Tuesday, January 5, 2016

NDN Editorial and Article on 2015 Traffic Fatalities in Collier and Lee Counties--Call for Renewed Emphasis on Road Safety

Naples Daily News shines a spotlight on the spike in roadway fatalities in Lee and Collier Counties in 2015, and calls on officials to step up their efforts.  Specifically, they urge the FL Legislature to strengthen laws dealing with cellphone usage and passage of the Passidomo bike safety bill (both BikeWalkLee priorities communicated to the Lee Legislative Delegation in October). The article outlines what the Collier County Sheriff's strategy for 2016.  BWL will ask Lee County Sheriff's Office for their strategy.  Below are both the NDN editorial and the underlying story.

Naples Daily News Editorial, Jan. 5, 2016

2015 fatality data calls for renewed emphasis on safe highways http://www.naplesnews.com/opinion/editorials/editorial-florida-needs-to-renew-emphasis-to-pay-attention-to-the-roads-288579fe-68ad-6881-e053-0100-364157101.html

In late 2012, several state agencies came together with federal officials, safety organizations and local governments to come up with a strategy for reducing the death toll on Florida highways.

They set an admirable goal of reducing Florida highway fatalities each year through 2017. They took an average for a five-year period, from 2006-10, to create a baseline from which to measure the goal of annually reducing the number of fatalities.

That baseline of 2,431 deaths was to be reduced by 5 percent yearly.

The initiative has sadly crashed in the past two years on Florida's highways. With the 2016 legislative session starting in a week, lawmakers can take the state's safety into their hands. A new year also beckons a renewed effort by law enforcement.

Southwest Florida contributed to the wrong-way trend in 2015. Instead of a 5 percent reduction, preliminary data from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles shows traffic fatalities in Collier County went from 39 in 2014 to 49 in 2015, an increase of about 25.6 percent. In Lee County, preliminary data shows an increase from 81 deaths in 2014 to 95 in 2015, a 17.2 percent increase.

Lee's percentage mirrors what happened statewide. Preliminary numbers show a 17.8 percent increase to 2,939 Florida traffic deaths in 2015 compared with 2,494 in 2014.

Had the 2012 projection held true, 2,084 people would have died on roads in the state in 2015, according to the Florida Department of Transportation Strategic Highway Safety Plan. That means there were 855 more highway deaths in 2015 than the plan's benchmark, which therefore was missed by more than 40 percent.

Goal never met
The 5 percent annual reduction called for in the five-year plan has never been met. The state came close in the first year, 2013, yet about 100 more people were killed in traffic crashes than the benchmark. By 2014, the gap widened with about 300 more people killed on the road than the safety plan projected.

The preliminary numbers for 2015 show the state continued accelerating in the wrong direction, but that came as no year-end surprise. A National Safety Council analysis this past summer showed motor vehicle deaths were up 14 percent nationally and 29 percent in Florida in the first six months of 2015 compared with those months in 2014.

A strategy
The Collier County Sheriff's Office is intent on addressing the trend. To its credit, it has a strategy for 2016, which Lt. Mike Dolan of the Safety and Traffic Enforcement Bureau says includes:

-- Addressing aggressive driving (speeding, running red lights, following too closely, etc.) using motorcycles, unmarked and marked patrol vehicles, with high traffic crash areas targeted.
-- Weekly traffic crash analysis to identify trends for a quick response.
-- Wolf packs with deputies and state troopers focusing on DUIs, including areas used by people leaving bars and night entertainment areas.
-- Increasing the number of vehicles that are subtly marked as law enforcement cars.
-- An educational campaign directed toward impaired and aggressive drivers, including appearances at community events.

In session
So far, going into the 2016 session, Florida lawmakers have drawn attention for focusing on gun issues — weapons on campuses and open carry in public — contending these will save lives. Safety on Florida's highways? Not so much.

The Governors Highway Safety Association reports 14 states have taken steps to prohibit all drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving; 38 states have laws banning novice drivers from using cell phones behind the wheel.

Yet, behind-the-times Florida is dabbling again with a no-texting law, which Washington state enacted nine years ago. One plus is state Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, is again pushing a bill to toughen penalties for drivers who injure bicyclists, pedestrians and other "vulnerable users" of Florida's roads.

Florida's spike in fatalities underscores the need for lawmakers to pay more attention to the roads in 2016.

NDN Jan. 5, 2016: 2015 traffic fatalities spike in Collier for all the same reasons: speeding, DUIs and distractions
By Kristine Gill  (http://www.naplesnews.com/news/local/2015-traffic-fatalities-spike-in-collier-county-for-all-the-same-reasons-speeding-drinking-and-dri-2-364174891.htm)
For two months, Sebastian Aguiar held his mother's hand at her bedside in Lee Memorial Hospital. In August a fatal crash involving alcohol killed Marcela Ortega's husband of four years, Leo Benitez, leaving her with major injuries.

Calling from Colombia where he's spent the two months since his mother left the hospital on Halloween with metal in her arms and legs and without her husband, Aguiar said the real recovery has just begun.

"She's picking up with the strength in her legs," Aguiar said. "Emotionally and getting adjusted, all that's been a mess. It's been kind of ugly. But her attitude has been good."

Still looming amid her recovery are the legal and criminal battles that could take years. Samantha Robson, 34, was arrested on DUI charges including DUI resulting in death. Aguiar said lawsuits also are pending.
"It's been quite a process," he said.

Aguiar and his mother are not alone in their grief. The number of fatalities resulting from crashes increased in 2015 over 2014 in Lee and Collier counties as well as statewide. They ranged in time and location and cause — from driver miscalculation to weather conditions and a host of contributing factors.

"When it comes to these fatal crashes speed is a factor, we see distractions in vehicles and we see alcohol," said Lt. Gregory Bueno, a spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol. "We have plenty of cases here locally we can cite to those reasons playing a major role in those fatalities."

The figures include medical deaths that take place behind the wheel, say if a driver has had a heart attack that led to a crash.

In Collier County, 2015 brought 49 traffic fatalities compared to 39 in the year 2014. In Lee County, 95 crashes took place in 2015 compared to 81 in 2014.

And statewide, the totals grew from 2,494 in 2014 to 2,939 in 2015, representing an increase of about 18 percent.

The increase marks a stark contrast to goals set by the Florida Department of Transportation in 2012 to reduce statewide fatalities by 5 percent each year through 2016 when officials hoped to have the tally reduced to 1,980.
That target is outlined in a 99-page report entitled Florida Department of Transportation 2016 Highway Safety Plan. The plan outlines traffic enforcement methods local jurisdictions would take to curb the number of fatalities. But the 2015 figures are higher than they were in 2012 — 2,431 statewide fatalities — when those goals were set and even higher than they were in 2009 — 2,560 statewide fatalities. The total for 2015 is the highest in a seven-year period.

"Troopers proactively patrol and are very active with community education each and every day in attempts to reduce traffic fatalities," Bueno said when asked about the agencies goals to reduce fatalities. "FHP runs various awareness campaigns throughout the year and employs targeted enforcement whereas troopers focus on area prone to traffic crashes."

But Bueno said it ultimately comes down to drivers. Motorists should self-check their own driving behaviors, he said, and ensure their vehicles are in working order before driving. Anyone who sees an aggressive or impaired driver on the roads should dial *FHP to alert troopers.

In Lee County, a particularly deadly weekend in September stands out when five died in crashes along State Road 82, a main thoroughfare many drivers have said is infamous for speeders, difficult turns and poor lighting. Major improvements are planned for that road in the coming years, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.

In Collier County last month, James Cecil Riner, the 33-year-old father of four sons died when another drunken driver caused a three-car wreck. The same week, 20-year-old college student Christian Gomez died while pushing a disabled car along the road in the dark; charges are pending against the teenage Marco Island driver who struck Gomez. And 52-year-old Roy Mills, a father and caretaker for his elderly mother, died in a separate crash while riding his bike when the driver of a minivan failed to notice him. The woman who struck him left the scene but later returned. No charges have been filed.

Bueno said there's no way to eliminate all traffic crashes and points to a familiar list of causes for individual wrecks.

"If you dissect each crash, and even the ones on State Road 82, you're still coming down to those contributing causes as far as the root of the problem," he said. "And whether it's a two-lane road or a four-lane road and you're asserting aggressiveness by passing multiple vehicles, you're increasing the risk of something bad occurring."
Bueno acknowledged that the timeline for arrests in many of these crashes can seem slow for the parties involved.

"We have to be able to substantiate charges in the courtroom setting and that takes proof," he said. "For something like an alcohol DUI manslaughter case, there are several elements we need to prove and have probable cause. We need to put the driver behind the wheel, take statements and other physical evidence, we also need to be able to prove the person's blood alcohol was over the limit at the time of the crash and that that person was at fault for the crash. Those things might seem trivial, but if you miss any of those, you're at risk of losing the whole case."

In the meantime, Aguiar has returned to work since his two-month hospital vigil alongside his mother. While Ortega said she has already forgiven Robson for causing the crash that killed her husband, the family knows their journey is far from over.

"It's not like she's going to be fine in a couple years," Aguiar said.

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