TAMPA — A nine-day stretch ending Saturday may go down as one of the deadliest periods on the highways around Tampa.
Over the nine consecutive days, 19 people died in 14 separate wrecks along interstates, U.S. highways, state and county roads in Manatee, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Hernando counties.
Five were killed in a single wreck early Feb. 9 on Interstate 275, when a man going south in the northbound lanes in a stolen sport-utility vehicle barreled head on into a car carrying four fraternity brothers from the University of South Florida. All perished.
There was a motorcyclist killed when he tried to pass a vehicle on a corner, a teenager who tried to walk across Interstate 4 after he was ejected from the Florida State Fair. Two were killed in Bloomingdale when the car they were in struck a pole, cutting the vehicle in half.
A driver — a recent USF graduate — died after his car was rear-ended by a semi on Interstate 75 in Gibsonton, forcing the car off the bridge and into the Alafia River. A bicyclist was struck and killed in St. Petersburg.
According to the most recent state highway safety statistics available, Hillsborough County averages just under three highway fatalities a week.
“Over the past week, the FHP and other local law enforcement agencies have investigated scores of traffic crashes in Hillsborough and surrounding counties,” said highway patrol Sgt. Steve Gaskins, “several of which had ended tragically with fatalities.”
Driving these days is a challenge. There is fog in the morning, blinking construction barricades along shoulders, pedestrians and bicyclists trying to share the road safely.
Gaskins urged motorists to be alert, use caution when behind the wheel, drive defensively and be courteous to other drivers.
“With ever-changing weather patterns, drivers should operate within the conditions of the road and be mindful of their speed, following distance and vehicle maintenance,” he said.
Amid all this are the usual distractions for drivers: The radio needs adjusting, the phone is ringing, an infant in the back seat is screaming. A spider crawls across the dashboard. Drivers don't expect to see somebody coming at them in the wrong lane, or a biker trying to pass on a curve.
Driving defensively is the key to safe motoring, state and local officials say. Here are some tips from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles:
* The Two-Second Rule. Give yourself that amount of time from whatever is in front of you to respond to an unanticipated event, like a car slamming on its brakes in front of you because an animal or a child darted out into the road.
* Spotting a Bad Driver. Lots of distracted drivers are behind the wheel these days and you need to constantly be on the look-out for them. Avoid tail-gaters and speeders and give a wide berth to people who signal inconsistently, swerve or make abrupt turns.
* Don't Drink and Drive. Drinking slows down your reaction times and impairs judgment.
* Don't be an Aggressive Driver. Everyone has cussed at least once at the rude driver who cuts you off or rides your rear bumper, but responding in kind does not help. Studies reveal that aggressive drivers cause more wrecks than they avoid. If you lean toward belligerence behind the wheel, change your attitude.
Here are some symptoms of aggressive driving: Yelling at people while driving, speeding up to keep others from merging into your lane, tailgating, accelerating when a traffic light turns yellow.
* Avoid Head-On Collisions. Such crashes are the most dangerous and motorists always should watch out for headlights and grills coming at them. Avoid such collisions by always being on the lookout for dangerous situations, watching for vehicles pulling out of parking spots or driveways. In bad weather, slow down, turn on the wipers and lights and watch always for bad drivers.
* Stay Focused and Rid Yourself of Bad Habits. Good habits are not difficult to form and the benefits are worth it; they keep you out of wrecks, ambulances and traffic court. Good habits include not eating and drinking while driving, not adjusting music, avoiding the cell phone, not turning your head to talk to others in the car.
In spite of all the recent fatalities, the state reports good news in traffic crash trends.
Fatalities in Florida have dropped steadily, to 2,444 in 2010, the most recent year such statistics are available. The number of pedestrians and motorcyclists also have dropped.
In Hillsborough County, 153 people were killed in 2010, down from 191 in 2006.
Tampa police Cpl. Mike Rivera has worked in law enforcement for 24 years and he can't remember a week where so many have died on the roads.
By the week's end, he had a talk with his two children.
“I told them you need to have your head on swivel,” he said. “You need to slow down, leave the music alone and pay attention.”