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Gulf Boulevard can prove perilous for pedestrians

Pedestrians cross Gulf Boulevard at a lighted crosswalk in Treasure Island. Safety has always been a concern on the busy 15-mile stretch of road, despite numerous safety measures and millions spent on improvements.

LARA CERRI | Times

Pedestrians cross Gulf Boulevard at a lighted crosswalk in Treasure Island. Safety has always been a concern on the busy 15-mile stretch of road, despite numerous safety measures and millions spent on improvements.

Every week, thousands traverse Gulf Boulevard to make their escape to Pinellas County's white sandy beaches.

But the high concentration of pedestrians on the busy stretch also makes it fraught with danger for those on foot.

Lately, there have been several high-profile accidents involving pedestrians on the beach road. Inattentiveness and inebriation are among the chief culprits.

Like on April 14, when Wilbur Clamon Jr., stepped into traffic. The 62-year-old wasn't in a crosswalk, police said, causing drivers to swerve around him before he was hit. He died three days later.

Or on April 25, when Treasure Island police say an impaired motorist plowed down two tourists walking on the sidewalk. The women, from New Hampshire, were luckier. They only spent a night in a hospital.

Pedestrian safety on Gulf Boulevard — the 15-mile stretch of road turns into Blind Pass Road in St. Pete Beach — has long been an issue. And despite the recent rash of accidents, according to state statistics, the beach road is actually seeing fewer pedestrians die.

April's fatality was the first pedestrian death on the beach highway in two years, according to the Florida Department of Transportation. There have been two pedestrians deaths since 2006, compared to the 12 who died in the six years before that.

In 2005, pedestrian deaths spurred local and state governments to add numerous safety features and lower the speed limit. Now they're poised to spend $1 million in the next year to make the beach highway even safer by installing more lighted pedestrian crosswalks, raised medians and other improvements.

"The thing that keeps me awake at night is the safety issue," said Treasure Island director of public works James Murphy. "What if it was someone I cared about, my family, trying to cross the road? What would I want to see there?"

• • •

It's easy to see the potential perils of Gulf Boulevard: It's heavily traveled, day and night; there's a large number of tourists walking and driving who are unfamiliar with the area; alcohol is being served everywhere; and there's miles and miles of beaches that cause people to cross the road wherever they want to.

Deputy Nick Lazaris is a supervisor with the Pinellas County sheriff's major accident investigation team. Most of the accidents on Gulf Boulevard that he has investigated have been the pedestrian's fault, he said.

People just don't want to take the time to walk to the nearest crosswalk.

When Clamon was struck last month, he was 110 feet from a crosswalk. He also had been drinking, according to Treasure Island police. The drivers who slammed on their brakes or swerved to avoid him as he crossed Gulf Boulevard obscured the view of the driver who did hit him, police said.

Though their investigation isn't complete, police said their preliminary findings are that the pedestrian was at fault.

In fact, eight of the 14 pedestrians who have died on Gulf Boulevard in the past 10 years were struck outside a crosswalk.

Still, under Florida law, jaywalking is not illegal — just dangerous.

Treasure Island police Chief Tim Casey said another danger is pedestrians who think they're invulnerable because they're in the crosswalk. The city has special crosswalks where pedestrians can activate bright lights before they cross.

"They think once they activate that signal to cross that it's okay to go," Casey said, "not realizing that they can't just step out in front of a car going 45 mph."

The blame for seven pedestrian deaths on Gulf Boulevard this past decade lies behind the wheel.

Five involved drunken drivers, authorities said.

Chief Casey said some drivers just aren't careful around crosswalks. They don't realize that their view of pedestrians crossing the road is obscured. When drivers stop to let pedestrians cross, they can block the visibility of drivers in the next lane.

"Very often the car on the outside or curb lane does not see them," the chief said, "and they barrel right through the crosswalk."

Then there are the drivers who don't seem to care even when they can clearly see pedestrians ahead of them in the crosswalk.

Two pedestrians died while walking in the crosswalk.

"There are some who will drive right past you," said Murphy, the public works director. "They're like 'What are you doing in the street?'"

• • •

Safety has always been a concern on Gulf Boulevard.

The beach communities made a big push to improve safety after three deadly pedestrian accidents in 2005.

That led the Transportation Department to order 12 new pedestrian crosswalks. Local leaders got the state to lower the speed limit to a uniform 35 mph. It had been 40 in some cities.

Cities like Treasure Island have added their own improvements, too. In 2008, the city added four crosswalks with button-activated flashing lights. Brightly colored signs and raised pavement also help.

Murphy said the city is now planning five new crosswalks: at 99th, 103rd, 119th, between 122nd and 123rd and 126th avenues.

The city also recently got permission from the state to add a much-needed safety improvement: a new traffic light at 104th Avenue. It's needed, Murphy said, to deal with the increase in foot traffic since the Treasure Island Causeway was finished in 2007 and the two-story Publix was built in 2008.

The state also plans $1 million in improvements in 2011.

From the Pinellas Bayway to Blind Pass Road, "median refuges" will break up crossing Gulf Boulevard into two phases and give pedestrians a safe place to stand in the middle of the road. Also, the continuous center lane will be broken up and crosswalks will be restriped.

Still, it's no substitute for good judgment, Lazaris said.

"People, by nature, they just want to get where they're going," he said. "I think it's a common sense issue:

"You don't run out in front of cars. Period."

Times researchers Will Gorham and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Gulf Boulevard can prove perilous for pedestrians 05/08/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 8, 2010 10:16pm]
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