The drop in pedestrian deaths in Hillsborough County last year is good news. It's an indication of what road improvements, tougher policing and education can do for a growing community. But the 2016 figure is only part of a larger, more troubling picture across the Tampa Bay region. The roads are still a dangerous place for pedestrians and cyclists. Area governments need to continue to pursue these safety efforts, and motorists and pedestrians alike need to be mindful of their own responsibilities.
An examination of pedestrian fatalities in the four-county area by Tampa Bay Times staff writer Caitlin Johnston shows a mixed record. Pedestrian deaths fell in Hillsborough by almost 25 percent last year following a record deadly year in 2015. The number also fell in Hernando, to two deaths from five in 2015. But the figure jumped in Pasco, to 19 deaths from 12 in 2015, and edged slightly higher in Pinellas, to 38 last year from 37 in 2015.
The reduction in fatalities in Hillsborough, to 39 last year from 51 in 2015, is certainly a reversal in the right direction. But 2015 was unusually high. Last year's numbers were still higher than any other year since 2010. And with the exception of 2014, the number of fatalities in Pinellas and Pasco were still far higher last year than in earlier years of the decade. The uptick shows a nagging problem in the region in improving pedestrian safety. While bicycle fatalities are down in Pinellas and Hernando, the number tripled last year in Pasco, to nine from three, and increased in Hillsborough to 12 from eight, a four-year high.
Every county in the region faces its own challenges to pedestrian safety, whether in the dense, urban environments of Pinellas and Hillsborough or along the idyllic cycling roads in Pasco. The deadly 2015 season in Hillsborough prompted officials to install better street lighting in some residential areas, add new crosswalks to busy highways and to increase traffic enforcement. But even those modest measures take time and sometimes get bogged down in logistics.
Transportation planners face an ongoing challenge of balancing crosswalks and other safety tools with moving traffic on heavily used roads. Foot traffic from visitors to the Pinellas beaches has presented a test for years on Gulf Boulevard. And as Tampa and St. Petersburg redevelop their downtowns, creating urban environments more conducive to walking, planners face increased demands for pedestrian safety in emerging mixed-use districts.
Not every solution is ideal. Mid-block crosswalks, which were installed in Tampa in the wake of several high-profile pedestrian tragedies, present their own issues. While they offer pedestrians a safer option than running directly across traffic, the crossings can be confusing to many motorists, although on the right roads in the right situations they can be quite effective. One case in point: The crosswalk installed on busy Fourth Street N in St. Petersburg a year after a new Trader Joe's had lots of pedestrians trying to cross the busy thoroughfare at a tough spot. Now, pedestrians push a button to actuate a flashing yellow light to stop traffic coming from one direction, then they pause in a safe island in the median before pushing another button to stop traffic coming the other way. It's a smart compromise for driver and pedestrian alike.
Another option is to lower speed limits and improve lighting on some busy roads. Motorists and pedestrians need to follow the law and use common sense. Drivers must yield in the crosswalks. Pedestrians need to use the crosswalks and walk with the light.
The best urban planning needs to accommodate motorists and pedestrians occupying the same space. A growing region will not become safer by accident. And it shouldn't take more tragedies to start making substantial gains in reversing the casualty counts. A 13-year-old boy was struck by a hit-and-run driver on New Year's Eve in Hillsborough, leaving him in critical condition. A New Port Richey woman was fatally struck early Monday trying to cross U.S. 19; she was not in a crosswalk, the Florida Highway Patrol said. It will take a concerted effort to make last year's partial gains a more encouraging trend.