Sunday, June 17, 2018
Public safety

Hillsborough targeted for new crackdown on pedestrian deaths

TAMPA — Kathryn Niedbalec and her daughter don't walk much anymore. They stay away from bicycles.

The roads are too dangerous, the memories too awful.

Husband and father Robert Niedbalec was killed last year when a car hit him as he rode in a bicycle lane near the University of South Florida's Riverfront Park. He was 52.

"The crash was so horrible," Kathryn Niedbalec said. "I had to identify him by his mangled bicycle."

He was one of eight bicyclists and more than 30 pedestrians killed in Hillsborough County in 2011. And the numbers are rising. So far this year, eight bicyclists and 16 pedestrians have died.

That's why the Florida Department of Transportation, teaming up with local law enforcement, began a program Monday to raise awareness and enforcement of traffic laws. The four-week pilot phase began in Hillsborough County, which leads the state in traffic deaths.

But when education and awareness aren't enough, there will be enforcement, officials said at a news conference Monday.

In coming weeks, officers will more heavily cite motorists and pedestrians they see violating right of way and traffic laws.

"We all share in the responsibility to keep each other safe," said Jim V. Moulton Jr., director of operations for the Department of Transportation. "One life lost is too many."

• • •

Florida is the most dangerous state in the country for those who travel on foot or bicycle.

It has been for years.

The numbers are staggering: Every seven hours, a Florida pedestrian or bicyclist is injured. Every five days, one dies.

"If the Tampa Bay area were a state, we'd be 16th in the country for number of pedestrian deaths per year," Hillsborough County sheriff's Maj. J.R. Burton said.

According to an annual study by nonprofit Transportation for America, Florida includes four of the five most dangerous metropolitan areas in the country for pedestrians and bikers.

Orlando-Kissimmee was ranked the worst. The Tampa Bay region clocks in at No. 2.

The problem, the study says, is the state was built to accommodate cars — not people.

Florida DOT Secretary Ananth Prasad acknowledges the study's critiques: There aren't enough sidewalks and bike paths, and medians are far between or too narrow throughout the state.

He wants this to change, committing millions to reducing pedestrian fatalities by 20 percent in the next three years.

"Pedestrian safety needs to win out," Prasad said.

But this isn't the first time the department has attempted to combat pedestrian deaths.

In 2009, transportation officials told the Times the state would "hopefully" be off the list within the year due to multimillion-dollar initiatives that added street lighting on U.S. 19 in Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties, and made hundreds of intersections in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties more pedestrian-friendly.

Three years later, Tampa Bay still leads the list.

• • •

Just blocks away from the news conference in University Mall early Monday, a woman darted across E Fowler Avenue.

She clutched a backpack to her chest and sprinted as cars barreled toward her. She paused at the median, then took off across the final stretch.

If she had been caught, officials said, she'd have gotten a $49.50 ticket.

Drivers who fail to stop at stop signs and yield to pedestrians will also be targeted.

"Most of us are pedestrians at least once every day," Burton said. "When collisions occur, lives are lost. Others are changed forever."

The Niedbalecs know this firsthand, and are waiting for a resolution to the vehicular manslaughter case against Lenoy Angel Rivera, 20, who officials say was driving at more than 90 mph when he hit the bicyclist.

For mother and daughter, who were at the news conference, the initiative is a chance to transform pain into purpose.

"We wanted to show people who don't think about the statistics that no one is invincible," said Katie, 23. "People get killed out there all the time. And it could be someone close to you. You just don't realize it until that happens."

Comments
Mazzaro’s Italian Market closed after Friday night warehouse fire

Mazzaro’s Italian Market closed after Friday night warehouse fire

ST. PETERSBURG — Mazzaro’s Italian Market will be closed throughout the weekend after a warehouse fire broke out Friday.A St. Petersburg Police officer noticed smoke coming from the market at 22nd Ave. N around midnight Friday, said St. Petersburg F...
Updated: 12 hours ago
A fentanyl death. A crackdown on opioid dealers. Will it help?

A fentanyl death. A crackdown on opioid dealers. Will it help?

TAMPA — Loueita Hargens had known for years how her son Bradley Dykes would die. She had seen him cycle through drugs of choice, had lost track of the number of times he’d wound up in the hospital or prison.A recovering alcoholic herself, she cut him...
Published: 06/16/18
St. Petersburg police make arrest 31 years after sexual assault

St. Petersburg police make arrest 31 years after sexual assault

ST. PETERSBURG — Police arrested a man Friday in connection with a 31-year-old sexual assault case and believe he’s connected to other unsolved cases from decades ago.Anthony Stokes, 56, faces a charge of armed sexual battery, according to St. Peters...
Published: 06/15/18
Records detail Wrigley heir’s $480,000 betrayal by trusted employees

Records detail Wrigley heir’s $480,000 betrayal by trusted employees

ODESSA — One day in the summer of 2014, Helen Rich spotted a Facebook post about an aging black Labrador in Kansas named Lady who badly needed a new home. The author and heir to the Wrigley gum fortune had recently lost her own Black lab. Rich decide...
Published: 06/15/18
Hillsborough Hispanic women targeted in lottery scam

Hillsborough Hispanic women targeted in lottery scam

TAMPA — Maria Pena-Lebron, 83, was walking out of Fresco y Mas with her groceries in May when she was approached by a woman wearing a straw hat, who pleaded with her for help. The stranger claimed to be an undocumented immigrant and therefore unable ...
Published: 06/15/18
Tampa fire captain demoted for stripping off shirt, daring homeless man to fight

Tampa fire captain demoted for stripping off shirt, daring homeless man to fight

TAMPA — Tampa Fire Rescue Capt. Jeremy Finney was, by all accounts, a model firefighter — until he lost his cool. The outburst cost him two ranks.Finney has served nearly 16 years in the department and was a member of the Tactical Medical Response Te...
Published: 06/15/18
Coaster that derailed in Daytona Beach had reported safety issues in 2017

Coaster that derailed in Daytona Beach had reported safety issues in 2017

DAYTONA BEACH — Two roller coaster riders fell 34 feet (10 meters) when their car derailed and was left dangling from the track, and firefighters used ladders to pull eight others to safety high above the Daytona Beach Boardwalk. "The front car which...
Published: 06/15/18
Largo man accused of kidnapping his ex-girlfriend’s toddler

Largo man accused of kidnapping his ex-girlfriend’s toddler

A Largo man is facing kidnapping and attempted murder charges after authorities say he took his ex-girlfriend’s 2-year-old child last weekend and rammed another man’s car to get away.Johnny A. Wise, 27, was arrested late Thursday on Williams Drive ne...
Published: 06/15/18
Charges dropped against two UCF fraternity members accused of rape

Charges dropped against two UCF fraternity members accused of rape

ORLANDO — Prosecutors have dropped charges against two University of Central Florida students — one of whom is from Hillsborough County — who were accused of raping a woman at a fraternity party.The Orlando Sentinel reports that the Orange-Osceola St...
Published: 06/15/18
2 killed when vehicle struck by train in Polk County

2 killed when vehicle struck by train in Polk County

FROSTPROOF — Two people were killed when their vehicle was struck by a train early Friday morning.Polk County deputies say the crash occurred on westbound U.S. 98 near Western Avenue just after 3 a.m.Westbound lanes on U.S. 98 are expected to be clo...
Published: 06/15/18