pedestrian deaths, topping 50 for the first time since records have been kept. Among those killed was Alexis Miranda, the 17-year-old high school student who died crossing Busch Boulevard in October.
A few weeks after her death, Tampa City Council Member Lisa Montelione stood beside Alexis’ mother to announce support for a Vision Zero initiative in the Tampa Bay area. The Tampa City Council, and the Hillsborough County Commission, led by Commissioner Stacy White, have signaled their interest in developing a plan. The Metropolitan Planning Organization, the area’s long-range transportation planning agency, has agreed to facilitate the effort.
Motorists should be forewarned, though. It might result in some inconveniences. Narrowing lanes to slow traffic and adding crosswalks and other pedestrian-friendly devices can be an annoyance to drivers used to having the road to themselves.
But with the density of our major cities on the upswing, and the population of our state growing along with the record tourism numbers, drivers are more frequently crossing paths with pedestrians. And pedestrians, when they follow the rules, need to be respected rather than cursed.
“We have to change the mindset,” Montelione says.
She says four things need to happen. Engineers who design roads need to give greater consideration to pedestrian safety; money has to be set aside for the improvements; speed limits around high schools need to be reduced; and all of the various state and local agencies involved in designing or approving roads must work together across jurisdictional lines.
Simply slowing traffic in areas that attract pedestrian traffic can make a difference. Studies show a pedestrian struck by a car traveling 30 mph has a far greater chance of surviving than one struck by a car traveling at 40 mph. As Beth Alden, the MPO’s executive director points out, if motorists are willing to add one or two minutes onto their trip, “it can mean the difference between life and death.” Law enforcement can also play a role by enforcing the rules of the road, but as Hillsborough Sheriff’s Maj. Alan Hill says, “there is no way to write enough tickets and citations to solve this problem.” He says distracted drivers, distracted pedestrians, and not enough crosswalks or sidewalks are behind many of the accidents.
Vision Zero represents a lofty goal and an excellent approach to attacking the problem, which will only get worse without the full attention of our local leaders. Pedestrians should be able to do something as simple as crossing the street without fearing for their lives.