ST. PETERSBURG — Bob Surprenant and his wife, Darlene, parked their car the night of April 9 and walked toward a restaurant to celebrate Bob’s 61st birthday.
As they crossed Central Avenue in a designated crosswalk, a pickup truck plowed into them. Bob died that night. Darlene, also 61, died of her injuries nine days later.
The driver stopped and cooperated with police. Three months later, he was cited for a traffic offense — failure to yield the right of way. His license was suspended for a year, he was fined more than $1,000 and ordered to complete a driver improvement course.
It was a tragic end for a couple married 26 years, all the more tragic coming in a year of resurgent deaths among pedestrians and bicyclists in Pinellas County.
The Tampa Bay area, like other parts of Florida, routinely ranks among the worst nationwide in these grim statistics. But in 2021, as other counties in the region saw slight year-over-year increases and even one decrease, and as state and national numbers appeared to remain steady, fatalities in Pinellas nearly doubled.
Deaths of pedestrians and bicyclists in Pinellas totaled 85 during 2021 compared to 49 in 2020, according to the Medical Examiner’s Office serving Pinellas and Pasco counties. The last time there were this many pedestrian and bicycle-related deaths was over 15 years ago. On average, a combined 51 pedestrians and bicyclists are killed each year in Pinellas, according to reports available for four of the past five years.
Pinellas County, like many local governments in Florida, has signed onto a transportation safety philosophy called Vision Zero, based on the principle that loss of life is not an acceptable price to pay for getting around. For now, at least, the county is heading in the opposite direction.
The numbers are shocking, said Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, the county’s land use and transportation planning agency. Possible explanations, Blanton said, include chronic problems — long stretches of roadway between crosswalks, poor lighting, concentrations of pedestrians and bicyclists in low-income areas.
A new one for the list, he said, might be the changes in peak driving times brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
One thing the numbers don’t measure is the hole left in the lives of people who knew victims such as Bob and Darlene Surprenant.
Lynn Fraim, a long-time friend of Darlene’s, is mourning their deaths.
“She’s got three girls and a slew of grandchildren they left behind, so you know it’s by far a bigger loss for them,” Fraim said. “Whenever they got together, they got together at Bob and Dar’s house. If they had a problem, they went to Bob and Dar. They don’t have that anymore.”
Before the crash
The Surprenants attended high school together and reconnected years later while Darlene lived in New York and Bob lived in Florida. Lynn Fraim and Darlene were best friends when they were younger and talked on the phone each night.
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“One night, I tried to call her and her line is busy, busy, busy, and that went on for hours, and I didn’t know if something was wrong,” said Fraim, who lives in New York. “When I finally got ahold of her, she was like, ‘Oh, I’ve been talking to this guy named Bob. ... We really hit it off.’”
A few months later, Darlene visited Robert in Florida. She came back engaged. Bob and Darlene decided on a medieval-themed wedding at a Tampa campground, down to the costumes and decorations.
Fraim called Bob a teddy bear of guy with a kind soul. She described them as wonderful parents. They ate out a lot; neither much cared for cooking. Even on Thanksgiving, they would go for pizza. They decided to go out for Bob’s 61st birthday.
The couple had lived in St. Petersburg for most of their marriage, close to downtown. Darlene didn’t walk very often because of a bad back from a vehicle crash. For Bob’s birthday dinner in the 2000 block of Central Avenue, they parked just one street over from the restaurant.
In the past year, as of Dec. 31, 64 pedestrians died walking on a street or sidewalk in Pinellas County, the Medical Examiner’s Office said, and another 21 died riding a bicycle. That’s a combined increase of 73 percent over 2020, when 35 people died in pedestrian-related accidents and 14 people died riding a bicycle.
These deaths include victims who may have been injured in other counties and died in a Pinellas County hospital.
In Pasco County, 18 pedestrians and five bicyclists died in 2021, fewer than the 21 pedestrians and 11 bicyclists killed in 2020, the Medical Examiner’s Office said.
In more populous Hillsborough County, the Medical Examiner’s Office does not separate out pedestrians and bicyclists from the total number of people killed in traffic incidents.
The most recent 2021 figures available in Hillsborough are for the 11 months through Nov. 30: 58 pedestrian deaths and 13 deaths among bicyclists, according to the Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles crash dashboard. That’s five more than the 52 pedestrian deaths and 14 deaths among bicyclists during all of 2020.
Statewide, the dashboard shows 2021 was on pace with 2020 — 850 pedestrian and bicyclist deaths through Nov. 30 compared to 884 during all of the year before. National year-end figures for 2021 were not available through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The high numbers in Pinellas indicate something is going on, said Blanton with Forward Pinellas. He can’t say with certainty what it may be, he said, but he pointed to some likely factors.
The number of vehicles on roadways declined following the outbreak of the pandemic in March 2020, and in response, many motorists started driving faster, he said.
“We’ve sized our roads for congested conditions,” Blanton said. “If you’re driving down a six-lane or an eight-lane road and there’s not much traffic on it, it’s easy to go fast.”
In addition, he said, most pedestrian fatalities happen at night, and poor lighting on some roads in Pinellas County makes them dangerous. Lighting is concentrated at intersections, leaving long, dark stretches of roadway in between — stretches where people often cross rather than walking to an intersection.
“Most people aren’t walking out of their direction, so they’re crossing in the least well-lit area, and they’re doing what pedestrians do — making their own direct path,” he said.
U.S. 19 Alternate in Palm Harbor is one example, Blanton said. The distance between signals and crosswalks is about 2,000 feet, nearly half a mile — enough distance for motorists to reach speeds of 50 mph to 55 mph despite the 45 mph speed limit.
Some improvements are arriving in July 2023 through a state roads lighting program funded by the Florida Department of Transportation.
Another factor in the rise of pedestrian-bicyclist deaths, Blanton said, is that about half of them happen in lower-income neighborhoods where walking or biking are the only ways for many people to get around.
St. Petersburg police have responded to the rise in deaths, in part, by ramping up traffic enforcement.
For seven years, the department has taken part in a state-supported High Visibility Enforcement program, using data on where and when crashes occur to send out a sergeant and about four officers who distribute pedestrian safety pamphlets and bicycle lights. Each shift lasts about four hours, said police traffic Sgt. Mike Schade.
The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, other police agencies in Pinellas and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office also take part in the program.
Now, St. Petersburg police are escalating the effort through a concentrated program to issue warnings and cite offenders. As many as 15 officers converge at one time on areas prone to speeding and crashes. The goal is to reduce all traffic deaths, motorists included.
“So for the first half of 2021, we had 25 fatalities; in the second half, we had 16,” Schade said. “There is no way to prove these operations are helping, but the frequency of the crashes is going down in the second half of the year.”
Safe by design
Reducing speed limits can also help reduce danger, but state law requires that they be set at the speed traveled by 85 percent of motorists. One answer is to design roads from the beginning with all users in mind, pedestrians and bicyclists included — the goal of the Forward Pinellas Complete Streets program, Blanton said.
Some examples: adding curves or roundabouts to slow traffic and narrowing local road lanes from 12 feet to 10 feet. Community response often is divided over such changes, as has been the case with Drew Street in Clearwater, Blanton said.
“We’re implementing that where we can, but it’s a little challenging politically because the constituency of car drivers is pretty strong,” Blanton said. “They get pretty angry at you if you want to take away a lane.”
The state is spending some $6.5 million improving a 4.3-mile stretch of Drew Street, between Osceola Avenue and U.S. 19. The western half of the project, a residential section, will include some pedestrian-friendly changes — sidewalk installation on both sides and narrowing the four-lane road to two lanes with a center turn lane. East of Keene is primarily commercial businesses. It’s not a contender for lane reduction.
The best piece of advice for pedestrians to stay safe is to cross at crosswalks where you’re more visible to motorists, Blanton said. Also, be aware of your surroundings and whether others can see you.
Still, the story of crosswalk-users Bob and Darlene Surprenant shows how motorists have the upper hand. The Suprenants’ deaths were unnecessary and robbed the community of the good they did, friend Lynn Fraim said. Bob worked at Windmoor Healthcare, a psychiatric and substance abuse treatment center, and the couple volunteered at their church.
“I was going to retire down there. We had plans,” Fraim said. “We were going to be on the beach or on a front porch on our rocking chairs, watching the world go by. Unfortunately, we never got the chance to do that.”
Correction: The percentage increase of pedestrian and bicyclist deaths in Pinellas County has been corrected.