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Your tax dollars at work: on the side of a race car

The Florida Department of Transportation is spending $174,500 in federal highway taxpayer money to sponsor two NASCAR stock cars at this weekend’s Daytona 500. This is one of the cars.
Published Feb. 23, 2013

Quick: You're a state that has twice the pedestrian deaths than the national average.

What do you do?

If you're the Florida Department of Transportation, you spend $174,500 in federal highway taxpayer money to sponsor two NASCAR stock cars at Sunday's Daytona 500, then hope the publicity will make everyone aware of the dangers of cars hitting humans. And maybe save a few lives.

At least that's the plan, according to Trenda McPherson, the pedestrian and bicycle safety program manager for the state transportation agency. The agency, which is known more for building highways than sidewalks, picked this week because accidents spike during the international event.

Every year more than 250,000 people attend the big race at the Daytona International Speedway — and they do so by walking along and across the eight-lane road that runs in front of the race track. From 2008 to 2011, there were 10 crashes involving pedestrians within a 5-mile radius of the racetrack during Speedweeks, including three last year, according to the state.

Yes, there is an elevated walkway that a $2 million state grant paid for back in 2000 to avoid such accidents, and "people use it," McPherson said.

"But the majority of the people still use the street," she said.

So your tax dollars will pay for a campaign that includes sponsorship of two stock cars on a team that includes champ and native Floridian Joe Nemechek. That's one Nationwide car on Saturday and one Sprint Cup car on Sunday, each car's hood festooned with a public service announcement in the shape of a red bull's eye, perhaps a crude reminder of where a pedestrian would land if smashed by a car.

The state sponsorship includes this chipper post on Twitter from Nemechek, otherwise known as @FrontRowJoe87: "Excitement revving up on the Daytona pavement with our friends from Dept of Transportation #AlertAlive #FDOT #NASCAR"

In addition, cameras inside Nemechek's car, which will appear to a TV audience of millions, will include the campaign's tag line: "Alert today, Alive tomorrow."

Yes, it might be hard to notice the slogan as cars whiz by at close to 200 mph. But the exposure could be valuable, according to research conducted by Joyce Julius & Associates. Depending on how Nemechek does this weekend, the state could receive millions of dollars worth of television exposure.

What's more, an airplane will circle over the speedway for three hours Sunday, pulling a banner that reads: "Alert today, alive tomorrow: Safety doesn't happen by accident."

Asked if the fans swigging Bud Lights in the grandstands would understand that this message from on high had anything to do with pedestrian safety, McPherson explained that the message is intended to be about more than pedestrians.

"The car has to be alert, too," McPherson said. "Everyone has to be alert. We didn't want to just focus on pedestrians."

(We're assuming McPherson doesn't want the race drivers looking up at the banner.)

The campaign includes radio ads for drivers 65 and up, a class of drivers that are more prone to crash into pedestrians, McPherson said. They will air in April. Additional ads will target impaired drivers, who also have higher rates of hitting pedestrians, McPherson said.

Asked why the cars sponsoring pedestrian safety have to go so fast, McPherson laughed.

"Because they're a race team," she said.

When told about the campaign, Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, also laughed.

"I laugh only because it's so stupid," said Fasano, who served as chair of the Senate's transportation appropriations committee from 2004 to 2010. "I don't see how spending $174,500 at the Daytona 500 will do anything to promote auto safety. No one in attendance will take any notice of this message."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at mvansickler@tampabay.com.

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