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Hillsborough County set deadly new record for pedestrian fatalities in 2015

A pedestrian crosses Hillsborough avenue on Thursday afternoon, in Tampa. At this intersection on May 21, 2016, a pedestrian was killed after slipping from the median (shown here) and falling under the wheels of a truck. [ZACK WITTMAN | Times]
A pedestrian crosses Hillsborough avenue on Thursday afternoon, in Tampa. At this intersection on May 21, 2016, a pedestrian was killed after slipping from the median (shown here) and falling under the wheels of a truck. [ZACK WITTMAN | Times]
Published Jan. 13, 2016

TAMPA — 2015 was the deadliest year on record for those walking the streets of Hillsborough County.

The state's latest count shows that 51 pedestrians lost their lives. That's the most deaths in the county since Florida started tracking pedestrian fatalities 17 years ago. It's also a 50 percent jump from the 34 who died in 2014.

There was no pattern to the carnage. Pedestrians died day and night. Deaths took place throughout the county — from Westchase to Plant City, from Lutz to Sun City Center.

Some victims were killed while using the crosswalk. Others neglected to use that striped strip of road and died just a few yards away. People died crossing busy highways, six-lane arteries and rural roads. Some died walking on the road instead of using a nearby sidewalk. Others died on roads in parts of the county where sidewalks stop suddenly, leaving no option for the pedestrian.

Six people were killed while walking along Hillsborough Avenue.

"It's kind of a recipe for disaster," Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization executive director Beth Alden said of that particular road. "It's the combination of high speeds and local businesses and neighborhoods. It's a very dangerous mix."

The last spike in deaths was the 50 pedestrians who died in 1999. The state could still classify other cases as pedestrian fatalities, adding even more deaths to 2015's tally.

While this year was the deadliest, it is no anomaly. In seven of the past 18 years, at least 40 pedestrians were killed in Hillsborough County. But 2015 saw a substantial jump from the number of deaths in the previous four years, which hovered in the low 30s.

Tampa Bay as a whole is the second most dangerous area to walk in the United States, according to the most recent data from Smart Growth America. Florida claims the top four most dangerous metropolitan areas in the U.S. — Orlando rings in first, and Jacksonville and Miami follow.

But within Tampa Bay, Hillsborough is by far the deadliest county. Pedestrian deaths in the other counties remained steady last year. Pinellas and Pasco have never seen more than 41 pedestrian deaths in one year. Hernando's worst year for pedestrians was in 2004, when eight people were killed by vehicles.

"We've designed our communities to be auto focused, so we've prioritized being able to move around quickly in our cars, and it has its downsides," Alden said. "You constantly feel like the pedestrian's safety is an after thought."

Crashes that occurred between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. are marked with a circle. All others are marked with a square.

Those in which alcohol and/or drugs were involved are indicated by a faded, light red marker. Alcohol and drug status was unknown or pending for 15 cases. Those are indicated with a gray marker.

*This map was composed using data from FDOT. This data is not finalized until mid-2016. More fatalities could be added or data updated.

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Drive around the county and these concerns become more apparent.

Take the busy intersection of Nebraska and E Hillsborough avenues, where a 58-year-old was struck and killed by a Coca-Cola truck at 2:50 p.m. on May 21. There are crosswalks, but they're old, narrow and not striped. At certain points, they don't connect with the sidewalk, but instead jut into the intersection.

"They're worn out," said Gena Torres, a project manager for the Hillsborough MPO. "You can't even tell as a motorist where you're supposed to stop."

Once a person does safely cross the intersection, they have to contend with sidewalks that slant down toward the roadway. There's also no barrier between the individual and the fast-paced traffic. That slant can be particularly dangerous for the elderly or disabled.

"If you make a mistake, there's no room for error," said Torres, who called the intersection "horrifying."

The man who died on May 21 had been released from the hospital two days prior to the crash. He was "unsteady on his feet," but not impaired by drugs or alcohol, according to a Tampa police report. He started to cross E Hillsborough Avenue while traffic had the right of way and had made it to the narrow, raised median.

It was there he lost his footing and fell into the path of a truck.

"He was crossing against the light," Torres said, "but do we have to kill every single pedestrian who does that?"

Hillsborough County has long been a dangerous place for pedestrians. Despite public awareness campaigns and promises from politicians, the death toll has yet to drop.

"The numbers are scary," Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist said. "I think the numbers shout loudly that it's time to take a closer look."

Officials are at a loss to explain why the county's roads remain so dangerous. The county and City of Tampa have spent years investing millions investing in pedestrian safety projects to add crosswalks, expand sidewalks and slow traffic.

Hillsborough recently dedicated $5 million alone for pedestrian improvements on Fletcher Avenue. But another person was just killed crossing the road there early Thursday morning. It was the second pedestrian death in Hillsborough in 2016.

Every contemporary safety measure available was included on this pilot project, yet people are still ignoring it and still making bad decisions," Crist said, "and what I mean by bad decisions is I mean they're crossing inappropriately, in between the safety zones."

Crist and others have called for programs to educate pedestrians about traffic safety. People need to stop looking at their phones, he said, and start paying attention to their surroundings.

But Vision Zero, an international initiative dedicated to designing safer roads, says that how governments build streets is just as much to blame for pedestrians' deaths — if not more culpable than the pedestrians themselves.

In every situation where a human might fail, say Vision Zero founders, the road system should not. The road-safety project originated in Sweden, and has been adopted by New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and other U.S. cities.

A year after implementing its Vision Zero plan, New York City's pedestrian deaths dropped to the lowest point since 1910, said Heather Rothenberg, a national expert in safety data systems who used to work for the Federal Highway Administration.

There's a tension in transportation planning between mobility — how quickly and easily we get around — and safety. Often, planning prioritizes mobility, but Vision Zero puts the emphasis on safety.

"It's based on this notion that there's an ethical and moral obligation for transportation systems to be safe," Rothernberg said in a presentation to county staff Tuesday. "That this is not just the nice thing to do, it's the right thing to do."

One way to make roads safer is to enhance crosswalks — make them wider and more clearly marked — and eliminate any gaps in those sidewalks.

But the most significant, and cheapest change, could be lowering vehicle speed. The posted speed limit on E Hillsborough Avenue is 40 mph. But try driving that speed during the day, as Tony Garcia of the Hillsborough Planning Commission did Thursday, and more than a dozen cars zoom past.

"If you spend the day out here trying to walk back and forth, it's going to scare the bejesus out of you," Torres said. "These cars speed by."

Dropping the speed limit by 10 mph can go a long way toward saving lives, according to Vision Zero.

If a pedestrian is struck by a car going 40 mph, there's a 9 in 10 chance they'll die.

Drop the speed to 30 mph, and that death rate goes down to 5 in 10.

Drop it again to 20 mph, and it's 1 in 10.

But slower speeds could lead to heavier traffic, and that's not a palatable option for many drivers. Or for FDOT.

Last year's record death rate for pedestrians makes the problem impossible to ignore, said Tampa City Councilwoman Lisa Montelione.

"I think that the stars are in alignment, so to speak, for taking action and budgeting," she said. "That's really what it comes down to. Everything usually comes down to the money."

Montelione pointed to a potential half-cent sales tax for transportation referendum as one way to raise that money. County commissioners have yet to decide whether to put the "Go Hillsborough" initiative on the November ballot.

Similar transportation sales taxes have failed in Hillsborough and Pinellas in 2010 and 2014. But this iteration splits funding between transit, road and bike and pedestrian projects.

"I think the voters, seeing that money is going to be allocated for pedestrian improvements, would be open to voting for it," Montelione said, "if they knew their money would go toward saving lives, not just widening roads."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

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