Monday, December 6, 2010

St. Petersburge Times: Few motorists aware of Florida law to stop at crosswalks with signs

Stopping at pedestrian crosswalks with signs or signals is the law, but most drivers don't.
By Danny Valentine, St. Petersburg Times, 12/2

Hoping to combat Florida's history of dangerous streets and pedestrian fatalities, state lawmakers passed legislation in 2008 requiring motorists to stop at most pedestrian crosswalks. More than two years later, few people even know about it.
The law requires drivers to stop, not just yield, at crosswalks with traffic signals or signs. But signs across the Tampa Bay area still tell drivers to "yield for peds," and some communities have even erected new signs that do not reflect current law. A Hillsborough County transportation planner said she could only think of one place where a sign informed drivers to stop. And in St. Petersburg recently, police gave warnings to motorists advising them to yield to pedestrians.

"Why are we seeing new signs that say yield when that is not the law?" said state Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, who sponsored the bill in the House. "The frustration is obvious."

Traffic experts say the correct signs are a vital part of improving crosswalk safety in one of the most dangerous states for pedestrians. In 2009, Florida had 466 pedestrian fatalities, the highest pedestrian fatality rate in the country, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The definition of yielding can be ambiguous, they say. It could mean the car slows, comes to a rolling
stop or stops completely.

That creates a cat-and-mouse game between pedestrian and driver, said Brian Smith, executive director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization in Pinellas.
"It is confusing" Smith said. "We were trying to make it black and white."
Before the bill was drafted, Smith's organization researched how pedestrians could more easily cross roadways, determining that the "yield" issue was key.
The old law "does not give a pedestrian a clear indication as to whether the vehicle should go first or whether they should let the vehicle pass before proceeding," the group wrote to Sen. Mike Fasano, R New Port Richey, in 2007.

"When people think about yielding, they look at it as, 'I have room,' " said St. Petersburg police traffic commander Bill Korinek. Kriseman said it has been a long battle to get the Florida Department of Transportation to inform agencies about the change. As the organization in charge of transportation in Florida, he said it is
FDOT's responsibility to see that counties implement the change.

"Certainly, DOT didn't make it a priority to get the message out," Kriseman said.
FDOT recently acknowledged that the law was not being implemented uniformly.
"There was a big inconsistency," said Ananth Prasad, FDOT's assistant secretary.
On Nov. 17, the agency adopted a policy to replace all signs for state roads to reflect the change in law, he said. They also resolved to work with local municipalities to implement the change statewide.

St. Petersburg is gradually switching out the signs as the old ones need replacing, said Joe Kubicki, director of transportation and parking for the city.
Even though some correct signs are out there, he said he doesn't think many people know about the change. Michele Ogilvie, a transportation planner with the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization agreed. She said she only knows of one sign informing motorists to stop. "I know to do it because I read the law and said, "Oh, okay," she said.

Informing the public about the change was more difficult because the bill didn't come with funding to do so, Kriseman said. He initially proposed increasing fines for motorists who didn't stop for pedestrians at intersections, but it was cut out of the final version, he said.

Kriseman said the change needs to be a high priority. Crashes involving pedestrians account for more than 20 percent of traffic fatalities in Tampa Bay, compared with about 11 percent across the country. More than 1,000 pedestrian-involved crashes are
reported every year in Tampa Bay. "We knew it was going to be difficult to get the word out," said Kriseman. "Clearly, that's exactly what happened.

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