Florida tries to curb high pedestrian fatalities


On June 3, a pedestrian crossing Woodland Boulevard in DeLand was struck by a car, and was pronounced dead at the scene.

Unfortunately, it’s not all that uncommon.

Florida has the fifth-highest pedestrian-fatality rate in the United States, according to recent research by the Florida Department of Transportation. Between 2003 and 2012, a total of 1,075 pedestrians — people — died in traffic crashes.

Florida has been struggling for years with its reputation for pedestrian- unfriendly roads. However, some changes already in place and new ones coming may help the state improve its reputation and lower the numbers of pedestrian fatalities

Graphic by Cassidy Alexander

Graphic by Cassidy Alexander

Gabby’s Law

Gabby’s Law has been in the making for five years.

The law is the result of Don Mair’s passion to protect students like his daughter. Twelve-year-old Gabrielle Mair had just gotten off the bus bringing her home from River Springs Middle School in Orange City on June 1, 2010. When she started to cross West Highbanks Road in DeBary, she was hit by a car that didn’t have time to stop.

“The first thing every parent does is teach [their children] to look both ways,” Mair said, wondering how this could have happened to his daughter.

Gabby died from her injuries.

Two days after Gabby’s death, Mair was meeting with local and state officials to find out why this happened to his daughter.

His first meeting to find closure and prevent more accidents like this was on June 9, 2010. Gabby’s Law will go into effect July 1, 2015. Five years have passed since Mair started working for this. Unfortunately, it’s not the change that Mair originally was working for.

Gabby’s Law, as it stands, redefines “hazardous walking conditions,” and the way officials approach them. Originally, Mair was fighting for stricter laws about drivers stopping for school buses, and harsher penalties for those who break the law.

According to Mair, the legislation that would have brought about those changes,HB487andSB346,was not considered in the Florida House of Representatives or the Senate, because of tensions between political parties in the Legislature.

Though Mair’s original plan didn’t come to fruition this year, HB41 was dubbed Gabby’s Law in her honor.

It revises the criteria that determine a hazardous walking condition for public-school students, and gives school-district officials the power to request improvements to hazardous areas, while requiring governmental entities to fix hazardous conditions. It leaves room for problems to be identified and corrected at a local level.

“There’s a huge lack of communication between the school districts and the county agencies and the state agencies,” Mair said. “This bill opens up the channels of communication to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Florida’s numbers

While fatal pedestrian injury is still a leading cause of death for children under age 15, the number of fatalities for child pedestrians has dropped dramatically in the past 30 years, according to the Dangerous by Design 2014 report by Smart Growth America.

Smart Growth America is an organization dedicated to researching and advocating for smart-growth solutions for neighborhoods. Part of that research includes the annual Dangerous by Design report, which takes a look at the safety of streets for pedestrians.

Although young pedestrians are an area of special interest, it seems all pedestrians are at risk. Based on a danger index that looks at the likelihood of a pedestrian being hit by a car and killed, Florida is the most dangerous state for pedestrians, and has been for several years, according to Dangerous by Design. The Top 4 most dangerous places to walk are four metropolitan areas in Florida.

In response to this information, the Florida Department of Transportation conducted its own study. According to the Comprehensive Study to Reduce Pedestrian Crashes in Florida, there were 6,434 crashes involving pedestrians in 2008-2010. Of those, 663 were fatal, and 5,244 resulted in injury.

Graphic by Cassidy Alexander

Graphic by Cassidy Alexander

Florida’s response

But studies accomplish only so much. Trenda McPherson, bicycle/pedestrian safety-program manager for the FDOT, is working to implement several programs to help pedestrians, as part of Florida’s Bicycle/Pedestrian Focused Initiative.

The initiative began in November 2011. It involved the Alert Today Alive Tomorrow Campaign in 2012. Florida’s Pedestrian and Bicycle Strategic Safety Plan (PBSSP) was started in 2012 and finalized in early 2013.

“The plan is a comprehensive approach to problem resolution,” McPherson said. First, data about the crashes are collected, and are “then used to develop the right countermeasures to mitigate the problem,” she said.

The plan takes a multitiered approach to engineering, education, enforcement and emergency response, according to McPherson, an approach that she said has improved effectiveness by 20 percent, by combining the disciplines.

At the same time the PBSSP was finalized, the FDOT started Florida’s first Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety Coalition, which aims to implement strategies outlined in the PBSSP.

In 2014, Florida partnered with Smart Growth America and adopted a Complete Streets Policy, a plan to create transit-oriented developments that put pedestrians, cyclists and everyone else engaging in an act of transportation, first.

Despite all these efforts, it’s difficult to track progress so soon after the changes have been made.

“Yes, we are making progress,” McPherson said, “but we are still in the infancy of the program and expect significant progress as the momentum builds statewide and more partners get on board with the plan.”

Florida’s future

The investigation of the June 3 pedestrian death on Woodland Boulevard is still ongoing, the DeLand Police Department said, but no matter whether the pedestrian or the motorist is determined to have been at fault, this pedestrian will be among the hundreds of people who die each year while walking on or near roadways.

When his daughter died, Don Mair threw himself into promoting change, so fewer lives would be lost from something preventable.

Gabby’s Law was signed into law June 10 by Gov. Rick Scott.

“We’re going to try again,” said Mair, unsatisfied with the limited scope of the bill. He wants more protection for student pedestrians and harsher penalties in place for those who violate the laws.

Fortunately for Mair, the Florida DOT has similar goals. The wheels are turning in Florida as people work toward safer roads.

“We believe that every life matters,” McPherson said,“and we will not cease until we reach our goal of zero fatalities.”

Originally published in The West Volusia Beacon

Cassidy Alexander