Around here, walking can be deadly.
The group Transportation for America ranked Tampa Bay as the nation's second-most dangerous area for pedestrians in the country this summer. State transportation officials estimate that five pedestrians die in the Tampa Bay area every month. Over the last year, more than a dozen area cyclists were killed, too.
Planners say there are three ways to fix the problem: education, enforcement and engineering.
In a weak economy, the engineering part, such as building new sidewalks and bike paths, is not easy. But the Florida Department of Transportation is tackling the education and enforcement aspects through a year-old program called WalkWise Tampa Bay.
The program aims to educate pedestrians and motorists to watch out for each other. Transportation and safety experts travel to business luncheons, schools, churches and civic groups from North Tampa to Wimauma touting the message. During the free safety presentations, they ask people to pledge to travel safer and watch out for each other.
The Tampa Downtown Partnership has taken special ownership of the project, promoting it to local businesses while also helping to give several of the talks. More foot traffic downtown, after all, means more shoppers and customers for downtown businesses. The partnership believes more cars are a good thing, too, just as long as they drive slowly.
"We don't view congestion as a bad thing in downtown," said Karen Kress, the partnership's director of transportation and planning.
She has given more than 30 presentations at places such as UBS Financial Services and the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts' employee health fair.
Tips include walking on sidewalks and, if there aren't any, walking on the left side of the road — toward traffic. They also encourage wearing reflective materials at night or carrying a flashlight and stress that 34 percent of all pedestrians killed in 2009 were under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
"It seems pretty basic, but we're hoping to save some lives out there," Kress said.
After the presentations, participants are given reflective backpacks and asked to take a pledge to remember what they were taught. Nearly 7,000 people have been reached through the program, which began last year.
The program is funded with a $430,000 grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration because of the area's poor pedestrian safety ranking, DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said.
Most of the money went toward enforcement and paying overtime for authorities to better monitor infractions against pedestrians, such as illegal right turns and stopping in crosswalks. The money was dispersed based on what law enforcement agencies pledged to tackle, and Tampa police and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office were among the eight agencies that received funding.
Much of the Police Department's extra attention focused on areas around the Hillsborough County Courthouse where pedestrians have been hit, police spokeswoman Andrea Davis said.
Since the program began, police handed out 2,867 citations — all to drivers — and 1,282 warnings to pedestrians and drivers. No pedestrians have been ticketed, Davis said.
"Our goal is education for this project, so if it was egregious they got a citation," she said. "If it was questionable, they were stopped and given a warning."
Separate from the enforcement and WalkWise education program that the federal grant funds, Carson said, the DOT has spent $2 million over the past two years to brighten up and repaint crosswalks, add more pedestrian signals and repair broken sidewalks. In Tampa, the Kennedy Boulevard Enhancement Project, a $1 million city project this year reimbursed by the state, installed sidewalks on the north side of Kennedy by the WestShore Plaza mall. It also repaired sidewalks, added pedestrian ramps, bus shelter pads and decorative crosswalks at major intersections.
But it's the places that don't have as many sidewalks, such as Wimauma, where the WalkWise program hopes to bridge the safety gap. Several months ago, the Wimauma Senior Center hosted a WalkWise presentation, where 18 seniors learned how to walk through parking lots and safely cross streets. They were shown a film and given reflective backpacks that they wore proudly.
"Walkers really have to look out for themselves and motorists," said Claudia Walton, center coordinator, "and seeing that there are very few sidewalks in Wimauma, you have to be very careful."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.