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Injured Tampa bicyclist now pedals for safety

These are some of the safest places to ride your bicycle: your living room, your back yard, maybe your driveway. Anywhere except the roads. Florida is ranked the most dangerous state in the nation for bicyclists, and last year Hillsborough County had the second-highest number of fatalities, according to state Department of Transportation (DOT) statistics. Pinellas is ranked the third most dangerous county.

Ed Datz aims to change that.

Before he was hit broadside by a car as he bicycled on Davis Islands, Datz didn't pay too much attention to cyclists' rights and road conditions that are harrowing for cyclists.

He was fit, 40 years old and financially secure. Crusades were not part of his lifestyle. But the accident changed that, he said.

Datz, 40, rode out of his driveway in Palma Ceia and headed for Davis Islands early Sept. 12. He had a light on the front of his bike, a flashing light on the rear and was wearing a helmet, he said. He was riding in one of the least traveled areas of the city.

"I felt safe on Davis Islands," he said. "But it was a false sense of security."

It was about 6:45 a.m., and the street lights were still on as Datz passed Peter O. Knight Airport. A car coming the other way turned through Datz to get to the airport driveway.

Datz's left leg was crushed, his shoulder broken. If not for his helmet, the impact of his head on the windshield likely would have killed him, he said.

"I'm a mess," he said. He has had three operations and faces another. A steel rod runs the length of his shin.

At home for a month, unable to return to his marketing job at Totaltape Publishing, Datz stewed over the accident.

"I was racing with the Grim Reaper. I beat the Reaper, but it's the last race I'll enter," he said.

The prognosis is uncertain. He may never ride again. Indeed, he may never run again _ a significant change for a man who was once a marathon runner of national standing and a top-rated cyclist in the Tampa area.

Now Datz is ready to make some changes from the sidelines. It won't be easy.

"Florida for the past decade has been the worst place for bicyclists to ride in the nation," said Dan Burden, bicycling coordinator for the DOT.

The reasons have as much to do with geography as people, he said.

Unlike the North, where drivers must travel slower on roads that were designed for slower vehicles, Florida's roads are veritable speedways. Combine that with tourists who can't find their turns and drunks who can't find the road, and you have a recipe for disaster, Burden said.

Ninety-one cyclists were killed in Florida in 1989, according to DOT statistics. Ten of them died in Hillsborough County. Dade County was at the top of the fatalities list with 13.

"Your area has a severe problem," Burden said of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties."It's literally like a war zone."

There were 416 reported injuries that required medical attention, Burden said. But that this is just a tenth of the accidents estimated by the DOT. Based on the number of reported injuries, DOT estimates that the total number of cyclists injured in accidents is 10 times greater. DOT can compile numbers only on injured cyclists who seek medical attention or file a report with the police.

Datz has some ideas to lower the number of bicycle accidents in Hillsborough County.

First, he said, bicycle lanes ought to be put on Bayshore Boulevard and Davis Islands, two of the most popular places for riders. He also would like traffic rerouted on the Bayshore during certain weekend hours to allow cyclists to ride unmolested.

Even before construction crews were tearing up the promenade, the Bayshore was a tough ride, Datz said. "I rode there with a lot of trepidation."

State and local officials have begun to address the issue.

Burden said the state's plan is keyed to building roads that give cyclists some breathing room. Lanes should be 14 feet wide where possible, and the shoulders of the roads should be paved so cyclists and cars don't have to compete for the same pavement.

Just as important as overhauling the roads is a change of attitude, Burden said. Drivers must accept that they are not the only taxpayers on the roads. Indeed, cyclists tend to be an affluent group with an average income of about $40,000, he said.

And there are a lot of them. The Florida Department of Natural Resources estimates there will be about 67-million bicycle rides through the state this year. Richard Walker, owner of Dud Thames Bike Shop, said the variety of new bike bicycle models indicates business is healthy and getting healthier.

Ironically, Datz and Burden said bicyclists may have been poking sticks in their own spokes, so to speak. Some ride atrociously _ against traffic and through red lights.

Locally, cyclists are not organized into any lobbying group.

"It's a yuppie thing. I just think there's a subculture we've grown up in. We feel invulnerable. We're making a lot of money. It's kind of a me-generation thing. We're saying, "I've got my money, my family, my physical conditioning. Why change the world?'

" Datz said.

Since the accident bettering the lot of cyclists has become Ed Datz's cause.

"It comes right behind my commitment to my family and my commitment to my work. It's one of the most important things in my life."