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Highway fatalities soar to 106

In fact, had Pasco been considered in a recent study of the nation's deadliest roads, it would have taken top billing.

By RYAN DAVIS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 6, 2002

Pasco's roads were never more deadly than in 2001.

Florida Highway Patrol figures released Friday paint this bleak picture:

106 fatalities -- by far the most ever.

A higher fatality rate than Orlando, considered to be the nation's deadliest city for traffic.

Thirteen more fatalities than Pinellas County, which has nearly three times as many people.

Pasco was the only county in a five-county area to have an increase in fatal accidents.

The deaths include pedestrian and traffic accident victims countywide. The numbers aren't yet broken down by cause -- such as alcohol, driver error or other factors.

For Pasco, it marks the second consecutive record year, and the fifth consecutive year of rising fatalities. It shattered the previous fatality high, which was 81 in 2000.

By Oct. 5, 2001, there were already more deaths than the entire previous year. The deadliest wreck was a fiery quadruple fatality March 2 at State Road 54 and Old County Road 54.

The rising death toll has left officials without many answers. The Florida Highway Patrol, which investigates nearly all of the fatal accidents, can't explain the steep increase. Neither can Bob Reck, the county's director of traffic operations.

"They can only do so much enforcement-wise," Reck said of FHP. "And we can only do so much as far as engineering wise. The biggest part (of the responsibility) lies on the driver."

FHP expects it will get better.

"I think it's a blip on the radar screen," said Capt. Mike McElreath.

He expects additional patrols and wider roads could help.

Currently, 19 troopers patrol Pasco's roads. By midyear that is scheduled to grow to 34, he said.

But it still won't be enough to prevent all dangerous driving, he said.

"I don't have enough people to ride with you and hit you upside the head every time you go over the speed limit," McElreath said.

He also said the widening of roads, such as SR 54 in both east and west Pasco, should prevent accidents.

"When you have turn lanes that takes the vehicles out of the traffic flow," McElreath said.

Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel, who chairs a U.S. 19 task force there, said her county has found a way to save lives. Final numbers aren't compiled, but she said fewer people died on U.S. 19 in Pinellas last year than the year before.

The countywide numbers support her hypothesis. Pinellas fatalities dropped to 93 from 122, FHP said.

The task force identified problems and has persuaded federal and state lawmakers to target a total of nearly $200-million for the dangerous roadway, Seel said. Just publicizing the U.S. 19 problem helped, Seel said.

"People tend to put that in their mind and approach a roadway or approach a situation with a lot more trepidation," she said.

In Pasco, a record 11 pedestrians were killed on U.S. 19 in 2001.

The county has a community traffic safety team composed of citizens, law enforcement, traffic engineers and others, but it has struggled in its attempts to have a wide-reaching effect.

In December it held its largest event. While law enforcement cracked down on speeders and drunk drivers, volunteers handed blinking lights to pedestrians.

Still, Pasco was the only county among its Suncoast neighbors -- Hillsborough, Hernando, Citrus and Pinellas counties -- not to see a decline in fatalities.

"I think it's just the growth in the county," McElreath said.

But the death increase cannot be explained away by population growth.

The year included the opening of the Suncoast Parkway, a four-lane divided tollway that stretches from the Hillsborough County line to the Citrus County line. But it had just one fatality, which occurred Dec. 28 when a 38-year-old man fell unconscious behind the wheel and veered off the road.

Until 2000, 1990 was the deadliest year on Pasco roads with 74. That year was a blip. The year before there were 52 fatalities. The year after there were 40.

But even that year there were 26.3 traffic fatalities for every 100,000 people.

In 2001, the county had 30.75 fatalities per 100,000 people. That's the highest rate here since 1978, when the population was less than half of what it is today.

Had Pasco been considered in a recent study of the nation's deadliest roads, it would have been a runaway winner.

Orlando was deemed to have the deadliest roads in the country, according the study by a nonprofit transportation research group. In 2000, Orlando had 18.8 fatalities per 100,000 people.

The study, released last month, included only the nation's 50 largest metropolitan areas. Tampa/St. Petersburg ranked second.

-- Times staff writer Matt Waite contributed to this report.

-- Times staff writer Ryan Davis is the police reporter in Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6245, or toll-free at 800-333-7505, ext. 6245. His e-mail address is

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