A grandfather heading to church on Easter Sunday. A teenager, fresh off his nightshift sorting boxes at Amazon. A retired dancer, walking home after treating herself to a pedicure.
All were killed during a single week around Tampa Bay by what local and national leaders have declared a growing public health crisis. While most other rich nations are becoming safer, road deaths in America remain persistently high, especially in Sun Belt metros like ours.
There were 434 fatal crashes across Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties last year, according to preliminary statistics from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
The Tampa Bay Times reviewed police reports, court files and obituaries to piece together what an average week looks like for a region long gripped by reckless driving, busy roadways and threadbare public transit.
From April 17-23, 2022, drivers crashed at least 1,575 times in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties, the Times found. On average, that’s more than nine crashes an hour, every hour, for seven days straight. In 43 of those incidents, at least one person was seriously injured, records show. In eight, someone died.
That week, state data also shows:
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- More than three-fourths of crashes occurred during daylight hours, but half of all fatal crashes were at night.
- Damage to property and vehicles cost about $10.3 million.
- Half of the people killed were men on motorcycles, ranging from 26-61.
- Half of crashes resulted in citations for driving infractions.
At some crash scenes, tidied and swept, you will find no trace of the carnage. At some, black lines of burnt rubber are left by drivers who hit the brakes too hard, too late. At others, a memorial marker, a circle of aluminum, inscribed with four words, offering both a command and a plea: “Drive safely in memory…”
Here is a look at all the fatal traffic crashes during that typically deadly week.
Sunday, April 17, 2:55 a.m. A dark stretch of highway in unincorporated Pasco County
Under a full moon, a woman walks along the shoulder of U.S. 301, a commuter route carving through eastern Pasco, where master-planned communities are ever-encroaching on farmland.
It’s unclear where 49-year-old Jennifer Smith is going. But through the fog and moonlight, the driver of a silver Dodge runs off the road and into Smith, police suspect. Her torso flies into the shoulder and her legs onto the highway.
Pasco sheriff’s deputies arrive about ten minutes later. Only traces of the driver remain: A chunk of the front grille. Some paint chips.
The crash is among the first of 251 hit-and-run crashes this week.
Smith is pronounced dead at 3:12 a.m. Less than two hours later, a pickup barrels toward state troopers and deputies investigating the scene, almost hitting two. Ignoring commands to stop, the driver runs over Smith’s severed legs.
After a pursuit, the driver is booked into jail and later pleads guilty to six felonies and two misdemeanors. He is not considered a suspect in Smith’s death. Her traffic homicide case remains open.
Later that morning, a spokesperson for the Florida Highway Patrol, Sergeant Steve Gaskins, types out his first fatal crash news release of the week. He’s done so for thousands of fatal crashes in the 12 years he has been a Highway Patrol public affairs officer for seven counties in western Florida.
“The sights, sounds and smells of a crash stay with you,” he said recently. “A burnt body has a very distinct smell.”
Sunday, April 17, 10:42 a.m. A two-lane road in unincorporated Hillsborough
Later that morning, a delivery driver crisscrosses the far eastern reaches of Hillsborough County, which claims a higher traffic fatality rate than any other large county in the U.S.
Pastures dotted with grazing cattle stretch beyond the windshield of his white van.
Nearby, Vance Jarvis drives through the clear spring morning on his motorcycle, heading to church. He’s a hard-working man who brought his wife flowers weekly even after 29 years of marriage. The pair had moved from California to Florida because he wanted to be a hands-on grandpa.
Missing his next delivery address, the van driver makes a U-turn on the two-lane County Road 39. He turns left without using his turn signal, according to police records. Jarvis tries to pass the van on the left in a legal passing zone. The front of his motorcycle strikes the rear of the van, flinging him onto the roadway.
The delivery driver, uninjured, pulls over. At least four people call 911.
When Jarvis is placed on a stretcher, he’s still wearing his helmet. A helicopter takes him to Tampa General Hospital, where he undergoes surgery to stabilize his neck. Staff pronounce him dead five days later — on his 62nd birthday. He is one of three motorcyclists killed this week in the three-county region.
The county’s medical examiner rules his death accidental. The delivery driver is handed a civil penalty of $163. He’d received citations before: In 2016, at age 17, he was fined $268 and required to complete a four-hour driver improvement class for going 89 mph in a 60 zone. Last January, he was fined $278 for going 67 mph in a 45 zone.
Two weeks after her husband died, Karen Lord returns to the hospital to collect his blood-splattered helmet and sunglasses. She later files an auto negligence lawsuit against the driver and his employers.
She decides not to install a roadside memorial. “I have to see the crash site every time I leave my house,” she said. “That in and of itself gives me heartache.”
Sunday, April 17, 2:46 p.m. A busy intersection in Pinellas Park
A few hours after the Hillsborough crash, Matthew Wade, 38, heads south on 49th Street, a six-lane road lined with auto shops and chain restaurants. He loves being on his motorcycle, sun-soaked and slicing through the air.
An experienced rider, he had moved to Florida from Georgia the previous year for a sales job at a Clearwater Harley-Davidson branch. But now he drives through a red light at the intersection of 86th Avenue, which is flanked by a rental car location, a gas station and Dunkin’ Donuts.
He smashes into an SUV that is making a left turn on green. Police later say that Wade’s speed and alcohol consumption contributed to the crash. City firefighters take him to the hospital, where he dies.
Wade was a gifted athlete, a Little League star. He was a giving person, loved ones later said, including in death: his organs live on in the bodies of others.
“He loved fiercely,” said his brother Joshua.
Less than two blocks from the site of Wade’s death lives Bojan Skopljak, an ever-smiling Publix employee who would become a crash victim before the day’s end.
Sunday, April 17, 6:06 p.m. A highway entrance ramp in St. Petersburg
Shortly after 6 p.m. Skopljak, 26, rides his motorcycle through southern St. Petersburg and enters the northbound Interstate 275 entrance ramp from 54th Avenue South. He’d been drinking and riding with a group of motorcyclists through the evening.
He’d ridden this bend many times before, but this time he loses control. He skids off the road and hits a traffic sign before bouncing along the concrete barrier wall.
He and his bike topple over, plunging 28 feet to the road below, investigators conclude.
Skopljak’s bike catches fire, causing damage that would make it impossible to determine if there were mechanical issues.
He’s pronounced dead at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg at 6:27 p.m.
Tuesday, April 19, 2:17 a.m. A much-feared stretch of U.S. 19 in Tarpon Springs, Pinellas County
It would be another day and a half before the next fatal crash, this one in north Pinellas County on a road so notorious that bumper stickers around here read: “Pray for me, I drive on U.S. 19.”
Alyssa Nelson, 24, drives home in her black Hyundai after a late shift at the bar. She passes through the perpetual day glow of 7-Elevens and storage facilities. She’d recently paid off her car and was looking forward to her aunt’s wedding in New Hampshire at the end of the week.
Coursing through her system is cocaine, MDA and Delta-9 THC, a blood test later determined. Her blood alcohol content is more than three times the legal limit.
She smashes into the rear of a Tarpon Springs police cruiser, parked in a southbound lane with lights flashing, for an unrelated traffic stop. Her car spins along the asphalt.
She’s taken from the mangled wreck 18 miles north to HCA Florida Bayonet Point Hospital, where she’s pronounced dead.
At least two lanes of the road are blocked for hours as first responders collect strewn debris. Morning commuters inch past, gawking at the grisly maw as Nelson’s car is towed away.
In cursive, the trinket on her keys in the ignition reads: “Life is short, enjoy the ride.”
Tuesday, April 19, 4:36 a.m. A red light at a highway intersection in unincorporated Hillsborough
Two hours later and 28 miles southeast, Daniel Florez’s roommate drives him home from work.
Florez wanted to move to New York City. He wanted to be a professional boxer. The 19-year-old didn’t see much of a future in Florida, so he took an overnight job sorting boxes for Amazon and began saving.
The pair drive through the darkness toward the Seffner home they rent with other high school friends. Traveling east on U.S. 92, they stop at a red light.
A man in a white Jeep Wrangler smashes into them from behind.
A Hillsborough Fire Rescue lieutenant pronounces Florez dead nine minutes later. He wasn’t wearing a seat belt. Emergency medical services take Florez’s roommate to Tampa General Hospital with serious injuries.
The Jeep driver, whose blood alcohol content tested at more than double the state limit, faces charges of DUI manslaughter and vehicular homicide.
“The driver not only took my son’s life away, he destroyed all our lives,” Florez’s mother, Cynthia Cole, said. Less than two months after Florez’s death, his sister died from an overdose. Now, the pair of urns sit beside each other in her home. Holding on to the good times is helping her find strength, she said.
The Saturday before the crash, the family gathered in Cole’s Lake County home to celebrate the 16th birthday of her youngest daughter. “That was the best night ever,” she said.
This is how she will remember Florez: beaming from ear to ear, having used his first Amazon paycheck to buy his younger sister a set of speakers.
Thursday, April 21, 1:41 p.m. A crosswalk in Clearwater, Pinellas County
On Thursday, Marianne Meichenbaum, 80, decides to treat herself to a pedicure. She leaves her rental condo, which has a balcony with sea views where she and her husband of 58 years ate breakfast every morning, and steps out into the afternoon sun.
The eight-minute walk to the salon takes her past the Spanish restaurant where they liked to have dinner and across Gulf Boulevard, lined with palm trees hugging Pinellas County’s Gulf Coast.
The couple, parents of four and grandparents of seven, had been migrating to Clearwater for warm winters for two decades.
She leaves her appointment with newly painted toes and heads home. She pressed the flashing warning signals and stepped into the marked crosswalk. Before she could reach the other side, a red pickup truck hits her.
The driver, a 42-year-old man from Largo, tells police he saw the flashing lights but not Meichenbaum.
Law enforcement arrive 46 minutes later, including Sgt. Dan Negersmith, who oversees the Clearwater Police Department’s traffic team. Meichenbaum had already been airlifted to Bayfront Hospital. All that remains on the asphalt is a pool of blood, some torn cloth and the spilled coffee she’d been carrying.
Meanwhile, Don Meichenbaum had grown worried. His wife’s online Pilates class was about to start and she still wasn’t home. He calls her cellphone and an officer picks up. He arrives at the hospital moments after doctors pronounce her dead. His wife’s hand is still warm. He holds it as she turns cold.
Meichenbaum left behind friends and family from Ontario, Canada, to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to Florida. Her love of theater introduced her to her “other families,” as she liked to call them, cast and crew members she performed with across the country in her younger years, including the New York City Rockettes.
A Clearwater Police Department investigation “did not reveal any criminal actions” by the driver. He was issued $166 a traffic citation for failing to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk. His license was revoked for six months.
Meanwhile, Don Meichenbaum, an acclaimed professor and psychologist who studies traumatic bereavement, is left to wrestle with his wife’s death.
Earlier that April day, he’d given a lecture, asking his listeners to consider: “How can people transform pain into something good?” By the afternoon, he was grappling for an answer.
Friday, April 22, 11:29 p.m. A frenzied six-lane highway in Clearwater, Pinellas County
Patrick Moore and a friend were deciding whether to take their motorcycles for a spin. They often avoided Friday evenings, wary of distracted drivers. But they’d been working on a bike and wanted to see how it was running. They ventured out, the sky speckled with stars and the air heavy with moisture.
They stop at a gas station on Gulf to Bay Boulevard, a six-lane thoroughfare slicing through northern Pinellas County lined with fast-food joints and mobile home parks. Moore, 35, calls his girlfriend, Aimee Dunbar, on vacation in Chicago, to check in. “I love you,” she says and he echoes.
On the other side of Gulf to Bay, a 26-year-old woman is behind the wheel of a silver Jeep Cherokee, driving without insurance and a registration that had expired more than two months earlier, according to a crash report. In less than a decade she’d racked up about two dozen traffic infractions, ranging from failing to wear a seat belt, speeding in a school zone and driving on a suspended license.
She makes a U-turn, hitting the front of Moore’s motorcycle as he travels east in the middle lane. Moore’s friend, Branden Milton, later tells officers Moore tried to move toward the curb just before the collision. It sends him into the air and onto the grass beside the asphalt.
Sgt. Negersmith is 4 miles north, at the scene of another crash, when the call chimes in over the radio. During his career, he’d reported to hundreds of serious crashes. And now, here was another. He arrives as emergency services take Moore a few miles west to Morton Plant Hospital, where he dies from his injuries at 12:09 a.m.
The driver, uninjured, tells police she did not see any vehicles approaching when she made the U-turn. She’s charged with three infractions: driving without insurance, using an expired registration and attempting an improper U-turn.
Meanwhile, Dunbar misses Moore’s smiles and his zest for life. And she hates driving Gulf to Bay even more than before.
Times Data Editor Langston Taylor contributed reporting to this story.