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Roads mark a morbid year

Mothers, high school students and a poet were among the victims. Also, an unusually high number of pedestrians _ seven.

In all, 49 lives were claimed in 48 fatal crashes on Hernando County roads during 2004, making it the deadliest year on record.

The previous record was 43 dead in 1996.

Last year's total was 44 percent higher than in 2003, despite a downward trend in fatal crashes across the state and nation, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. Cars are becoming safer, explained Charles Mixson, the county's engineer.

Officials say Hernando's rapid growth rate plays a role in the sharp increase in fatalities during each of the past two years. Thoroughfares that once were congested only during the winter are now home to more vehicles year-round, and the road system has not expanded fast enough to support the increase in traffic.

During fiscal year 2003-04, 36,979 license plates were issued in Hernando County, compared with 21,923 four years earlier, according to state motor vehicle records. Also in that period, the county's population rose from 130,802 to roughly 150,000.

And demographics experts say the growth will continue.

"My initial reaction is that this is a sign that we are becoming more urbanized," Mixson said. "More people, more cars. You have more chances of getting into an accident."

Sheriff Richard Nugent also thinks people are less patient and more aggressive and hurried.

Engineering factors include no curbing on rural roads and poor lighting _ a cause of many of the fatalities involving pedestrians.

Traffic engineers are closely watching the number of crashes and where they are happening to determine where road and intersection improvements are needed. Predictably, many of the wrecks occur at or near heavily traveled intersections near shopping areas.

"I would be more concerned if we did not have the population growth and fatalities went up," Mixson said. "We are still lower per population than Pasco and Pinellas. But it certainly concerns us."

Asked whether the deadliest year on Hernando roads means that the roads are less safe, Nugent replied: "My personal opinion is that there are more vehicles, and people need to be more observant. . . . When you have not increased the number of primary roads, you are just jamming more people onto the same old roads."

The deaths of four Hernando High School students _ Joseph W. Hall, 18, and Eric Lee Cipolla, Tommy Gaulin and Carlee Horan, all 16 _ caused the Sheriff's Office to re-evaluate how such crashes occur and how to prevent similar ones.

In a separate wreck, which involved a young, unlicensed driver, Richard T. Reynolds struck and killed David Watts, 75, on Sept. 11. Reynolds are charged with third-degree murder after he was accused of running a red light. Reynolds, who was 15, had a learner's permit, and there was no adult in the vehicle.

"We never had that many inexperienced drivers in accidents," Nugent said.

The Sheriff's Office was criticized in the past year for employing deceptive traffic enforcement tactics. It plans to take more direct measures, targeting aggressive drivers and fostering awareness.

Recently, officials signed a contract with the Hernando County Airport to operate a program there to teach young people to avoid collisions. Designed for inexperienced drivers 16 to 18 years old, the program will mesh four hours of classroom instruction with eight hours of behind-the-wheel training when it debuts next month.

During the second half of this year, officials plan to join a six-month study, now under way in Manatee County, of red light cameras at some of the high-crash intersections in the county. Red light cameras have not yet been approved by the Legislature.

Officials are also looking at acquiring stealth vehicles, as the Florida Highway Patrol has done, and starting a court diversion program where drivers could avoid substantial penalties for driving infractions if they participate in an educational program.

But enforcement and education can go only so far, Nugent said.

"You can't station a deputy at every intersection," he said. "Enforcement is only part of the solution. There needs to be some personal accountability. People need to take responsibility for themselves on the roadways."

Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Duane Bourne can be reached at (352) 754-6114 or dbournesptimes.com.

DEADLY ROADWAYS

The past year was the deadliest on record on Hernando Countys roadways. There were 48 fatalities. The previous record was 43 in 1996.

INTERSECTIONS WITH MOST CRASHES IN 2003

Rank Intersection Crashes

1. Mariner Blvd. and Spring Hill Dr. 61

2. Mariner Blvd. and Cortez Blvd. 47

3. Deltona Blvd. and Cortez Blvd. 35

4. Commercial Way and Spring Hill Dr. 30

+ 5. Pinehurst Dr. and Spring Hill Dr. 30

6. Mariner Blvd. and Northcliffe Blvd. 27

+ 7. Mariner Blvd. and Linden Dr. 25

+ 8. Linden Dr. and Spring Hill Dr. 24

9. Interstate 75 and Cortez Blvd. 23

10. Deltona Blvd. and Northcliffe Blvd. 21

FATALITIES SINCE 1995

'95 17

'96 43

'97 23

'98 21

'99 25

'00 27

'01 25

'02 25

'03 34

'04 48

+ Figures include more than one place where the roads intersect.

Sources: Florida Department of Transportation, ESRI, GDT

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