Drivers are drowning in Florida’s canals

Of the nearly 1,100 people nationwide who died from 2013 to 2017 when vehicles went into water, 1 in 6 died in Florida.
In this Feb. 23, 2015 photo, a car is hauled from a canal in West Palm Beach, Fla. The driver was taken to a local hospital where he died. Palm Beach County has over 300 miles of canals, built to move water. Since 1997, 181 people have drowned in vehicles that ended in canals. (Lannis Waters/Palm Beach Post via AP)
In this Feb. 23, 2015 photo, a car is hauled from a canal in West Palm Beach, Fla. The driver was taken to a local hospital where he died. Palm Beach County has over 300 miles of canals, built to move water. Since 1997, 181 people have drowned in vehicles that ended in canals. (Lannis Waters/Palm Beach Post via AP) [ LANNIS WATERS | AP ]
Published Oct. 12, 2019|Updated Oct. 12, 2019

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — It runs alongside you as you motor, but you're oblivious — your mind is on your music, conversation, podcast and destination.

In the dark, you don't notice it at all. Sometimes a long strip of steel separates it from you. Sometimes nothing does.

It's water.

And if, for whatever reason, you veer off the road, you might find yourself trapped, with water pressure blocking your frantic attempts to open your door, or window or sunroof. You might be as much as 10 feet under. Because of silt and rotting vegetation and who knows what else, you might not be able to see out more than a few inches. You might not even know which way is up. You might be freezing.

And the water level will be rising. Even if help is on the way, odds are you'll drown in minutes.

What do you do?

RELATED: If you crash your car in water, these tools could save your life

Florida and Palm Beach County are ribboned with miles of man-made networks of murky canals. They were dug to move water, either to supply it or to drain it. Many originally were ditches dug to provide dirt that was moved a few feet to build up roadbeds. In maps and aerial views, the waterways — and the highways they mirror — stretch to the horizon.

Palm Beach County alone has 317 miles of canals. Those are just the ones supervised by the South Florida Water Management District. Many more are run by local governments, farms or private entities. And that doesn't count natural or man-made lakes or ponds.

All of them are full of water — an additional danger to the roadways that many other states don't have.

Of the nearly 1,100 people nationwide who died from 2013 to 2017 when vehicles went into water, 1 in 6 died in Florida, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The 185 deaths are 2 1/2 times the next-highest, 74, in California, which has nearly twice as many people. (Statistics include people in vehicles who might have died of other causes in the water.)

Since 1997, 181 people have drowned in vehicles in Palm Beach County, according to the Drowning Prevention Coalition of Palm Beach County. Historically, that's been the third-leading cause of drowning deaths, behind pools and the ocean.

The range of totals suggests no pattern. Five people died in 2018, six in 2017 and six in 2016. Ten died in 2015 and 2011, 16 in 2003 and 1997, and 18 in 1999. At least one person died every year. Some years, incidents killed several people at one time.

Six people have died in the 20 months since December 2017. All but one of them went into a canal.

Jennifer Green was one of the lucky ones.

She couldn't remember how her car ended up in the Boca Rio canal, near Glades Road, on Dec. 1, 2015, but she recalls breaking the driver's side window, then shouting for help because of the horror that her leg was caught under the seat.

"I closed my eyes so I wouldn't see the water flowing in, flowing in, flowing in," Green, then 64, later told The Post. "There was nothing to do but pray."

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Then she felt someone tugging on her. Paula Ursini, driving from her Wellington home to her shift at Boca Raton Fire Rescue, had spotted the car sinking. She pulled off her boots.

"I had no idea how deep it was until I jumped in and couldn't feel the bottom," Ursini said later. She got Green out and watched the car sink and vanish. Green could only cry on the shoulder of the person she later called "my hero."

Ursini says Green saved her life, too. The mother of two was in a divorce, a continent away from her family in Canada, and questioning her career choice. Then she learned the woman she'd saved was a nurse, had adopted a physically challenged child, and had a newborn grandchild.

Three weeks later, and five days before Christmas, Ursini went to Green's northern Broward County home for their first encounter since the rescue. They ran into each other's arms. Amid tears, Green repeated, "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."

The paths to many waterways often are blocked by a guardrail, or by or a crash barrier made from cables or chain-link fence. Even those don't always work. Vehicles also have known to fly over rails or through chain-link or wooden fences. Some have shot into backyards and dropped into swimming pools, to the delight of internet video addicts.

Often when authorities respond to cars that have gone into a canal, they find other vehicles that have somehow ended up in the dirty water — dumped by thieves or insurance scammers. They are places authorities have found missing people and illegal contraband.

"With lakes, ponds and canals particularly prevalent along our county roadways, drowning incidents involving motor vehicle crashes are, tragically, quite common," Drowning Prevention Coalition manager Anna Stewart said.

"Being involved in this type of crash is a big fear that many drivers have. Because every incident is different, predicting an outcome is difficult. However, drivers and passengers alike can educate themselves by having a plan of escape and a rescue escape tool," Stewart said.

Of all of Palm Beach County's canals, the two most deadly, at least anecdotally, likely are the ones that parallel State Road 80 and Florida's Turnpike.

Both have been the sites of crashes that later sparked installation of guardrails.

Archaeologists believe that for perhaps 2,500 years, people have dug ditches to drain fields, improve navigation and protect sacred burial grounds.

In 1881, Philadelphia toolmaker Hamilton Disston bought 4 million acres of Central Florida, at 25 cents an acre, and carved out numerous canals, including some connecting Lake Okeechobee to the southwest coast. And in 1905, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward was elected governor on the promise to drain the Everglades. By 1927, a network of canals accounted for 440 miles of levees and 16 locks and dams.

In 1947, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began a massive project to overhaul the canal design. It significantly helped officials control and divert water. Four main canals stretch from the big lake. One is the West Palm Beach Canal.

It comes out near Canal Point, becomes the C-51 Canal at 20-Mile Bend, and dumps into the Intracoastal Waterway just past the spillway at the West Palm Beach-Lake Worth line.

In April 2010, a 70-year-old supervisor for Palm Beach County school buses left her Belle Glade home for the compound in Royal Palm Beach. When she didn't show, authorities searched up and down State Road 80. About 9 miles east of Belle Glade, they spotted tire tracks leading off the road. They found the car in the canal, the woman dead and still trapped in her back seat.

Amid demands for guardrails along the south side, which fronts the canal, the Florida Department of Transportation said in July 2010 the roughly 18-mile stretch from State Road 15 to 20-Mile Bend didn't qualify because it had wide shoulders and the canal was more than 60 feet away. A month later, the agency reversed itself. It set a date to call for bids, in July 2011.

That was too late for a woman and her daughters, 10 and 3, who drowned in February 2011 when their car went into the canal 8 miles east of Belle Glade. They were the 10th, 11th and 12th people to die that way on that road alone in seven years.

"If there had been a guardrail there, she could have bounced off it," an emotional Palm Beach County Sheriff's spokeswoman Teri Barbera said at the time.

By early 2012, the road would have 18 miles of guardrails roughly between Belle Glade and 20-Mile Bend.

Still, Florida's communities are filled with all kinds of lakes that can be just as dangerous. Missing since Nov. 7, 1997, the skeletal remains of William Earl Moldt were found in his white 1994 Saturn sedan submerged in a retention pond in the Grand Isles neighborhood in Wellington in August.

The car was spotted by a resident looking at a Google Earth image.

Nearly 30 miles of guardrails

The canal along the turnpike is in a far more urban setting. Actually, it's plural. From the Hillsboro Canal, at the Palm Beach-Broward county line, all the way to the suburbs of West Palm Beach, twin waterways line most of the length of the turnpike.

In 2004, a church bus heading back to Broward from a day at a Central Florida water park dropped into the north canal. Three teens died.

Right after that, Irv Slosberg took action.

Slosberg then was a state representative, and a longtime road safety advocate with a personal stake. In February 1996, eight years earlier and almost literally around the corner from where the church bus had gone in, a crash that didn't involve water did kill five teens, including Dori, Slosberg's 14-year-old daughter.

Slosberg pushed through a bill in 2005 that installed guardrails over nearly 30 miles in Palm Beach County. After that, Slosberg said in 2014, fatalities and serious injuries from vehicles going into canals dropped by 80% to 90%.

“I’d like a guardrail up,” he said at the time, “everywhere that there’s bodies of water that you could drown in your car.”