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Friday, Oct 20, 2017
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Making pedestrian safety a priority

It is encouraging to see the Florida Sheriffs Task Force undertake an aggressive initiative on pedestrian safety.

But this critical problem demands year-round attention.

Florida’s roads are notoriously dangerous, and that won’t change unless the state can alter the behavior of motorists and pedestrians alike.

This will require not only rigorous enforcement, but education programs and better-designed roadways.

There is a reason Florida ranks at or near the top of the pedestrian fatality list each year, along with California and Texas. (The three states accounted for one-third of the 4,743 U.S. pedestrian deaths in 2013.)

Our roads are mostly designed to move automobiles, not protect pedestrians. Moreover, in years past, little effort has been placed on emphasizing motorists’ responsibility to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks.

Many drivers seem scarcely aware that pedestrians are entitled to cross the road.

Not a day goes by when one can’t see a driver in downtown Tampa turning right on red without even looking for pedestrians, who have the green light and are trying to cross the street. Many drivers focus only on vehicles approaching from their left, not on whether pedestrians will be in their path when they turn.

Motorists who do the right thing and wait for pedestrians to cross are frequently honked at by the drivers behind them.

Florida law enforcement officials say drivers turning right on red are the leading cause of pedestrian deaths and injuries.

Pedestrians are hardly blameless. Many jaywalk or don’t use crosswalks. They lollygag across the road even as the light changes. Too many worry more about texting or talking on the phone than their own safety.

Still, inconsiderate pedestrians are unlikely to hurt anyone but themselves. That can’t be said of inconsiderate drivers.

Unfortunately, pedestrian fatalities are increasing, with a 19 percent increase from 2011 to 2013. As the Tribune’s Kristen Mitchell found, “From 2011 to 2013, there were 25,900 pedestrian accidents in Florida, with about 75 percent resulting in injury or death.”

That is why efforts such as the Sheriffs Task Force Operation Safe Step are useful. As Mitchell reports, the initiative included Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando, Polk and Manatee counties, and was conducted between Oct. 24 and Nov. 20. It resulted in 6,848 warnings and 22 tickets for pedestrians, and more than 8,240 warnings and 6,763 tickets for motorists.

But such initiatives are not enough. Maj. J.R. Burton of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has been involved in a statewide pedestrian and bike safety task force, and he tells us that road design and safety features are important.

Sidewalks should be wide enough for pedestrian use and a safe distance from the road. Also important is having enough crosswalks — to discourage jaywalking — as well as proper lighting.

Burton says Fletcher Avenue has been redesigned so that rapid flash beacons go off to alert drivers to pedestrians in the crosswalk. The walkway in the median is angled so pedestrians must look into oncoming traffic, and not straight ahead.

Signage is also important. The University of Tampa has found the “yield to pedestrians” signs at crosswalks on North Boulevard effective.

Of course, redesigning roads or adding safety features is expensive, and too many Florida roads were not built with pedestrians in mind.

Consider six-lane Hillsborough Avenue, where two Middleton High School students have been killed crossing the six-lane road in the past three years. The planned crosswalk and signal should be helpful but will hardly eliminate the dangers. An overpass — the ideal solution — would be costly.

Education — for drivers and pedestrians — is important. The state Department of Transportation offers a teen traffic safety program that seeks to make drivers more aware of others, and not simply getting to their destination as fast as possible.

Behaviors can be changed. Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee points out how most motorists now are attentive to school zones. But it will take time — and a commitment to better roads, stronger enforcement and more responsible roadway habits on the part of drivers and pedestrians.

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