LARGO — Jaywalkers need to beware in Largo.
The city has decided to continue a program that cracks down on jaywalking along several major roadways. A federal grant is paying for the pedestrian safety initiative, which police say has saved lives.
"We had three pedestrian deaths last year," when the program was suspended because the federal money ran out, said police Sgt. George Edmiston, who heads Largo's traffic enforcement unit. "Many of these crashes are preventable."
The Tampa Bay area is routinely ranked among the deadliest places for pedestrians in the United States. And Pinellas County often has twice the national average in annual pedestrian deaths.
In Largo, the troublesome corridors are typically Missouri Avenue, East Bay Drive, Seminole Boulevard and Ulmerton Road. Historically, too many pedestrians don't use the crosswalks on those thoroughfares, but police have been working to change that — mostly by issuing warnings and writing tickets.
Beginning in 2010, Largo kicked off its first traffic detail aimed specifically at protecting pedestrians. The costs were covered by a $50,000 grant from the Florida Department of Transportation, which got the money in a grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The enforcement details use Largo police officers working on overtime during the morning and evening rush hours. The officers keep their eyes peeled for drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks or other pedestrians who have the right of way. They also focus on pedestrians who fail to use nearby crosswalks or ignore traffic signals.
Officials documented a decline in incidents involving pedestrians.
Before the program started, five pedestrians died in a seven-month stretch in Largo. During the program's first seven months, officers wrote more than 2,200 warnings and citations. FDOT handed out educational materials, distributed reflective backpacks and also refurbished crosswalks to make them more visible. During that seven months, only one pedestrian died.
Largo used up its first $50,000 grant. It got a second $50,000 grant in April 2011, then a $70,000 grant in April 2012 to continue the program.
Earlier this month, Largo's City Commission voted to accept another $50,000 grant to continue the campaign. Commissioners voted for this unanimously after asking some questions, because the program had gotten some criticism.
"We're paying police officers overtime — $44 an hour — to go out and ticket pedestrians crossing our streets. This is what the police officers are paid to do normally anyway," Largo resident Jeff Mosely told commissioners. "Why is the federal government giving money to the state, and the state giving money to the city? No wonder our governments are broke at all levels."
Another resident wrote to commissioners complaining that officers were targeting people crossing Missouri Avenue after getting off a bus at Rosery Road.
Sgt. Edmiston told the commission that officers focused on trouble spots around the city, and that they were no longer focusing on Missouri Avenue because compliance with the law was up there. He also noted that FDOT grants had paid for public outreach to educate people about pedestrian safety at Pinellas County's tent city for the homeless, labor pool offices, schools and community events.
Currently, officers are focusing their pedestrian-safety efforts on Seminole Boulevard just south of Largo Mall.
"We're constantly chasing our crash data," Edmiston said in an interview. "We know where the crashes are occurring."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.