Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Public safety

Students, state and local officials study Hillsborough Avenue safety issues

TAMPA

The pedestrian signal directed Rudy Umbs and his entourage to cross Hillsborough Avenue. But drivers didn't care.

"Well, this lady is not going to let us go," said Umbs, as a car turned right onto Hillsborough, in front of 15 pedestrians wearing reflective vests.

"Neither is this one! Or this one!"

By the time cars stopped turning, the walk signal at Hillsborough Avenue and N 22nd Street had started the countdown to stop. The walkers had to wait.

"A mass of us can't get across the street!" Umbs said. "That's one of the biggest threats here in Tampa: people not yielding to pedestrians in the crosswalks."

Umbs, who retired as the Federal Highway Administration's chief safety engineer, was a tour guide with an unusual purpose: to point out how bad the roads, drivers and pedestrians are in the Tampa Bay area.

On a short stretch of Hillsborough Avenue, in less than an hour, Tampa proved his point.

An electrical box lay broken in the grass after getting smacked by a car. A bus, stopped at a dropoff located too close to the intersection, clogged traffic. A man in a dark sweat shirt talked to himself and crossed against the signal.

Umbs' audience, which included 10 Middleton High School students, state and city officials and other traffic experts, saw daily life on the street in a new light.

"I think people, every day, they just get used to this," said Andre Steadman, 16, a junior at Middleton.

Wednesday's event, called a "road safety audit," was sponsored by the Florida Department of Transportation, the National Organizations for Youth Safety and the American Traffic Safety Services Foundation.

Why Middleton High School students? Just a few blocks east, near the Sanwa Farmer's Market, Middleton freshman Shenika Davis was hit and killed as she walked to school in October.

Along the tour Wednesday, Umbs spoke over the din of traffic. He pointed to a sidewalk that ended prematurely. He noted the absence of a raised surface for blind people near a crosswalk. He talked about the tire marks that showed motorists were turning too close to the sidewalk and about the road signs placed too far along the street to benefit drivers.

The group watched a pedestrian, an overweight woman leaning on a walker and moving very slowly. She was only about 15 feet from the crosswalk at N 22nd Street, but she inched south across Hillsborough Avenue on her own.

Umbs realized her reasoning: The woman needed to cross Hillsborough Avenue, but there was no place for her to push her walker without hiking it over the sidewalk. So she picked a spot midblock where a business' driveway acted as a ramp.

The group headed east on Hillsborough, past Burger King and Delicious Wings and Fun Lan drive-in and Winn-Dixie and Checks Cashed, until they stopped at a metal cross shrouded in red and pink flowers.

It was the scene of Shenika's death.

The distance between two marked crosswalks, at N 22nd Street and N 30th Street, is a quarter of a mile. Like many pedestrians, Shenika decided to cross midblock.

Peter Hsu, a safety engineer for the Florida DOT's district office, said the state looked into putting in a new crosswalk. But the traffic patterns and pedestrian numbers did not justify the addition, he said.

State officials expect to install new blinking pedestrian signs by the summer.

The Middleton students grew quiet as they studied the memorial.

Chrishonta Bell, 15, said she walks to school but sticks to the sidewalks. "I don't even like crossing the street anymore," she said.

After a few minutes, the students boarded a bus headed for the Tampa Convention Center to learn more about roadway safety at the American Traffic Safety Services Association's annual meeting.

On the other side of Hillsborough Avenue, a woman on the sidewalk shuffled west. In her arms, she held a baby. Traffic roared by.

Reach Jodie Tillman at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.

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