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Crash exposes speeding woes

Signs of the spectacular Saturday night Corvette crash in Yacht Club Estates were still evident days later.

The base of a street sign rested atop Nick Sorace's tiled roof, where it landed after the sports car rammed it. Two gouged-out lawns marked the car's erratic course into Sorace's living room. Sheets of plywood covered the front of the house as a bemused Geico insurance agent assessed the weekend's damage.

The accident didn't shock neighbor Geraldine Batell.

"The way people drive around here, they come around here without slowing," she said of 79th Street S, which curves past her house.

"They don't pay attention to stop signs. Once they get on to 79th, it's no longer 79th Street. It's I-79."

Police issued a careless driving citation to the driver of the Corvette, 30-year-old Willard Moore, and arrested him. He also faces a DUI charge. According to a police report, Moore said the car's brakes failed, and he refused to take a sobriety test.

A residential waterfront community off Central Avenue just before the toll booth to Treasure Island, Yacht Club Estates is a 46-year-old neighborhood where original homes are giving way to larger, more modern styles. Lying beyond Causeway Isles, another waterfront community, the two neighborhoods share 79th Street S as their main artery. The road does not lead beyond these neighborhoods _ it is not a speedway to somewhere else.

St. Petersburg's transportation and parking department says the road is at the top of the city's hazard index.

As such, the section of 79th Street S that runs through nearby Causeway Isles now has a lower speed limit and textured and slightly raised crosswalks designed to slow traffic. This year Causeway Isles will also get medians and landscaping islands at the side of the road to encourage drivers to slow down, transportation and parking director Joe Kubicki said. The area also will get bike lanes, he said.

These changes came because of a survey the city conducted last year at the request of Causeway Isles' residents. The transportation and parking department assigned the street a numerical score based on a "hazard exposure index." Calculations factor in traffic volume, speed, crashes over a three-year period and number of pedestrians.

"We recorded some of the highest speeds on average for local roads in the city," Kubicki said.

"Their hazard exposure index was at the top," neighborhood transportation manager Michael Frederick said.

"There were 7,231 vehicles coming out of there," he said of the 24-hour survey of Causeway Isles.

(Combined, Causeway Isles and Yacht Club Estates have about 800 single-family homes.)

"We had a fairly high crash rate," Frederick said. "We generally got speeds as high as 70 mph. I know when we were out there doing the crosswalks, I saw ma's and pa's driving down 79th Street being passed by service equipment doing well over 30 and this is in the middle of day. And they are doing that through a marked construction zone."

Mrs. Batell said she would like to see the Causeway Isles traffic-calming devices in her neighborhood and lower speed limits.

But Kubicki, the traffic official, said, "A neighborhood needs to ask us to come in and ask us to do a traffic plan. About 35 neighborhoods have asked us."

State law establishes the maximum speed limit of 30 mph, he said, unless changed by the local government. In St. Petersburg, Kubicki said, adjustments are made "either as a result of very significant problems or a request from the neighborhood through a comprehensive neighborhood plan."

Saturday night's crash notwithstanding, such an invitation might not be forthcoming from Yacht Club Estates.

Residents have been cool to traffic calming devices in the past, said Ed Hotz, president of the homeowners association.

"In the past it's been brought up, but it always seems not to have the support or been shot down, especially the speed bump idea," said Hotz, who lives on 79th Street.

"That wasn't going to deter those cars the other night," he said, describing Saturday night's crash as "a pretty good one."

The accident was the third in that vicinity in three years, said Bill Rahter, who also lives on 79th Street.

He said he once saw two cars drag racing down the street, one on either side of the median. That meant one was going the wrong way.

Mrs. Batell, who has lived in Yacht Club Estates since 1965, said she blames residents and service workers for speeding through the mostly 30 mph neighborhood. She said younger families are moving in and she is concerned about the children.

"You would think that people would be careful because of the children," she said.

The driver in Saturday's accident missed the oak tree in the yard across from Mrs. Batell's house, but knocked out a spotlight under it. He also missed a fire hydrant as the car jumped the curb and barreled across the street, demolishing the 12th Avenue street sign and landing in the living room of Sorace's house at 7900 12th Ave. S.

Sorace was not at home.

"I got a call from the police and I think, in my head, I thought that my burglar alarm had gone off. I'm just thankful that no one was hurt," said Sorace, owner of the Disc Exchange, a record shop at 6712 Central Ave.

When he arrived home after 9 p.m., "three-quarters of the car" was in his living room, Sorace said.

"It made a direct hit on the stereo system and sent it flying. We had a lot of personal property damaged," he said.

According to the police report, Moore and his passenger, Page Harris, 15, were returning from Ted Peters' Famous Smoked Fish in South Pasadena when the accident happened. The vehicle was traveling more than 50 mph, according to police.

The vehicle is registered to Yacht Club Estates resident Deborah Harris. Moore told police that the brakes failed just before he hit the house.

Kubicki, the city's transportation director, said speeding "is an endemic problem in the city of St. Petersburg. We have great roads and they're straight and they're wide and (drivers) just lose track of how fast they're going."

A child hit at 20 mph has about an 80 percent chance of surviving, Kubicki said. At 40 mph, about a 20 percent chance.

"I wish people thought of that when they are driving down a street," he said.

"It's so much greater a chance that they would kill that child if they are speeding."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

A stretch of 79th Street S near the toll booth to Treasure Island is at the top of St. Petersburg's hazard index. The city measured the part that runs through Causeway Isles, where much of the traffic is speeding, some of it at 70 mph. One resident calls the road I-79. Saturday night, on the part of 79th Street that extends into Yacht Club Estates, a Corvette had a spectacular crash.

1. Going at what police call a " high rate of speed,"' the Corvette misses an oak tree, hits a spotlight under it.

2. The "Vette' misses a fire hydrant and jumps the curb.

3. The car blows through a decorative street sign, which pirouettes onto the roof of a house.

4. The Corvette barrels into the living room of this house at 7900 12th Ave. S. The owner isn't home. The driver, injured, says his brakes failed. He is arrested.