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N DALE MABRY HIGHWAY // INTO THE BELLY OF THE BEAST

You are in the heart of the beast when you see him _ that silly, silly man.

As you storm up N Dale Mabry Highway, the modern-day Main Street of northwest Hillsborough County, he dashes in front of your car and the phalanx of vehicles that surround it, on a crazed mission to reach a lunch spot on the other side.

You honk, swear and finally, brake.

You don't hit him, though you might if you thought it would knock some sense into him.

How can he do it? Doesn't he know?

N Dale Mabry Highway can provide him with almost anything he could want: a car, clothes or couch. A fast meal, a quick tune-up, a speedy print job. A life insurance policy, a bank account, a new apartment.

However, the beast, and the drivers who obey it, ask one thing: Cross at the light.

This is not your father's Main Street.

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That Main Street _ a quietly bustling, two-lane road with a department store, barber shop, movie theater and gas station _ is rare these days, especially in the suburbs. The people who first moved here in the late 1950s and early 1960s, to build better homes more cheaply among the orange trees and cows, still had to get their hair cut, their cars tuned, their thirsts slaked after work.

Dale Mabry came north, creeping up from Hillsborough Avenue in 1957 and finally expanding to four lanes last month near the Pasco County line. In the late 1970s, strip centers packed with all combinations of food (bagels, Chinese, steaks), furniture (for the nursery, living room, grave) and services (cash a check, groom your dog, wax your legs) began springing up in an endless one-story stream.

To get all the goodies, the shoppers had to drive, creating a brand of mind-rattling, nerve-shattering traffic matched only by U.S. 19 in Pinellas County.

While the stretch of N Dale Mabry Highway between Waters Avenue and Pasco County won't get any better, its northernmost end may not get worse. Nightmare or not, if you live north of Tampa, "Death Maybe" or "Snail Mabry" is where it's at _ as well as the primary way to get there.

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It may be the most direct route, but that doesn't mean you have to use it.

Linda Waugh doesn't toy with the beast. To get to her job as a receptionist at a dentist's office south of Handy Road, she jets across Dale Mabry on Fletcher Avenue, then winds her way behind the Village Center shopping mall.

Driving on Dale Mabry, she said, makes her crazy.

"There are enough ways for those of us who live up here to avoid it, and we all do," said Waugh, 54, who lives in Forest Hills.

Waugh's letter carrier, Pat Kubly, practically laughs in the face of the Dale Mabry traffic god. Except for a quick midtrip cross in front of Grand Plaza, he can hit every spot on his route from the Shoppes of Carrollwood to the Ayers/Sierra Insurance building without touching the road.

The trick, he reluctantly admitted, is to drive in the parking lots.

"If you tell them, it won't be so nice for me," said Kubly, 48. "It will be worse than Dale Mabry."

Not likely.

On any given day, 64,144 cars zoom north and south over a spot north of Fletcher Avenue monitored by the state Department of Transportation. North of Busch Boulevard, 72,282 cars pass each day.

Not surprisingly, they often hit each other.

This year, 308 collisions have occurred on Dale Mabry between Waters Avenue and the Pasco County line, according to Hillsborough Sheriff's Office statistics. In 62 of them, someone was hurt; in one, someone died.

Of the top 30 intersections for traffic crashes in Hillsborough County between January 1995 and June 1996, four were on N Dale Mabry Highway: at Van Dyke Road, 43; Waters Avenue, 41; Ehrlich Road, 40; and Fletcher Avenue, 32.

Without question, the road is at its most dangerous in this part of the county, said Cpl. Brett Saunders, who spent four years overseeing the traffic division for the Sheriff's Office northwest quadrant.

It's not because N Dale Mabry drivers are meaner or slower, more reckless or more rude than other drivers _ though it can seem that way. There are just more of them.

"It's the worst because it's the most volume . . . if you look at the fact that most crashes are caused by driver error, you're going to have the most crashes where you have the most error," Saunders said.

Besides the volume, the road is tricky because of all the "points of conflict" _ things like traffic signals on every block, and driveway after driveway in between.

Before you join in the gripe session, remember: It used to be a lot worse. Before the bulk of the highway was widened between 1988 and 1990, the cramped road and the construction that followed made for frequent hourlong backups. Drivers on S Dale Mabry Highway are still squeezing into four lanes south of Kennedy Boulevard.

"I think it's wonderful," said Pat Bobanic, 49, who has lived in Carrollwood since the 1970s, referring to present-day N Dale Mabry. "I have no complaints."

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