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Deadly Tampa Bay, a safer place to walk? It could happen

True story about how scary it is to walk around in this area:

One morning last fall, Tampa police were preparing for a press conference. Along with neighboring law enforcement agencies large and small, the department was about to get a big chunk of a $430,000 grant aimed at reminding drivers to share the road.

Police would target busy pedestrian crosswalks that drivers routinely roll through despite painted markings, flashing lights, signs and everything but dancing fire-eaters to point out that, yes, people cross the street here, and, yes, you have to stop and let them.

Or risk a $151 ticket.

And yes, police would be looking at jaywalkers, too.

Before the press conference, a federal muckety-muck from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wanted a look at those problem crosswalks. So police Sgt. Carl Giguere drove him to Twiggs Street, where daily throngs walk to and from the courthouse and drivers search for parking, a dangerously oblivious mix.

They had a look and drove on. Within 30 seconds, the sergeant estimates, he got a call: Someone was just hit by a car. A lawyer headed to the courthouse. In that very crosswalk on Twiggs.

It will not surprise you to hear that, yet again, we are one of the most dangerous places in America for pedestrians, with 905 deaths in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area from 2000 through 2009, second only to Orlando, according to a Transportation for America analysis released this week. Tragic headlines repeat themselves about the homeless or kids just trying to cross the street. It feels safer to hoof it in New York City, where drivers at least seem aware of your existence.

Police hope this enforcement around our downtowns, schools and neighborhoods will be the start of long-term attitude change. There's no bigger day-spoiler than being pulled over, whether it ends up in a warning, a separate violation or a full-freight, failure-to-yield ticket. Even seeing others around us get nailed has to get our attention.

At the courthouse, regulars pause to watch motorcycle cops pick off motorist after motorist. The news is encouraging. Since they started, it's a "night and day difference now," Giguere says.

Sure, some motorists are distracted driving those unfamiliar downtown streets for jury duty or to pay a parking ticket. But others have some interesting ideas about the rules.

"We get a lot of, 'I'm a car. I'm bigger,' " Giguere says. "He should have to wait for me."

Sigh.

Giguere, who is also a traffic homicide investigator, can tell you some truly horrible things about what a car can do, if you ask him. Like how at only 10 to 13 mph, it can cause compound fractures to bones, and after 20 mph, begin decapitation.

The day of that press conference, the woman behind the wheel was indeed distracted, trying to find her way in heavy traffic. She did not see lawyer David James, who was legally in the marked crosswalk.

He was lucky, relatively speaking, if starting your day with a broken leg and a compound fracture can be considered lucky. "I've often said that's the most dangerous part of my day at the courthouse, walking across there," says James, a living, breathing lesson that we are hopefully starting to learn.

Deadly Tampa Bay, a safer place to walk? It could happen 05/24/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 11:43pm]
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