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Bicycle accidents on Memorial Causeway Bridge stump planners

CLEARWATER — Spurred by the frequency of bicycle accidents on the Memorial Causeway Bridge, Clearwater's planning and public-safety officials are reacting in what most would call responsible form.

County and city representatives have formed a task force, which met last week. They discussed the subtleties of bridge and bicycle mechanics in greater detail than many people ever have or will.

But as the discussion of how to improve the bridge's safety for cyclists moves forward, officials are stumbling over a vexing question: How do you regulate or engineer against bad behavior?

After two bicycle crashes in one day in January on the Memorial Causeway Bridge, the Pinellas County Metropolitan Planning Organization formed a task force to brainstorm ways to alter the bridge for a smoother ride.

But task force officials say that close examination of the bridge, which connects downtown Clearwater to the beaches and at its highest point offers postcard-ready vistas of the Intracoastal Waterway and Gulf of Mexico, reveals few obvious design flaws.

"I've been over that bridge a lot on a bicycle, and I have a lot of friends who go over that bridge — on foot, on bike," said Clearwater resident Chip Haynes, a task force member who has conducted an informal poll among local bicyclists about the bridge. "There's no trend. Most of the cyclists said, 'Not a problem for me.' "

He added, "Above a certain level, it falls to the individual to act in a responsible manner."

The bridge has some minor features that might hang up a cyclist. Extension joints at both ends disrupt the smooth sidewalks that run along either side of the road. On the west edge, the pathways veer off from a straight line.

The bridge also offers a rare instance of elevated topography in Florida's largely flat landscape — and with it, the chance to reach unsafe speeds going downhill.

The Clearwater Police Department has clocked cyclists coming off the bottom of the bridge at 45 mph.

But these are dangers that afflict mostly inexperienced cyclists, say some familiar with the issue.

"We're talking about the idiots who don't know what they're doing," Paul Bertels, Clearwater's traffic operations manager, said at the task force's meeting last week.

Lt. David Dalton of the Clearwater Police Department offered a slightly more generous formulation of the problem.

"It's the amateur ones, and those seem to be the ones who are dying and getting hurt," Dalton said. "What did you do when you were a little kid and you got on the bridge and wanted to go fast? That's what they're feeling."

That human impulse toward exhilarating speed might be too much for well-meaning government to conquer.

In the meantime, the task force continues to study the matter.

Peter Jamison can be reached at pjamison@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4157.

Bicycle accidents on Memorial Causeway Bridge stump planners 05/28/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 28, 2013 5:14pm]
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