CLEARWATER — The crash was two weeks ago and now Matt Croasmun is standing at the bus stop on Belleair Road and S Haven Drive, wondering why and how.
There is no sign, no reflective paint, no lighting. Nothing to alert drivers that a child might be trying to cross. But now there is a homemade memorial of flowers and teddy bears affixed to the barriers that protect the decades-old trees running along the road’s edge.
On Aug. 26, Croasmun’s nephew, Ethan Weiser, stepped onto the asphalt of this two-lane stretch of Belleair Road with the day and the rest of his life ahead of him. He was trying to reach his school bus stop.
He stepped onto the asphalt in a county where an average of two people are killed or severely injured by drivers daily, in a country where traffic deaths recently hit a 20-year high. He was 15 years old and it was 6:44 a.m. on the third Friday of his sophomore year.
A sedan emerged from the darkness, hitting the Largo High School student, a quarter mile from his home and in front of his younger sister. Ethan was the third pedestrian killed before sunrise that late August morning in the Tampa Bay area.
“Who thought this would be a sensible position for a bus stop?” Croasmun asks now, watching the steady drip of cars roar through the gantlet of trees. “The only safety measures here are to protect the oaks.”
From 2017-2021, there were 468 crashes along Belleair Road, 63% of which happened on the stretch through the city of Clearwater, according to data provided by the county’s land use and transportation planning agency, Forward Pinellas. More than a quarter of crashes involved speeding, 41 involved nonsevere injuries and 12 involved severe injuries. Three people were killed.
In that same four-year window, there were two construction projects on Belleair Road that included enhancements for pedestrians, the county’s public works department said. The intersection with Belcher Road, 0.7 miles from Ethan’s bus stop, received wider sidewalk on one side, upgraded pedestrian signals and bigger pedestrian landings in 2017. And a Belleair sidewalk damage repair project was completed in 2020.
But there is something of an open secret among local motorists: Avoid the road if you can. Especially at rush hour. Especially at low light.
“I have long had concerns about Belleair Road,” said Whit Blanton, Forward Pinellas executive director.
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
But in a county with a patchwork of dangerous roads and finite resources, Belleair hasn’t been a priority for improvement funds, he added. “There are, unfortunately, a lot of other, more deadly roads.”
Belleair is not on the county’s high-injury network, a collection of streets that make up about 17% of roadways across Pinellas but have 75% of crashes with fatalities and serious injuries. Over a third of the elementary, middle and high schools in Pinellas County — including Ethan’s — are within a quarter-mile of the network, according to a 2021 report.
The driver who hit Ethan, a 60-year-old Tampa resident, told the Florida Highway Patrol she did not see him as he tried to cross the street. In the crash report, the investigating officer noted the driver made “no contributing action.” Her car, a red 2020 Mitsubishi Mirage, was towed but she was uninjured.
Croasmun believes had Ethan’s bus stop been better signposted or lit, perhaps the driver would have slowed down sooner. Perhaps the crash would have been less severe. Perhaps Ethan would’ve broken bones. Perhaps he’d be teaching his nephew about the dangers of Florida’s roads, rather than planning a funeral.
Neither Forward Pinellas nor the county’s public works department maintains a comprehensive inventory of how many miles of lit or unlit roadways exist.
But planners and transportation officials have long recognized poor lighting — as well as speed, sidewalk gaps, long distances between pedestrian crossings and low connectivity in suburban development — as a key contributor to unsafe streets.
“We have too many crashes,” Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton told county commissioners at a meeting three years ago. “We also know that where we don’t have street lights, we have significantly more crashes.”
At the time, the county was considering asking Pinellas voters to support a sale tax increase for transportation improvements, such as infrastructure to boost pedestrian safety.
County transportation staff looked at 100 miles of unlit primary and feeder roadways across Pinellas, Burton said at the July 2019 meeting. They estimated that $40 million of capital investments in lighting could reduce pedestrian and vehicular crashes and fatalities by about 28%, according to slides from the meeting.
But the pandemic arrived and surtax referendum plans were shelved, Burton told the Times in a recent interview.
The speed limit on the stretch of Belleair that Ethan was attempting to cross is 35 mph. Pinellas County Public Works has not received any requests to consider a change, said department director Kelli Hammer Levy.
A bus stop has existed at Belleair Road and S Haven Drive for at least a decade, serving seven schools during that time, according to Isabel Mascareñas, a spokesperson for Pinellas County Schools. Four students were assigned to the stop this year.
No complaints about the stop have ever been filed with the county schools transportation department, she added.
For Ethan to have reached the bus stop using a crosswalk, it would have added 0.6 miles to his otherwise 0.2 mile walk from his home. That crossing is at the intersection of Belleair and U.S. 19, which sees close to 18,000 vehicles daily.
Ethan’s stop meets state and county guidelines, Mascareñas said.
“When is simply meeting the guidelines ever good enough for anything to do with school?” Croasmun, a 43-year-old Lakeland resident, says.
In the past decade, Pinellas County has received $577,882 from the Florida Department of Transportation via the Safe Routes to School Program — state-managed, federal funding that aims to make it safer and easier for students nationwide to walk and bike to school. But the application requirements can be a heavy lift for staff.
“We have heard from some of our local governments that the extensive requirements can pose a challenge to applying,” said Chelsea Favero, a Forward Pinellas planning manager. “All of our partners want to draw in as many resources as they can to improve safety, but the capacity of their staff to do so can be a challenge.”
In the weeks since his nephew was killed, Croasmun has become “a research extraordinaire” on road safety, as he puts it. He has been on televisions, spoken to leaders and received messages from those concerned with the safety of their own child’s bus stop.
But in the quiet moments after the meetings and away from the cameras, he wonders: “Did I get the right message across? Did I share all my facts? Was I too serious? Too jovial?”
Some semblance of validation will only come with change, he says.
“There’s zero reason for there to be another Ethan that is just trying to be a sophomore in high school and trying to live their life and they don’t get the opportunity because the driver couldn’t see them,” he told Clearwater leaders at a City Council meeting on the first Thursday of September, six days after Ethan was killed and an hour before his family hosted a candle-lit vigil at the site of the crash.
“We can’t sit here and point fingers and point blame and say improvement is not in the budget because there is no price you can put on a person’s life,” he told Pinellas County commissioners at a meeting a week later.
And a day after that, he stood in the early morning darkness on Belleair Road and watched the yellow bus that was once Ethan’s collect a high school freshman.