1. News

Pedestrian deaths climb across the country, and especially in Florida

Jatha Royal Jr. was walking home after a Saturday night selling snacks along the sidewalks of Ybor City when Tampa police said a pickup truck plowed into him in February.

The truck backed up. The driver saw Royal on the ground. Then he drove away.

Royal, 36, died on the street in an intersection without a marked crosswalk. His family said he was just five minutes from his house.

READ THE REPORT: Pedestrian traffic fatalities by state (2016 preliminary data)

It's an all-too familiar story in Florida: The state has the second-highest rate of pedestrian deaths in the country, according to a study released by the Governors Highway Safety Association.

The study said 3.12 pedestrians died out of every 100,000 people. The only state to exceed that was Delaware, with 3.38 per capita deaths. The group, which represents state highway safety offices, produced the report based on preliminary data from the first six months of 2016 extrapolated to the full year.

Florida is contributing to a grim national picture: Pedestrian fatalities have jumped 25 percent from 2010 to 2015, according to the study. Yet total traffic deaths increased by 6 percent over the same time period. When the final numbers are tabulated, the report said 2016 could be the first year in more than two decades where more than 6,000 pedestrians were killed across the country.

"This latest data shows that the U.S. isn't meeting the mark on keeping pedestrians safe on our roadways," GHSA executive director Jonathan Adkins told the Associated Press. "Every one of these lives represents a loved one not coming home tonight, which is absolutely unacceptable."

Researchers blame a host of factors: a better economy, lower gas prices, more people walking for exercise. Officials also believe that drivers and pedestrians alike are increasingly distracted by smartphones and other devices.

"The distractions we see with people out there in general is a problem," said Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Steve Gakins. "When traffic interacts with traffic, you have to pay attention."

And when Gaskins says traffic, he means everyone: drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists.

"Everyone plays a part and role in this," he said.

Florida doesn't consider talking on a cellphone without a hands-free device a primary offense, meaning drivers can only be ticketed for holding their phone to their face if they've already been pulled over for another offense, like speeding or driving with a busted taillight.

Dangerous road design also may be a factor. Pinellas County Metropolitan Planning Organization executive director Whit Blanton said his county has worked to decrease pedestrian deaths and injuries by installing mid-block crosswalks that signal for drivers to stop with flashing yellow lights. Hillsborough County did the same after a record 51 pedestrians died on its roads in 2015.

Unfortunately, he said, Tampa Bay's wide and multi-lane roads basically encourage drivers to regularly go 10 to 15 miles over the speed limit. When drivers are surrounded by so much space, Blanton said, they don't feel like they're going as fast as they actually are.

"I think the best thing to do is for drivers to slow down," he said. "We've restricted access to businesses so left turns are prohibited, the spacing of medians is limited … it sends a message you can drive as fast as you personally feel comfortable."

But the responsibility for being safe doesn't just fall on drivers. Pedestrians must also be cautious and use safety features when crossing or walking along roads.

Early Thursday morning, an 82-year-old Hernando County woman died after trying to cross Barclay Avenue north of Spring Hill Drive. Gaskins said the driver wasn't at fault, that the pedestrian didn't use a nearby crosswalk.

Jatha Royal was struck about 3:44 a.m. on Feb. 26. His 28-year-old sister, Carmelia Royal, knew her big brother often walked back to his house on N 12th Street after a night hawking snacks for cash.

She feared he might die this way. She almost visited Tampa the weekend her brother died. If she had, she wondered, maybe she could kept him from walking home in the dark?

"I always worried," she said.

This story includes reporting from the Associated Press. Contact Sara DiNatale at Follow @sara_dinatale.