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Forward Pinellas seeks partnership following deadly crashes

Mark Parker



A family crosses the street in downtown St. Petersburg. The City of Clearwater recently became the 21st Pinellas County municipality to join its Vision Zero program. Photo by Mark Parker.

With two recent pedestrian fatalities underscoring the importance of increasing local street safety, Forward Pinellas asked for the City of Clearwater’s help addressing the issue.

At 6 a.m. Friday, Aug. 26, 85 year old Michael Gravino was hit and killed crossing Starkey Road in Seminole outside a designated crosswalk. At 6:44 a.m., Ethan Weiser, a 15-year-old Largo High school student, was struck by a car on a poorly lit section of Belleair Road while walking to his bus stop with his little sister. He also succumbed to his injuries.

Three days later, Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, asked for the Clearwater City Council’s partnership in his organization’s Safe Streets Pinellas initiative and Vision Zero program. The city was one of three county municipalities yet to participate, and Blanton acknowledged the area’s recent deaths – including a pedestrian in Holiday at 4:15 a.m. Friday morning – at the onset of his presentation during Monday’s council meeting.

“I’m sorry to be giving this against the backdrop of a pretty tragic day on Friday where we had three fatalities, two here in Pinellas County,” said Blanton. “We just continue to have challenges on our roadways, where we have double the national average of fatalities on our streets.”

Following Blanton’s presentation, Clearwater council members approved a resolution to participate in the programs, joining 20 other local municipalities.

Adopted by county commissioners in July 2021, Vision Zero is a strategy to eliminate traffic fatalities and severe injuries while increasing safe and equitable mobility for all residents. Blanton said the county realized it had a problem in 2020 after recording 465 deaths from 2015 to 2019.

“We have two people who are killed or injured on our roadways every day,” he said. “Some days are obviously worse than others.

“If we killed 365 people a year on our planes, we would probably do something different with aircraft travel.”

Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, the county’s land use and transportation planning agency. Screengrab.

While the fatalities cover a wide range of demographics, Blanton explained the most vulnerable – those walking and riding bicycles or motorcycles – are disproportionately affected. He added that people who depend on public transportation and the county’s youth, elderly and residents from low-income neighborhoods are also more likely to experience severe injuries or die from traffic collisions.

Vision Zero, said Blanton, is a shared effort to address safety through partnerships, which now includes every local government except for Pinellas Park and Seminole. However, he said both municipalities are considering joining.

Blanton said the success of the programs depends on leadership and commitment and involves engineering, education and awareness. He noted the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is a staunch supporter and will join Forward Pinellas in an Oct. 14 workshop to engage local elected officials “on a dialogue of what we can really do to improve safety on our roadways.”

“The fatalities we had Friday were on local streets, but mostly they happen on state roads,” said Blanton. “Because those are the fast, wide high-speed roads.”

Forward Pinellas, explained Blanton, reviews every fatal crash report to identify any engineering, lighting, design or speed factors. He said only about 30% of crashes involve impairment, and sometimes there is a false narrative purporting that is an overwhelming component.

Among other key research findings are that 87% of what the organization classifies as “High Injury Network” roadways have speed limits of 40 mph or higher, and 73% run through or border a “community of concern” or low-income areas where many residents lack vehicles.

A map showing what Forward Pinellas considers “high injury” roadways in the county. Screengrab.

According to the program’s data, 61% of pedestrian collisions involve no contributing actions by motorists, while 13% failed to yield and 11% resulted from careless driving.

Mayor Frank Hibbard asked for clarification on that statistic, and Blanton said that while someone made a mistake, the crashes were not due to low lighting, impairment or high speeds. His interpretation, said Blanton, was that someone either wasn’t paying attention or improperly stepped into the road.

“That’s the challenge with safety,” he elaborated. “The person who survives is able to tell their story, and the person who is dead is not able to tell their story. So, sometimes we don’t have accurate information.”

Forward Pinellas is deploying technology to monitor near-misses and less serious collisions, which Blanton said often go unreported. In a single day of operation at the intersection of Alternate 19 and Curlew Road, Blanton said the system recorded 360 people driving at least 10 mph over the speed limit, 60 motorists running a red light and 61 pedestrians crossing the road improperly.

In about a week, said Blanton, the technology observed over 3,000 near misses at the intersection.

While he realizes that Clearwater – or any local municipality – does not need a resolution to improve street safety, Blanton said the partnerships show serious intent on improvement and aid in funding requests. The initiatives, he added, are also limited by staff and budget constraints.

Councilmember David Allbritton said it was “kind of embarrassing” for Clearwater to be one of three Pinellas cities yet to join the program.

The Clearwater City Council approved a resolution to become the program’s 21st municipal partner.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Avatar

    Mike Connelly

    August 31, 2022at9:42 pm

    “kind of embarrassing” for Clearwater to be one of three Pinellas cities yet to join the program.

    😒 WTF

    The public sidewalks are now death traps 🛴🛵🚴🚴‍♀️🚳

    Put the phones down and drive. Like your life depended on it

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