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Beach towns' Gulf Boulevard a risky trip for pedestrians

Walking or cycling in the area can be tricky, especially along Gulf Boulevard, which connects the beach communities for roughly 15 miles from St. Pete Beach to Clearwater.

Injuries and deaths from what law enforcement and transportation agencies dub "pedestrian crashes" along Gulf Boulevard have alarmed residents for years. This year, two people were killed in Madeira Beach along the road: The first was a 92-year-old man crossing mid block — not at a crosswalk; and the other was a 20-year-old woman riding on a skateboard at night. Both involved hit-and-run drivers.

Since 2010, 10 people have been killed along the road, according to the Florida Department of Transportation and the Treasure Island Police Department. Overall, 72 people on foot or bicycle were hit from 2010 to 2014, according to the DOT. The figures break down this way: 22 in 2010, 17 in 2011 and 11 each year from 2012 to 2014.

A national study published in 2014 listed Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater as the second most dangerous metro area for pedestrians in the country. When seasonal residents make their annual pilgrimage, the population doubles in certain areas and Gulf Boulevard bursts at the seams with traffic on weekends. Sections of the road handled anywhere from roughly 15,000 to 22,000 cars per day on average, according to DOT figures for 2013 — the most recent year such figures were available.

Jarred by the study in 2014, officials sprang into action. Through DOT, state, county and municipal law enforcement agencies, academics and advocacy groups, a plan to make Florida roads safer was hatched, including a focus on Gulf Boulevard. Grants have been handed out to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office ($59,000), St. Pete Beach Police Department ($10,000), Treasure Island Police Department ($5,500) and Indian Shores Police Department ($600) to warn and cite motorists and pedestrians since last December, according to the DOT and those law enforcement departments. Awareness programs with businesses have become routine, along with campaigns by advocacy groups targeting tourists and beachgoers. Crosswalks have been installed or upgraded — 49 in all — to meet new standards, according to DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson.

"Since 2010, the overall number of crashes occurring at crosswalks has decreased," Carson said. "This is a tremendous accomplishment, especially when considering that the total number of marked crosswalks has increased, and informal observations indicate more pedestrians are crossing now than in 2010."

But the fact that many beachgoers are tourists unfamiliar with the area remains a problem. Many cross wherever they want, darting between drivers already distracted by various sights and sounds along the road.

"There were a tremendous amount of pedestrian issues that came up about four years ago," said Treasure Island Police Chief Armand Boudreau. "We had four significant fatalities in a short time that all involved alcohol."

Boudreau said traffic changes when snowbirds make their way to the area. Treasure Island's official population was just recalculated, he said, to 6,700. But when seasonal residents return, the population can balloon to 18,000-20,000, he said.

During four hours on one recent Sunday, 48 cars did not yield to pedestrians after the buttons to cross had been pushed by people trying to cross at crosswalks between 129th and 131st streets. The button on a pole on the west side of Gulf Boulevard was not working, leaving people vulnerable when they crossed.

Some pedestrians appeared to be alarmed at the lack of motorist awareness.

"Right as we were crossing, I was talking about this very topic," Mark Jenkins, 45, of Largo, said while there with his two daughters. "These crosswalks are the worst thing in the world. I think there should be red lights at them, but even then, I still think it's dangerous out here. People (motorists) just don't know that they're supposed to stop. If they had red lights, instead of yellow flashing lights, I think it would alert drivers that they're supposed to stop."

Others shrugged it off, saying they knew the dangers of Gulf Boulevard and never crossed without making sure it was safe.

Julie Bond, a senior research associate at the Center for Urban Transportation Research, housed on the campus of the University of South Florida, said it is everyone's responsibility to be aware.

"However, if drivers aren't yielding to pedestrians, then that's when enforcement plays a big role," said Bond, who also works as a project manager for the DOT-funded WalkWise Tampa Bay program.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said the money his office received from the DOT has paid for overtime so deputies can patrol areas like Gulf Boulevard. He didn't think adding red lights or changing the signs at crosswalks would have much impact.

"People should know to stop,'' he said. "I don't think it's an understanding issue. I think it's a paying attention issue, especially when it comes to distracted driving involving alcohol, cellphones and radios."

The sheriff went on to say that as long as tourism and alcohol are a part of Gulf Boulevard, it will be a "chronic problem that will be cyclical, but we can mitigate it through education. But you can't have signs up everywhere, and you can't put a fence up."

Beach towns' Gulf Boulevard a risky trip for pedestrians 10/22/15 [Last modified: Thursday, October 22, 2015 2:33pm]
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