Is Pinellas County really the most dangerous place in the nation to ride a bicycle?

A man uses the bike lane on 1st Ave S over the summer. (EVE EDELHEIT   |   Times)
A man uses the bike lane on 1st Ave S over the summer. (EVE EDELHEIT | Times)
Published Sept. 28, 2018

The headline was alarming.

"The Most Dangerous Place to Bicycle in America," the Wall Street Journal wrote Monday, declaring "Pinellas County, Fla., has the highest cyclist death rate in the Tampa Bay metro area — which has the highest rate of any metro region in the U.S."

But more recent data shows Pinellas County is not the most dangerous place for cyclists in the Tampa Bay area or Florida, let alone the country.

The Tampa Bay Times reviewed data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the same source used by the Wall Street Journal. Whereas the Journal used data from over a 10-year period to tag Pinellas with the dubious distinction, data from the past five years produces a different outcome.

According to the data reviewed by the Times from 2012-16 — the most recent available — Florida was the deadliest state for cyclists in 2016 with a fatality rate of 6.7 per 1 million people. That's more than twice the national rate of 2.6 per million.

RELATED: 2017 still a deadly year for Tampa Bay pedestrians, bicyclists

But Pasco County had a higher rate of deaths than Pinellas among counties in the Tampa Bay region — an average of 0.77 per 100,000 people for the five-year period. Hillsborough followed with 0.75, Pinellas with 0.71 and Hernando with 0.46.

The traffic safety administration considers the Tampa Bay metro area to include seven counties, and factoring in all of them pushes Pinellas further down the list. Citrus County had a fatality rate of 0.43 per 100,000 people during the five-year period, while Manatee and Sarasota counties were virtually tied for the highest rate in the region at 1.0 each.

As cycling increases across the country, so, too, have fatalities. The traffic safety administration reported 840 cyclist deaths in the United States in 2016, the highest since 1991.

When the Times asked the administration to clarify the data, spokeswoman Kathryn Henry consulted with the agency's data team and they came away with this theory:

"I don't see how they (the Journal) are coming to that conclusion. ... Looking at each county in 2016, Pinellas is not close to having the highest pedalcyclist fatality rate. Pinellas did have a high rate in 2013, maybe they are using older data?"

RELATED: More bike lanes, angled parking planned for St. Petersburg streets

Journal spokesman Steve Severinghaus said the newspaper "considered more than a decade's worth of data in our analysis, including the most recent national data available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration."

Severinghaus added, "We have confidence in the accuracy and quality of our reporting."

The Florida Department of Transportation pointed to 2011 as a turning point for bicycle safety initiatives, which may account for the difference between a 10-year analysis and a five-year analysis.

Regardless of rankings, the Tampa Bay area does have a serious bicycle safety issue — one that state and local officials have focused on in recent years.

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"Bicycle safety is one of the Florida Department of Transportation's top priorities and as a result of our numerous initiatives, bicycle fatalities in Florida have decreased more than 22 percent over the past three years," agency spokeswoman Kris Carson said.

Carson said her agency began a "focused initiative to improve the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists on our roads" in November 2011. In the bay area and around the state, she pointed to safety education, a $100 million lighting project to reduce night-time crashes, a review identifying high-crash areas and measures to make them safer, a statewide Complete Streets policy making routes safer for all users, and more.

Much of the challenge comes down to changing attitudes among motorists and changing the makeup of the county's roadways, said Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, the county's land use and transportation planning agency.

"If you want to change behavior, you have to change design," Blanton said. "It's not that we can pinpoint one location. It's spread like peanut butter across our county. You have to deal with it on a comprehensive scale."

RELATED: Vision Zero strategy for safer Hillsborough roads: repaint, narrow lanes, educate

In St. Petersburg, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N has been selected for a Complete Streets project, designed to safely accommodate biking, driving, walking and transit.

Tampa has finished a Complete Street project along Fletcher Avenue, and Plant City is making the transformation along Collins Street, a major artery.

Blanton said Forward Pinellas has several other projects in the planning and design stages to increase safety for bicyclists in Lealman, Largo and Dunedin. He also said Pinellas County is preparing a Vision Zero action plan Vision Zero as part of an international campaign originating in Sweden that aims to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero.

Blanton said he sometimes gets pushback on road improvements from people who think bicyclists got what they need with the Pinellas Trail. But the trail doesn't come close to getting people where they need to go if they use foot power as a primary means of transportation, especially among communities of senior citizens, minorities and the poor.

"They say 'Get on the trail,' but the trail doesn't go to a grocery store, the trail doesn't get to my bus stop," Blanton said.

Lacking routes designed with them in mind, bicyclists face danger.

"If we don't want to see those headlines," he said, "we've got to do something different than we've been doing for the last 35 to 40 years."

Contact Daniel Figueroa IV at Follow @danuscripts.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a Wall Street Journal spokesman didn't answer a question about its bicycle fatality rankings. The Times did not ask that question. Also, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N in St. Petersburg has been selected for a Complete Streets project. An incorrect street name was used.