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Overnight crashes reinforce danger for bicyclists on Pinellas roads

Robert Allen Shepherd, 62, died after he was struck on Ulmerton Road by a hit-and-run driver Wednesday morning. He was riding in the bike lane and wearing a reflective vest, said the FHP.
Robert Allen Shepherd, 62, died after he was struck on Ulmerton Road by a hit-and-run driver Wednesday morning. He was riding in the bike lane and wearing a reflective vest, said the FHP.
Published Jun. 1, 2017

It was time for a break, so Joseph Samson hopped on his bike and pedaled into the night.

He left the Clearwater convenience store he worked at Tuesday night, his mother said, and was heading south across Cleveland Street. It was about 9:45 p.m., near the intersection of Fredrica Avenue, when a pickup truck driving east hit him, then left him behind.

Not even eight hours later, Robert Allen Shepherd, 62, was wearing a reflective vest as he rode his bike, adorned with lights, westbound in the bike lane of Ulmerton Road when he was struck east of 58th Street N by an unknown driver who fled the scene, the Florida Highway Patrol said.

Samson, 34, was taken to Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, where his mother, Sandra Samson, said Wednesday afternoon that he was in a coma with a broken leg and pelvis. Shepherd, tossed into the roadway, was run over by another car and killed.

Photos of both scenes show mangled bicycles resting on the asphalt that cyclists, pedestrians and drivers struggle to share every day in Pinellas County, and across Florida. Shepherd's death marks the first bicycle fatality of the year in Pinellas, according to Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles data — a grave tally in a place that has a higher rate of crashes and fatalities for bicyclists and pedestrians than any major county in Florida.

"We've been built around the automobile, and that's made it hard to make too many bike-friendly places," said Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, the county's transportation and land use planning agency that found Pinellas to be the worst of Florida's major counties based on the average rate from 2011 to 2015.

Even though dense development should make it more accessible, Blanton attributed the county's challenges to tourists unfamiliar with the area and a desire to move traffic toward the beaches, making east-west corridors such as Ulmerton Road unfriendly to slower-moving bicyclists.

Pinellas has invested a lot in its trail system, Blanton said, but the street network has been left behind. Forward Pinellas is working with the county and the Florida Department of Transportation to add features such as wider bike lanes with buffers from the road and narrower car lanes to slow vehicle traffic. The group provides funding for local governments through the Complete Streets Program for planning and construction projects that make roads friendly to all who use them.

"You have to balance needs for residents and people traveling through those roads to get where they need to go," Blanton said.

Despite the county's challenges, Pinellas doesn't fare much differently than the state. Even though Florida is mostly flat with pleasant weather year-round, study after study has determined it to be one of the least-safe places to bike or walk.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis from 2008 to 2012 found the state had the highest rate of bicycling deaths in the continental U.S. A report released this year by Smart Growth America placed the top seven most dangerous metropolitan communities for pedestrians in Florida, including Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater at No. 7.

Clearwater police Lt. Mike Walek, who oversees the department's special operations division that includes traffic control, recommended that bikers follow road rules and motorists avoid distracted driving. He also recommended bicyclists wear reflective vests and helmets, as well as outfit their bike with a light — required by law while riding at night.

"There's rules …," he said, "and I think all too often, people take shortcuts."

Sandra Samson, 60, had her own plea to motorists to do their part in preventing what happened to her son.

"You've just got to watch and pay attention and don't be talking on your phones or texting," she said. "Just try to be a safe, careful driver."

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Kathryn Varn at kvarn@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8913. Follow @kathrynvarn.