TREASURE ISLAND — One by one they mounted the stage, sharing stories of bones broken and bodies crushed, of hospital bills rising and flashbacks haunting. Of physical therapy and psychological trauma. Of loved ones killed and loved ones mourning.
Over the thrum of nearby traffic and the squawking of seagulls circling overhead, survivors, families and safety advocates observed the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims on the shores of Treasure Island Beach on Sunday, and called for change.
The gathering was one of two events held in Pinellas County, where an average of two people are killed or severely injured by drivers daily. Thousands more events were held nationwide and across the globe as communities demand the ability to walk, bike, run, scooter and move without fear. In Greece, a hospital hosted a blood bank donation drive to boost supplies needed to support road victims. In Bangladesh, a nonprofit held a candlelit ceremony in the nation’s capital.
“It’s not about us versus drivers,” said Peter Wray, an avid cycler, crash survivor and one of the Treasure Island event’s organizers. “It’s about safer streets for all.”
Deaths of pedestrians and bicyclists in Pinellas County nearly doubled in 2021 from the year prior, reaching the highest death count in more than 15 years. While most other rich nations are becoming safer, road deaths in America continue to climb: 2021 was the deadliest year for pedestrians in four decades.
The White House has pledged a multibillion-dollar initiative to tackle the rise in deaths nationwide, with President Biden’s infrastructure package signed last year including $5 billion for a new Safe Streets and Roads for All program.
“We must all dedicate ourselves to ending this crisis on our roadways and creating a safer transportation system so that more families do not have to share this grief,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement last week. “We know roadway deaths are preventable because some places are doing a much better job at preventing them — both abroad and within certain U.S. communities.”
At least 34 bicyclists, 75 motorcyclists and 101 pedestrians have been killed in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties this year, according to estimates from Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Behind each number, is a person who had just been going about their day.
Martin Koch, 70, had a gentle heart and a razor-sharp wit and was just starting to enjoy retirement.
Christopher Cramer, 11, loved to draw and sing and was heading home after grabbing a Slurpee.
Ethan Weiser, 15, was kind and curious and was trying reach his school bus stop.
Jessica Bibza, 53, devoted her career to protecting wildlife and was training for another triathlon.
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Lia Sorsby, 6, loved to play with her cousins and saved the lives of six other children with her donated organs.
Behind each name is a family unexpectedly thrust into mourning and advocates who rise up to ask, again, for officials to do more to prevent future heartache.
On Sunday, Julie Henning mounted the stage at Treasure Island Beach and recounted being hit by a Madeira Beach garbage truck driver in May 2020. She was left with a crushed pelvis, eight broken ribs, a punctured lung and a traumatic brain injury. She spent a month in the hospital and four months in a wheelchair, she told the crowd. Among them, her parents Linda and Bob, who held a sign that read, “Dad of a survivor.”
In front of her stood what was left of her bike, the front wheel gone and the handlebars dangling by the brake cables.
“This is just the start,” she told the crowd. “This is the start of a local movement.”
Organizers and attendees hope to shift talk into action, demanding local leaders commit to infrastructure changes known to make roads safer, such as expanding sidewalks, improving street lighting and slowing speed limits. “Our roads are dangerous by design,” said Bob Griendling, who helped plan the Treasure Island event and was hit by a driver last spring.
After a moment of silence and stories of survival, those who gathered walked down Gulf Boulevard in memory of those no longer here to do so.
Along the three-block route they encountered a sign posted by the sidewalk: “Drive Safely in memory of David B. Happeney,” a 49-year-old man who was struck and killed by a drunk driver in 2010. He loved NASCAR and the Buckeyes.
Past the sign walked the uncle of Weiser, who hopes his teen nephew’s lasting legacy will be safer streets for other children, and the parents of Henning, who are grateful she defied the odds and lived.
“Thank you,” Henning said to the rain-jacket-bundled crowd as the event drew to a close. “And please, everyone be safe out there.”