CLEARWATER — The death of a longtime Pinellas County school crossing guard shook the community around Oak Grove Middle School, and it also spurred local officials to take steps to prevent another tragedy at one of the city’s most dangerous intersections.
A preliminary report released Thursday by the Florida Department of Transportation calls for several safety improvements at the Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and Belcher Road intersection where crossing guard Doug Carey was struck by a car and killed May 20.
Carey, 70, a retired police officer, was hit by a car that ran a red light and was traveling about 70 mph, 30 mph over the speed limit. Authorities say the car, driven by Julious Johnson, 28, who had his daughters, ages 2 and 4, with him, also hit another car, but the driver wasn’t injured.
Johnson, who fled and was arrested a few blocks away, was charged with leaving the scene of a crash involving a death, driving while his license was suspended or revoked resulting in death or injury, and resisting arrest without violence, among other counts.
The DOT estimates about 38,000 cars travel through the intersection each day. In the past five years, there have been 153 crashes there — 68 rear-end collisions, 39 at night and 39 “angled” collisions while drivers were making a turn. Although only Carey’s accident was fatal, 13 have caused “incapacitating injuries,” and 13 others involved pedestrians or bicyclists, the report says.
The preliminary report from the DOT Road Safety Audit calls for improved pavement markings at the intersection, including restriping crosswalks and stop bars, as well as adding new signs for pedestrians to make it clear which button to press to cross.
One change that would make a big difference would be to install new traffic signal heads that feature a flashing yellow arrow for drivers turning left instead of only a green light, DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said.
“Once the green arrow goes away and drivers have the green ball, they’re either getting frustrated with waiting for other cars or just don’t know that they have to yield to oncoming traffic,” Carson said. “This is a new technology we’re seeing a lot more of to remind drivers to wait.”
DOT also will review the time when the signal lights change and put signs warning motorists that the intersection is photo enforced farther away from the stoplight — so drivers have more time to slow down. The city of Clearwater already planned to install new time sensors at the traffic lights so waiting times could be adjusted based on volume.
Black shields behind the traffic lights will also cut down on glare, a significant problem at the intersection for motorists and pedestrians, Carson said.
Extending the length of the left turn lane on the westbound approach to the intersection could be done during a resurfacing project slated for early 2016.
Replacing pedestrian crossing signs, providing advance street name signs for all approaches, and widening sidewalks on the southeast side of the intersection also are on DOT’s to-do list. Some improvements, such as new signs, could be done by fall 2015, but expanding turn lanes and sidewalks will take more time as DOT analyzes how much of the surrounding property can be changed, Carson said. No costs estimates are available, she said.
The intersection was surveyed earlier this month by DOT officials, law enforcement officers and staff from the city of Clearwater and Pinellas County. City officials had been concerned about safety for years, but Carey’s death prompted them to act.
“FDOT’s responsiveness to the tragic death that occurred at this intersection of Highway 60 and Belcher has been most impressive,” state Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, said in a statement. “The efficiency they have shown in quickly surveying this intersection reflects their concern for the safety of our citizens. The survey results will now enable them to take any necessary steps to further protect those utilizing this intersection.”