At the outset of the 21st century, Pasco County's roads became more dangerous. In 2000, 81 people died in fatal crashes, an all-time high.
The record lasted just 12 months. In 2001, the count reached 107 deaths, a number that still stands as the most traffic fatalities in a single year in Pasco County.
The most dangerous road then is the same as it is today — U.S. 19 in west Pasco — and recent numbers show traffic fatalities are more prevalent here than elsewhere in the region or state.
The grim statistics of several years ago sparked a significant community response. Police conducted traffic safety blitzes on U.S. 19, and volunteers handed out blinking lights for pedestrians to carry or wear. New easier-to-read street signs with larger lettering went up. And the state Department of Transportation installed street lights along 14 miles of the mostly unlit route.
Making the highway safer became a key component of the original Penny for Pasco sales tax referendum in 2004. Millions of dollars were earmarked for DOT improvements that included sidewalks, channelized medians and a continuous right-turn lane to allow through traffic to pass by slow-moving motorists looking for business addresses.
Traffic fatalities began a three-year decline, but topped triple digits again in 2007 with 101 fatal crashes. They've never been as high since and dropped to a low of 55 in 2013 before trending upward again.
Despite the improvements — and 15 years after the all-time fatality record — Pasco roads remain more dangerous than the rest of the Tampa Bay region, the state of Florida and the nation.
"We might be the worst of the worst,'' said Craig Casper, transportation planning manager for Pasco's Metropolitan Planning Organization, the road-planning board consisting of county commissioners and elected municipal officials.
In a five-year period ending in 2016, Pasco's fatal crashes occurred at a rate of 1.66 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. The national rate is 1.18, the rest of Florida is 1.32, and a six-county Tampa Bay region rate is 1.36.
Here's what those number mean: Had Pasco County maintained the statewide average, it would have had 56 fatal accidents annually. Instead, the county averaged 67.4 over the five-year period, 20 percent higher than the rest of the state.
In other words, people are dying at a more frequent rate on Pasco County roads than on a typical highway anywhere else.
The numbers are even worse for crashes with injuries. Pasco's five-year injury crash rate is 24.07 per 100 million vehicle miles, more than double the state average of 10.22.
If Pasco mimicked the state average, there would have been 504 injury crashes annually. Instead, the county injury crashes topped 1,100 each of the past three years.
"That's horrible,'' said Commissioner Kathryn Starkey.
The data, compiled to meet new federal requirements, are intended to guide safety enhancements to try to reduce highway danger.
New Port Richey Council member Jeff Starkey (no relation to the commissioner) said a pedestrian bridge over U.S. 19 is key to improved safety. The city wants to build an overpass at U.S. 19 and Marine Parkway.
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The numbers appear to back him up.
Nineteen people died in 17 fatal crashes on U.S. 19 in 2016, the most recent year for which statistics have been compiled. Eleven of the victims were pedestrians. Two others were riding bicycles.
But the problems are countywide. The county has 264 intersections with traffic signals, and half of the nearly 1,200 crashes that left people injured in 2016 occurred at one of those intersections, said Casper.
Officials don't have an explanation, but plan additional examination to try to pinpoint specific causes.
"We can't attribute it right now,'' Casper told the MPO recently.
The county's own crash data from 2016 identifies multiple reasons for the fatal accidents that year including: intoxication, speeding, aggressive driving, failing to stay in a lane and running a light or stop sign.
Kathryn Starkey also pointed out that texting while driving is a statewide issue, not a problem exclusive to Pasco.
"I don't know why we'd be distracted more than anybody else,'' she said.
The most common time for a fatal accident was the 5 p.m. hour, and Wednesday was the busiest day with 16 fatal crashes. The most deadly month was July with 12 fatal accidents, which helps deflate a common misconception that snowbird-crowded highways are a leading contributor to Pasco's dangerous roads. Sixteen of the drivers in the fatal crashes were older than 65. But 34 of the drivers, including four teenagers, were younger than 35.
As part of the federal reporting requirement, state and local road planners must pick a specific target to try to reduce highway accidents. Pasco's MPO identified a short-term goal of attempting to reduce its crash rates to the statewide averages.
The DOT, meanwhile, has both a short-term goal and long-term vision of zero fatal crashes.
It's a goal, but not a realistic expectation. The state still projects there will be as many as 3,052 fatal traffic crashes in Florida this year.
Reach C.T. Bowen at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 435-7306. Follow @ctbowen2