Thursday, April 19, 2018
Public safety

Tampa Bay bicycle deaths rise in 2012

TAMPA — The summer of 2010 was a terrible time in Tampa bicycling history. Six deaths in six weeks, including LeRoy Collins Jr., son of the late Florida governor.

Bicycling advocates held vigils. They posted white "ghost bikes" in honor of the dead. Politicians talked about safety issues.

But tangible change has been scarce in Hillsborough County. And 2012 was worse.

Thirteen bicyclists died in Hillsborough this year. That is four more than in the previous year, two more than in 2010 and markedly more than the county's average of eight deaths a year since 1998.

"It's depressing," said avid cyclist Jose Menendez.

Bicycle deaths were up slightly this year in Pasco, which saw five deaths. And Pinellas tied its previous year with 10.

The numbers are not helping Tampa Bay's image, cycling advocates say. For several years, groups have listed the region as one of the most dangerous places for bicyclists and pedestrians.

"Part of the problem is that the road speeds are much too fast for sharing lanes," said Jim Shirk, chairman of the Hillsborough County Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee.

Above 30 mph, crashes often become fatal, he said.

In Hillsborough, five bicyclists were hit while attempting to cross multi-lane roads. One was just 18. Jessica Wortman was visiting from Tennessee.

"It's really tragic," said her father, Leslie Wortman. "She was such a sweet girl."

One cyclist was hit from behind at night. Another was killed by a car that drifted onto the paved shoulder on U.S. 41. Earlier this month, an 18-year-old was hit in a crosswalk by a driver who said he did not see the young man.

Two crashes were hit-and-runs, one in February and one in April. Both of those suspects were soon caught, and authorities suspected each was impaired.

Manuel Joseph Manna and Patricia Ann Hancock were each charged with leaving the scene of the crash. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Neither face manslaughter charges.

• • •

In 2010, talk of change buzzed through the region.

LeRoy Collins Jr.'s fatal crash that July was perhaps the most high-profile bicycle death. Then, two months later, a well-liked University of South Florida post-doctoral fellow was killed while biking on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

In April 2011, Hillsborough issued its Countywide Bicycle Safety Action Plan, and though it won a national award, several bicycling advocates say they have not seen the suggestions implemented.

"I don't think there's been any concrete action that has made an appreciable impact," said Shirk, of Hillsborough's Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. "If we have, that's news to me. We haven't seen a diminution in accidents."

Bayshore Boulevard now has a dedicated bicycle lane, but many do not use it because of debris and fast cars that sometimes drift to the right.

Also, some were upset with a Florida Department of Transportation campaign last summer, in which the department teamed up with local law enforcement to raise awareness of traffic laws. Some bicyclists thought it was simply a scare tactic.

The one real change, several said, was when local law enforcement started handing out bicycle lights and reflective vests this year to cyclists riding at night without the safety equipment.

Some bicycle lights were provided by the FDOT, and Hillsborough allocated $3,000 for more. St. Petersburg hands lights out, too.

But many of Hillsborough's other recommendations have not been implemented, because of lack of funding or effort.

One solution Shirk would like to see is large, separate bicycle lanes, like those in New York City; Portland, Ore.; Indianapolis; and Buenos Aires.

"Unless motorists and bicycles can share the lanes safely — which they haven't — I think the answer is to get them separated," Shirk said.

That is one of the recommendations in Tampa's InVision plan, put together by AECOM, a global consulting firm.

In its report, released last month, AECOM included a multipurpose trail called the "east-west Green Spine" that would run from the V.M. Ybor neighborhood, down Nuccio Parkway, through downtown, over the river, past the University of Tampa and out to West Tampa.

The city still needs to discuss which InVision recommendations it will implement and how they will be funded, said Randy Goers, Tampa's urban planning coordinator.

Meanwhile, St. Petersburg last year expanded its trails system, which recreational bicyclists and commuters use. The city added 4.5 miles this year, extending the Pinellas Trail through Childs Park to the Clam Bayou estuary.

"It provides a means for people to ride their bike as a form of transportation and stay away from the cars," said Cheryl Stacks, St. Petersburg's bicycle and pedestrian coordinator.

She also has been working with Pinellas County, which recently reviewed its crashes to determine the causes so they can focus safety efforts on the most prevalent dangers.

And she is working on a pilot program with the DOT to stencil "LOOK" signs on commercial driveways to remind bicyclists to watch out for vehicles pulling out of parking lots.

"Sometimes it's the simplest stuff that can make a big difference," Stacks said.

Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.

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