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2021 was one of the deadliest years to be on roads in Tampa Bay counties. Why?

In 2021, traffic deaths surged 48% in Pinellas County and 28% in Hillsborough County.
Debbie Dunn, of Tarpon Springs, leads a group of cyclists along Curlew Road Wednesday, May 18, 2022 in Dunedin. The group was taking part in the annual Ride of Silence in recognition for those that have been injured or killed by a motorist.
Debbie Dunn, of Tarpon Springs, leads a group of cyclists along Curlew Road Wednesday, May 18, 2022 in Dunedin. The group was taking part in the annual Ride of Silence in recognition for those that have been injured or killed by a motorist. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Jul. 1

The red Camaro’s driver, police later determined, was going 101 mph when he hit the motorcycle Kelly Patino Riley was riding as a passenger.

The crash occurred in October, in a Pinellas Park neighborhood with a 35-mph speed limit. After impact, the car hit a street sign and plowed into a church.

Police found Patino Riley and the motorcycle driver lying on the road with traumatic injuries. Patino Riley, 34, was taken to the hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

Patino Riley’s death left her four children — now 3, 9, 10 and 12 years old — without a mother. Making it worse: Their father, Lance Riley, had been killed in a bicycle crash just five months earlier.

“You just don’t have the answers for when something like that happens, to the children especially,” said Riley’s cousin, Wynter Breeden. “You just don’t even know what to say to them.”

Kelly Patino Riley with her four children, now aged 3, 9, 10 and 12. Riley was killed in an October hit-and-run motorcycle crash in Pinellas Park.
Kelly Patino Riley with her four children, now aged 3, 9, 10 and 12. Riley was killed in an October hit-and-run motorcycle crash in Pinellas Park. [ Wynter Breeden ]

The couple were two of nearly 43,000 people killed on a U.S. road in 2021 — the most in 16 years, according to estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The 10.5% jump in deaths over 2020 is the largest annual percentage increase since the government began keeping track in 1975.

As alarming as the national surge was, the spike was even greater in Florida — and far bigger in some Tampa Bay area counties, including Hillsborough and Pinellas.

Florida traffic deaths jumped by nearly 13% to 3,753 fatalities. In Hillsborough, the increase was 28% to 273 people killed, according to statistics from Signal Four Analytics, a tool that uses data from law enforcement. In Pinellas, there was a startling 48% surge to 160 deaths on roads.

Experts blame a number of factors, including the number of miles people drove in 2021, which was 11% higher than the prior year. In fact, the number of people killed per 100 million miles traveled was about the same for both years.

But experts say there’s more to the story. Gena Torres, assistant director of the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization, said her agency dug into local data and found new traffic patterns because of the pandemic were a major factor in the spike in deaths.

Some Hillsborough County roads are built to help ease road congestion during rush hour. With people still working from home and having more flexible schedules, rush hour was less packed and people were driving at more varied hours.

Without the heavy traffic, people can drive faster on larger roads — leading to a higher number of deadly crashes, according to Torres.

“Our roads are overbuilt for peak hours, and when we’re not all driving peak hours, you know, this is where the problems are happening,” Torres said. “People are getting hurt and killed throughout the entire day.”

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Pinellas transportation officials noticed similar patterns.

“What we’ve really seen in Pinellas County is that traffic volumes are down still. They have not gone back to pre-pandemic levels,” said Chelsea Favero, a planning manager with Forward Pinellas, the land-use planning agency for the county. “And people are just driving a whole heck of a lot faster.”

Eric Lavghun Dennis, who police say was driving the Camaro that hit and killed Patino Riley, reportedly was driving so fast and recklessly that he now faces a felony charge of vehicular homicide. He also is facing charges related to leaving the scene of the crash. Court records show Dennis is still awaiting trial.

Speed seemed to have taken a particular toll on pedestrians in Pinellas County. Of the 160 people who died in a Pinellas traffic crash in 2021, 61 of them were pedestrians — and many of them were killed by speeders, Favero said.

“We actually went through all the crash reports to see, you know, what’s going on,” she said. “And overwhelmingly it was a vehicle who just didn’t see the pedestrian. They were driving too fast.”

“In hindsight, it kind of makes sense — fewer cars, people are driving faster,” Favero added. “But we were not expecting the numbers to go up that significantly, especially for bicycles and pedestrians.”

Favero also attributes the number of pedestrian deaths to a lack of light on roadways. Most crashes involving pedestrians occur when it’s dark outside. She said in some areas of Pinellas, lighting focuses on illuminating the road, not pedestrians — making them more difficult to see.

The rise in local road users’ deaths has officials searching for solutions.

Torres asked the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization board to focus its efforts on the county’s top 50 roads where the most serious crashes occur and to identify solutions to address the spike in fatalities on those roads.

The map provides an outline of the top 50 high-injury network corridors in Hillsborough County.
The map provides an outline of the top 50 high-injury network corridors in Hillsborough County. [ Gena Torres ]

The county plans to apply for a grant that would go to projects to improve safety on the county’s most dangerous roads, Torres said. The top three most dangerous roads are Brandon Boulevard between Falkenburg and Dover roads; Gibsonton Drive from Interstate 75 to Balm Riverview Road; and Hillsborough Avenue from Longboat Boulevard to Florida Avenue.

Torres says Hillsborough will host a summit at the end of the year where officials from the county, its cities and the Florida Department of Transportation will explain what has been accomplished to help make the 50 most dangerous roads in the county safer.

In the meantime, she said, there are cheaper fixes that can make some roadways safer, such as narrowing a road with paint, adding a crossing or adding more street lighting.

“There are opportunities to make some changes,” Torres said. “Everybody is really upset about what we’re seeing.”

In Pinellas County, Favero pointed to the work of Safe Streets Pinellas, a program aimed at pushing forward road safety improvements, as an example of the work the county does to improve safety. Favero says 12 of Pinellas’ local governments have signed on to the program.

There are some low-cost, quicker fixes Pinellas is implementing on its roads, Favero said. For example, Pinellas County is working with the Florida Department of Transportation to change signals in the county, so pedestrians will have a walk signal while the light is red, allowing them to get into the intersection and be seen before drivers who are turning right have a green light.

In the longer term, several projects are in the works to make more Pinellas County roads become what officials call “complete streets” — roads that are designed with the safety of all users in mind, including drivers, pedestrians and cyclists. Complete streets may include sidewalks, bike lanes, narrower roads or special bus lanes. As examples, Favero cited projects being completed on roads such as Skinner Boulevard in Dunedin and St. Petersburg Drive in Oldsmar.

In Hillsborough County, where some complete streets have been implemented, crashes have been greatly reduced, Torres said. These adjustments only add a few minutes to a driver’s trip in most cases, she said.

“It’s going to have to be that messaging that says, ‘You’re really not losing time, you’re saving lives,’” Torres said.

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