Sunday, April 22, 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."

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