The miles pile up quickly.
After 4½ work days and four nights of soccer dad duty, the odometer registered 413 newly driven miles. It is much worse for thousands of commuters. But the highway miles on two interstates and the Suncoast Parkway, ventures on U.S. 41 in Pasco and Hernando counties and east-west drives along State Roads 50 through 56 brought home an imperative point: Motorists, more than roads, need improving around here.
Each year there are 6.4-million automobile accidents nationally, injuring 2.9-million people and killing more than 42,000. Someone dies every 13 minutes, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
We're the problem. Careless driving or failure to yield the right of way are the leading causes of fatal accidents, contributing to 1,546 deaths, or 53 percent of the traffic fatalities in Florida, in 2006.
Drivers are careless, rude or self-absorbed, believing wrongly that their time is more valuable than the person behind the wheel of the next vehicle.
Here is a sampling of the behavior witnessed over recent days:
• Two cars driving parallel in the left-hand turn lanes from Cortez Boulevard (SR 50) to the southbound entrance ramp of the Suncoast Parkway switched lanes nearly simultaneously in a race to be first to the toll booths. It was irrelevant since both lanes offered SunPass access and both drivers sped through without pausing.
• A beige Cadillac entered northbound U.S. 19 from a side street and proceeded to cut off oncoming motorists in three lanes as the driver hurried to the median curb cut to turn south. (And a chance to cut off more cars?)
• Ditto the maneuver of the northbound blue sedan with New York plates on Interstate 75. It switched from the SR 56 exit ramp back to the lanes for through traffic without pausing or signaling. At 70 mph.
• A driver in an older-model compact drew an angry horn blast one morning (not from me) after he correctly turned left onto Parkway Boulevard from westbound Ehren Cutoff in Land O'Lakes. The guy in the red Chevrolet at the stop sign on Parkway wrongly presumed he was entitled to the right of way.
There were several other close calls, as well. As far as I could determine, none of the drivers was a teenager. It is a surprise.
This is a grave concern for every parent. The 15-year-old at our house obtained his permit over the summer and now drives periodically in anticipation of the second-semester high school driver's education class. So, whom should we worry about?
Teenage drivers are involved in more accidents than any other age group, 454 per 10,000 licensed drivers, double the statewide average. Sadly, they seem to come in bunches. Four Hernando High School teenagers were killed in 2004. Likewise, five students or recent graduates of Wesley Chapel High School died on the roads in 2006 and two more students were killed in a single-car crash in May of this year.
The local response is to advocate safe-driving classes for high-schoolers. A new idea is to raise the minimum driving age.
Let's head back to the roads. Six days ago, I am northbound on U.S. 41 in the lane to turn left onto Gator Lane and the entrance to Land O'Lakes High School. As I approached the intersection, a red Toyota Tundra pickup jumped in front of me from the through lane on the right, essentially making a left-hand turn from the right lane. The driver did not signal.
Once on campus, drivers split into two lanes with some pulling behind the line of buses and others passing by to get to the main entrance. A vehicle to my right paused behind the last bus, then swerved over into the adjacent lane. The driver did not signal, and the motorist in the next lane had to honk the horn to avoid a collision.
The horn-honker was yours truly. The other vehicle? You guessed it. A red Toyota Tundra pickup.
Here is the most dismaying aspect: The driver did not park in the student parking lot. Rather, he or she dropped off a student at the front entrance and then left. In other words, the person with an inability to use a turn signal and a propensity for changing lanes without concern for other cars most likely was an adult driver chauffeuring a teenager to school.
Worry about teen driving? Absolutely.
But if we want our children to be safe motorists, we would be better served to lead by example.
C.T. Bowen can be reached at [email protected] or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6239.