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Sentinel: Walking our roads could kill you

(Part of the Orlando Sentinel 3-part series, Blood in the Streets)

Central Florida’s roads run red with pedestrian blood.

Nowhere in America are pedestrians at greater risk of being struck and seriously injured or killed. Nowhere are drivers more likely to suffer the life-changing split second of taking someone’s life — simply by operating one of the 3,000-pound machines that are so ubiquitous in Central Florida life, and so deadly.

For a decade now, Metro Orlando has earned the terrible distinction as the most dangerous city in America for pedestrians.

Every year more than 850 Central Floridians are struck by cars. Every year at least 150 suffer what police call “incapacitating” injuries. Every year 40 to 70 die.

On a per-capita basis, that gives Orlando the second-worst pedestrian-death rate of any metropolitan area in the country, behind only Miami. When walking patterns are factored in — studies show people walk much more in Miami and many other places with high death rates — Orlando becomes far worse.

What the numbers don’t reveal is the devastation left behind: the debilitating injuries, the shattered families and the traumatized drivers.

It’s no secret to Jessica Rodriguez, whose son Anthony Rodriguez turned 15 a week before he was killed one foggy November morning in 2010 off Valencia College Lane.

“I don’t have him physically, can’t touch him or hold him,” she said. “I will never have closure because I don’t have my son.”

It’s no secret to people who live and work along any of Central Florida’s most notorious pedestrian killing zones.

Tim Groves has watched the carnage on North Goldenrod Road outside his Thirsty Gator tavern. Pointing as if visualizing each spot outside where tragic crashes occurred, Groves recounted the toll from the past decade.

“There has been one,” he said, pointing, then moving his finger to point toward a spot a few yards down the street.





“Six. Six pedestrians crossing Goldenrod out there that were hit and have been killed,” Groves said.

The latest, in 2011, was Bobby Stout, 55, Groves’ close friend and employee, struck on the sidewalk by a car that left the road. Saundra Cicero, 47, was killed in the road in 2009. Sondro Walmer, 12, died in 2005. Victoria Velez, 2, and her sister Anjelica, 5, were run down in a 2004 crash that broke hearts throughout Central Florida. In late 2003 a hit-and-run driver left the body of Felix Cuellar, 29.

“You think: That’s somebody’s brother, a son, possibly a father, a mother. Somebody that’s very close to a lot of people,” Groves said. “What you realize is the finality of it. You’ll never see them again.”


It’s no secret to state highway officials, who recently launched plans to cut down on pedestrian deaths, starting with a public-service-announcement campaign called “Alert Today Alive Tomorrow;” or to most local political leaders, who signed on last year to an Orlando PSA campaign called “Best Foot Forward for Pedestrian Safety.”

It’s no secret to first responders and hospital emergency-room doctors such as Orlando Regional Medical Center Trauma Medical Director Dr. John Promes. He recently penned a column for the Orlando Sentinel declaring, “It is past time for us to come together as a community and say that enough is enough.”

A widely cited, 2002 national study using census data on walking habits and crash data on pedestrian deaths ranked metro Orlando the nation’s deadliest city. Follow-up reports in 2004, 2009 and 2011 kept Orlando No. 1, with a widening gap. The next report will reach the same conclusion, said David Goldberg, spokesman for Transportation for America.

“Right now the legacy is, at least for the 2000 [decade], and probably this decade, Orlando has ranked worst in the country,” he said. Tampa and Jacksonville were second and third.

In 2012, 50 people were killed by automobiles in Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Lake counties. An additional 899 people were struck and survived, though many were seriously injured, according to crash data from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles analyzed by the Orlando Sentinel.

In six years, from 2007 through 2012, 333 Central Florida pedestrians were killed. Similar street slaughters played out in Tampa, Miami and Jacksonville, making Florida the nation’s deadliest state.

“Make no mistake,” said Mighk Wilson, with MetroPlan, the region’s transportation-planning agency. “We know we have a problem.”

Careless walking

Among 1,188 serious crashes in Central Florida since the start of 2007 — those that left a pedestrian dead or seriously injured — pedestrians were to blame in eight out of 10, the Sentinel’s analysis found.

The cases reveal a steady pattern of careless pedestrians trying to cross roads away from crosswalks, often at night, too often in dark clothing.

Darkness, said Florida Highway Patrol Cpl. Brian Gensler, does more than just make it difficult for drivers and pedestrians to see each other. It also impairs their abilities to judge distances, and the pedestrian’s ability to judge vehicles’ speeds.

So pedestrians too often misjudge their chances. By the time a typical car headlight reveals a pedestrian, it already is physically too late for the average driver to stop a 45-mph car, he said.

“Most of them [drivers], at the time, say they never saw the person until just before impact, because of the dark clothing,” Gensler said of drivers.

On a June night in 2010, Laura Campbell of Oviedo was heading home from a bridge party when a homeless man named Jorge A. Rodrigues, 46, stepped seemingly out of nowhere into her headlight beam, on an unlighted stretch of Semoran Boulevard. She tried to swerve. He kept looking down, she said. The left side of her car slammed into him. He bounced off, tumbled and died.

Investigators assured her it was not her fault.

“When I was 15 and started to drive, I sat down and thought, ‘I could kill someone.’ This [driving] is the one thing I could do that has a relatively high potential to kill someone someday,” said Campbell, now 41, who has since moved to Charlotte, N.C.

“It can happen to anyone. It can happen to anyone.”

Of the 333 pedestrians killed since the start of 2007, two of every three were not in crosswalks.

Four of every five were crossing at night.

One of six, including Rodrigues, was intoxicated, according to state data.

Careless driving

In 20 percent of fatal cases, drivers are partly if not entirely to blame.

In those cases, investigating officers noted the driver was suspected of such violations as careless driving, speeding, failure to yield, running red lights or driving under intoxication.

Throughout Central Florida, experienced walkers all talk about careless drivers who do not look for pedestrians.

Jean Weislogel, 49, crosses Lee Road intersections with the Interstate 4 ramps every day. One has lighted “Yield to Pedestrian” signs for motorists, along with the usual red lights and pedestrian signals. They don’t matter, she said, just after a car whisked past her in the crosswalk.

“They don’t yield. They just keep on going. They don’t even bother looking up. You kind of look at them and like, say, ‘Hello? Do you see the sign?'” she said.

Many pedestrians say the designs of intersections and the habits of drivers convince them to not use crosswalks. Troy Fergus, 27, called them death traps.

“It’s more simple to cross in the middle of the road because you force them to slow down,” he said, after dashing across Kirkman Road near Conroy Road.

It’s a common sight throughout town. Experienced walkers say when they cross at midblock, they only have to watch for one direction of traffic at a time.

“I’m scared to cross in the crosswalk. I’m sorry,” said Andrea White, 17, just before she darted across Silver Star Road a half-block west of Pine Hills Road.

Careless design

Transportation for America blames Central Florida’s road system.

Orlando grew up in the suburban boom, the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, when the only consideration for designing urban roads was to carry as much traffic as possible, as far as possible, as quickly as possible, Goldberg said. So the region is crisscrossed by broad, busy, fast highways such as Colonial Drive or Kirkman, mixing crowds of people walking to and from bus stops, stores, work and churches with 60-mph cars and trucks.

Such highways can feature intersections 60 or more yards wide, with multiple turn lanes in every direction, and often set a half-mile apart. Sidewalks sometimes are absent, or installed perilously close to roadways. Some have no streetlights. Many have no “pedestrian refuge” median strips. Bus stops often are a long way from crosswalks.

“I think we know exactly why” Orlando is so dangerous, Goldberg said.

The only mystery for Billy Hattaway is why Orlando consistently is worse than Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville. Hattaway, District 1 (Southwest Florida) secretary for the Florida Department of Transportation, was recently appointed the department’s “pedestrian champion” to improve safety statewide.

“I don’t know why the Orlando region tends to be worse than Tampa or South Florida. I thought a lot about it. I grew up in Winter Park,” Hattaway said. “Some of it has to do with land development patterns and high-speed roads. We had a lot of growth in the Orlando area after World War II, more so than in Tampa or Miami. People weren’t walking. Gas was cheap. And land was cheap.”

The national “Dangerous by Design” studies done by Transportation for America — and previous “Mean Streets” studies done by the Surface Transportation Policy Project — push Orlando to the top by factoring in census information on how much walking people in each community tend to do. Though some planners argue that the census walking data could be unreliable, Hattaway and Wilson agree that it’s clear Orlando residents walk less than those in Tampa or Miami. Regardless, they’re all in Florida.

“People can argue about the data all day long, but as the [state transportation] secretary [Ananth Prasad] put it: We know we have a problem, and we need to deal with it,” Hattaway said.

Silk flowers

The Velez girls and their mother were using the crosswalk outside the Belmont Plaza shopping center that houses Grove’s tavern on Goldenrod that tragic day in 2004. Today, immaculate pink, white and purple silk flowers spiral around two lollipop-shaped signs erected just feet from where Victoria Velez’s smashed stroller landed.

Sister Anjelica was a footstep ahead of her sister’s stroller when a red-light runner sent their bodies flying 100 feet.

Unlike other memorials abandoned over time, the Velez markers are pristine — although no one seems to know who keeps them that way. The sign’s white face is spotless, the area around them is clear of debris and the fabric petals are replaced before they blacken with the soot of traffic.

The memory is vivid; the pain lingers. Yet the carnage hasn’t stopped.

Anjelica and Victoria’s deaths outraged and prompted legislation. But a few yards from the signs bearing their names, warning drivers to “Drive Safely,” three more pedestrian memorials have appeared.

Original article in the Orlando Sentinel