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Fla. deadliest state for walkers, cyclists

USA TODAY: Fla. deadliest state for walkers, cyclists

By Larry Copeland, USA TODAY

MIAMI, Florida — Florida is the deadliest state in the U.S. for pedestrians — and bicyclists don't fare any better.
In 2008, the most recent year for which federal statistics are available, 11.1% of pedestrians and 17.4% of bicyclists killed in the U.S. died in the Sunshine State, which has 6% of the nation's population.

The top four of the 10 most dangerous metropolitan areas for walking are in Florida, according to a study last fall by two Washington, D.C.-based non-profit groups. The state has been in the top three in bicycle and pedestrian fatalities every year since 2001, federal data show.

The statistics perplex state officials. "There are so many factors involved and most of them are random," says Marianne Trussell, chief safety officer for Florida's Department of Transportation. "We're trying to figure out root causes and how we can fix it."

There's a debate over those causes: Is Florida so deadly for walkers and cyclists because of the behavior of drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists? Or because of inherent flaws in the way roads are designed and built?

Both sides agree on three contributing causes:

• Torrid population growth. Florida has almost seven times as many people as in 1950, from 2.8 million to 18.5 million. "Florida has developed faster than any other state in the nation," says Louis Malenfant, president of the Center for Education and Research in Safety, based in Kalamazoo, Mich., and New Brunswick, Canada. He has worked with representatives of more than 80 Florida cities to develop pedestrian safety programs. "The roadways have been built to accommodate a lot of traffic, and get trucks and cars moving from point A to point B in a very efficient way," he says.

"When you have a roadway that can accommodate 60 miles per hour, and you ask people to drive at 40 or 45 mph, that's very difficult to enforce," he says.

• Tourism. Last year, 80.3 million visitors came here, according to Visit Florida, the state's official tourism marketing corporation. "Sometimes, when people factor in fatalities on a per-capita basis, they may not be calculating the impact of tourists," Malenfant says.

• Climate. Because the weather in most of Florida is balmy year-round, people tend to spend more time outside, increasing their "exposure," Malenfant says.

Underlying these factors, transportation safety officials say, is behavior: "Somebody is doing something they shouldn't be doing," Trussell explains. "Drivers are making a right turn and not yielding to pedestrians, or making a right turn on red. Pedestrians are not paying attention to traffic, or they're crossing the street midblock instead of going to the intersection."

She takes issue with the November study by Transportation for America and the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership that spotlighted dangers to pedestrians in Florida. The study found pedestrians in Florida — and around the U.S. — are endangered by the nation's shift from development clustered around traditional streets to wide, high-speed roads designed to move thousands of vehicles.

"The roadways aren't as dangerous as the (study) would have made it seem," she says. "It's not the roads. The roads are just sitting there by themselves."

Neither state officials nor advocates cite the state's large population of older drivers and pedestrians as a contributor. The November study found the proportion of elderly pedestrians killed is about 17% — the same as the national average.

Mike Lasche, executive director of the Sarasota-based non-profit group Bicycle/Pedestrian Advocates, points to the roads. "Florida has never had a history of good planning," he says. "It's had tremendous growth, and it was not community-led but led by developers." In addition, he says, the concerns of walkers and bicyclists "tend to be an afterthought" in the design of new roads.

The problem is further complicated by a shortage of education programs, say Lasche and Laura Hallam, head of the 2,400-member Florida Bicycle Association. "There really needs to be a statewide safety awareness program. I see a lot done on drunk driving, seat belts, even child safety seats, but you don't see anything on pedestrian safety and bike safety," Hallam says.

Efforts by one Florida city have paid off. In 2000, the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership identified Tampa-St. Petersburg as the nation's deadliest large metropolitan area for pedestrians. That year in St. Petersburg, there were 203 collisions involving pedestrians. The city's new mayor, Rick Baker, decided to do something about it, says Michael Frederick, the city's manager of neighborhood transportation.

The city put together a plan that included building bike lanes and trails, improving pedestrian safety through crosswalks and other enhancements, education, enforcement and building sidewalks on major roads.

Since 2003, the city has received more than $40 million in federal grants, built 100 miles of bike lanes and trails and added sidewalks. It also pioneered a more visible traffic signal, a rectangular-shaped, flashing beacon like lights on emergency vehicles. Installed at 32 crosswalks for $20,000 apiece, the signals have raised driver compliance at those crosswalks from 3% to 86%, Frederick says.

In 2008, the latest year for full data, there were 89 collisions involving pedestrians — down 56% from 2000.