Sunday, December 17, 2017
Public safety

Retiree's death leads to push for traffic light at U.S. 98 and U.S. 301

Shortly after 7 p.m. Aug. 23, Edward and Sally Young left their home near Dade City and headed for dinner at Arby's in Zephyrhills. Ed, five days shy of his 82nd birthday, slid behind the wheel of his blue 2011 Ford Fiesta and drove 1 mile on U.S. 98 to an intersection many consider among the most dangerous in Pasco County. Friends and family say he had never been in an accident; never even had a ticket.

At the same time, Eileen Ladolce, 51, drove her gray 2001 Saturn sedan north on U.S. 301. Five minutes from home, she approached the U.S. 98 intersection carefully. She had commuted daily to her job at the Zephyrhills Walmart Supercenter for three years and had witnessed several wrecks and near misses.

Now it was her turn. The blue Ford drove past the stop sign. Ladolce yanked her steering wheel but slammed into the driver's side at an estimated 50 miles per hour. The Youngs wound up unconscious in a ditch next to a fruit stand. Ladolce's car swerved out of control into southbound traffic. She thought for sure a truck would hit her. Out the window she saw Chapel Hill Gardens Cemetery.

"My mother is buried there,'' Ladolce said last week, physically healed but still shaken by the memory of that day. "I was thinking, 'I'm coming to join you.' "

Ed Young, a Korean War veteran and master mechanic from Ohio who raised three children with his wife of 57 years, spent his final agonizing month at Lakeland Regional Medical Center. He had been in good health before the accident but could not recover from his injuries and an infection. He died on Sept. 21. Hodges Funeral Home, which overlooks the dangerous intersection, hosted services.

"It seemed weird,'' said Nancy Jones, Ed's sister-in-law. "You could look right out the door and see where it happened.''

Randy Bush, a Hodges funeral director since 2001, looks out that door every day. "It's bad,'' he said. "Everybody here knows to be very careful.'' At least once a month, he said, an employee calls 911 to report a bad accident.

After Ed Young's accident, his friend and neighbor at the Southfork modular home park, Don Reno, pledged to make the intersection safer. He had been the last to speak to the Youngs before they left for Arby's. He saw the wreckage.

"I didn't know what to do, so I started with the Sheriff's Department,'' said Reno, 73. "I said, I've lost my best friend. He was a safe driver, but that intersection is ridiculous.''

Within hours he was in contact with state Department of Transportation officials in Tampa. Dorothy Cady, president of the Southfork Homeowners Association, joined in the discussions. State officials were already well acquainted with her, since the park had petitioned for a traffic signal at the intersection in 2005.

More than 1,000 homes sit within a mile of the intersection, Cady said. "We all have to go through it to get to Dade City or Zephyrhills.'' In November, she organized a meeting with residents of four mobile home parks in the vicinity. More than 100 people packed the Southfork community room. She asked, Who has been in an accident at that intersection or has witnessed one?

"Almost everyone raised a hand,'' she said.

Cady wrote letters to congressional representatives and state legislators. The DOT installed some flashing warning signs just south of the intersection and painted the stop sign pole red. But that's not enough, Cady said.

"We want a light there,'' said Cady, who noted that just north of the intersection, the county is spending $8 million to expand Clinton Avenue. "That's going to bring businesses and even more traffic,'' she said.

• • •

On Wednesday morning, I re-created Ed Young's final drive, starting at Southfork where he and Sally had lived for 11 years. It's a lovely community with a pool and shuffleboard courts and huge shade trees. All the homes are neat, most surrounded by flowers and lush lawns. Residents get around in golf carts. They fly American flags.

It took only a minute to reach the stop sign. It took five minutes before I dared to turn south toward Zephyrhills. Traffic heading north is heavy and fast. And just as you get a break, you have to wait again for cars coming from Dade City and turning toward Lakeland.

Nancy Jones says her brother-in-law knew the danger. He warned everyone to be careful there, she said. In the hospital, he said he just didn't see the car that hit him.

Said Reno: "It was a gray, overcast day before you would put on headlights, and Ed pulled in front of a gray car. Obviously he didn't see it. But had there been a red light there, he would have seen that and not moved until it turned green.''

Sally Young, 78, still suffers pain in her legs and back. She lives in a nursing home in Lake Wales.

• • •

As the week ended, Kris Carson, spokeswoman for the DOT, told me the agency is studying accident reports and traffic counts to determine what steps to take. She said the numbers should be ready in two weeks.

Meanwhile, about 2 p.m. Friday, two more cars collided at the intersection. A couple from Southfork attempted to turn south from U.S. 98 onto U.S. 301. Wreckers towed the cars. Nobody was seriously injured — this time.

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