ST. PETERSBURG — Rachel Shumway was waiting on a call from her grandfather to tell him about a major step in her life: At just 20, the Citrus County woman was buying a house.
Marcelo Benedicto, 79, had promised to phone her, but wanted to make a quick trip to the store first. Benedicto used a manual wheelchair to get around after he lost a leg to diabetes nearly a decade ago. Fifth Avenue North was dark as he tried to cross while heading home about 7 p.m. on a Sunday, Nov. 7.
They never had their talk. The driver of a white, two-door, older-model car struck and killed Benedicto, then fled.
Benedicto is one of at least five people killed in the last six weeks trying to cross a Tampa Bay street in a wheelchair. There appears to be no pattern in the grim trend. Each happened in a different community — St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park, New Port Richey, Tampa and Clearwater. Some victims were in a crosswalk, some in the middle of the block. Some didn’t wait until they had the right of way.
Before these deaths, the last local report of a traffic fatality involving someone in a wheelchair was in February, seven months earlier, according to Tampa Bay Times archives.
What is clear is that all the victims, older people with disabilities, are the most vulnerable subset of a statistic that plagues Tampa Bay. More than 120 pedestrians die per year on the roadways of Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, according to Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles data for 2019, the most recent year available.
For pedestrians, Florida is the most dangerous state and Tampa Bay the eighth-deadliest metropolitan region in the country, according to Dangerous By Design, a report released in March by Smart Growth America. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit advocates for healthy communities.
Using a calculation that includes local population, pedestrian deaths and walking rates, the report gives Tampa Bay a score of 223, compared to 295 for the most dangerous metro area, Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, and 151 for the lowest of the top 20, El Paso, Texas.
No one on a local or national level keeps track of pedestrian deaths involving wheelchairs. Dangerous By Design faults the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System for lumping wheelchair and scooter deaths in with those involving skateboards, roller skates, baby carriages and more.
But the report said people 50 and older, especially those 75 and up, account for a disproportionate share of pedestrian deaths. The youngest person among the five who died in Tampa Bay wheelchair crashes recently was 59.
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Communities need to address the problem, said Dr. Elizabeth Perkins, associate director of the Florida Center for Inclusive Communities at the University of South Florida.
“We’re talking about people’s independence here,” Perkins said. “People who use mobility aids have the right to be able to safely navigate and use their environment.”
Marcelo Benedicto was about as independent as they come. He seldom stayed still. In the years before his leg was amputated, he lived in a houseboat in an area known as Hurricane Hole near Bay Pines VA Medical Center, just south of the Tom Stuart Causeway.
He was an unofficial spokesman for the live-aboard community there. His daughter, Tina Benedicto, 58, had to use a boat to visit him there.
A New York-born veteran of both the Navy and the Air Force, Benedicto moved with his family to Florida so he could work on bridges. Then he quit to live his dream of working as a charter boat captain.
“My dad was a seaman,” his daughter said. “I mean the air, the sea, the sun, the stars. He was connected to the earth.”
The low point in Benedicto’s life came when he lost his leg and had to leave the boat. Daughter Tina and her daughter Rachel spent three straight months with him. Tina called it a blessing in disguise.
“We stayed in a motel for three months for the entire summer, spending time with my father in the worst part of his life. He was in the worst pain, but he loved it.”
Later in life, he lived with his partner, Deborah Benedicto, in their St. Petersburg home. He spent his time tinkering in his garage, making art from anything — a whale carved from wood and named for his boat, The White Whale, or a mirror frame of seashells collected on a family trip to Fort DeSoto.
During the past year, doctors diagnosed Benedicto with lung cancer. He had smoked most of his life. He underwent an imaging test just a few days before his death. Tina is still waiting for the results. She said it’s possible he was cancer-free.
Rachel called her grandfather a night owl. He would sleep in a leather recliner during the day and stay up at night, venturing out in his wheelchair or surrounded at home by photos of his family. Marc, her 2-year-old son, was one of his favorites.
“He was his only great-grandchild, and he was in love with that boy,” she said. “Every time I brought him over, he was so attached to him, and I know (Marc) is not going to remember it.”
A troubling trend
Transportation options become more limited as people age, so expect to see more older people using sidewalks and public transportation, said Raquel Pancho, the city of Tampa’s Americans with Disabilities Act coordinator. One reason: Older people are growing as a share of the population and living more active lives than in previous generations, working and volunteering after retirement.
“That’s something for our community to consider as we’re trying to promote safety,” Pancho said. “As we’re maneuvering in our communities, we need to be vigilant from many realms.”
An informational guide from the U.S. Department of Transportation acknowledges the importance of designing sidewalks for all pedestrians, especially those with disabilities who have limited travel choices and often rely on a pedestrian environment.
“Traditionally, design parameters have been based on the ‘standard pedestrian,’ an agile person with good vision, hearing, and mobility,” the booklet said. “These design parameters do not meet the needs of the growing disabled population.”
Still, four of the transportation corridors where the recent wheelchair fatalities occurred meet the standards of the American Disabilities Act, according to an analysis conducted over Google Earth for the Tampa Bay Times by an investigator with the nonprofit group Disability Rights Florida. The analysis was conducted before the fifth death occurred.
A sidewalk or street crossing that meets accessibility requirements undergoes a checklist of criteria, including width, grates that are perpendicular or diagonal to the direction in which a pedestrian is moving, and curb ramps that accommodate all pedestrians.
But even with the right design, a number of obstacles can confront someone in a wheelchair trying to cross a road. Perkins of USF points to abandoned electric scooters and building construction in growing communities.
“You can have issues when a battery might run out, or dropped litter creates a hazard,” she said. “The actual road surface itself is an issue, if it’s got cracks or potholes.”
In addition, people with disabilities may need more time to cross and may be difficult for drivers to see with their lower height, she said.
Here’s a rundown of the recent local deaths:
Oct. 5: A vehicle struck and killed a 59-year-old man using a wheelchair at 4210 S Dale Mabry Blvd., in front of the Lowe’s home improvement store. Tampa police did not release the name of the victim.
Oct. 6: Gary Boisvert, 63, of Pinellas Park, was killed while crossing U.S. 19 in a crosswalk but against the “Do Not Walk” signal. The driver, Derek Dious, 26, fled but was later arrested on a charge of leaving the scene. Dious has pleaded not guilty to the charge.
Oct. 15: A 79-year-old man in New Port Richey was struck and killed by a sport utility vehicle driver while riding a motorized wheelchair. He was on the shoulder when he started to cross and did not use a crosswalk or wait for a crossing signal. The Florida Highway Patrol did not release his name.
Nov. 7: Marcelo Benedicto was struck and killed on Fifth Avenue near 21st Street North.
Nov. 13: Calvin McCray, 63, died while trying to cross Missouri Avenue at Jeffords Street in Clearwater in a wheelchair. McCray used a crosswalk but didn’t wait for the flashing pedestrian sign, rolling out when the light turned green for vehicles, the Clearwater Police Department said.
Nov. 14: Another pedestrian was killed trying to cross Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa, this time at Kennedy Boulevard. WFLA-TV, Ch. 8 reported from the scene that the victim was in a wheelchair but Tampa police have declined to confirm that.
St. Petersburg police are still looking for the driver who hit and killed Benedicto. Three days after the collision, they released video of the car involved and asked anyone with information to call 727-893-7780 or text SPPD & Tip to TIP-411 (847-411).
The Benedicto family has set up a fundraiser for funeral costs, titling it “Help to Bury a Vet.”
Granddaughter Rachel was planning a trip for her 21st birthday next month to the Hard Rock Casino in Tampa. Reaching the milestone was a goal for the aging Benedicto and he planned to celebrate with her.
“I think the hardest part about it is not necessarily that he passed away, because that’s life,” she said. “But it especially hurts to know the way he died.”