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    Deaths on Pinellas roads rise by 25%

    Big factors, say officials: aggressive drivers, unused seat belts and alcohol.

    By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published November 28, 2002

    Traffic deaths in Pinellas County are up 25 percent this year because of aggressive drivers, increased distractions and a widespread aversion to seat belts, authorities said Wednesday.

    According to statistics from local law enforcement agencies, as of Monday 104 people had died so far this year from traffic crashes in Pinellas. Last year it was 83 in the same period.

    The surge is not a surprise to police, who work dozens of crashes each week.

    "Florida is growing so much, especially in the Tampa Bay area, that it doesn't surprise me we're seeing these numbers," said Lt. Sterling King, spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol.

    Hillsborough has 207 traffic deaths so far this year, a 34 percent increase over the 154 who died in the same period last year and by far the most traffic deaths in the five-county Tampa Bay area.

    The most recent happened Wednesday morning, when Eric Williams, 28, of Tampa, struck a guardrail on Interstate 275. Williams' car overturned and he was ejected. He was not wearing a seat belt.

    So far this year, Pasco has stayed about the same, with 86 deaths, compared with 87 at this point last year. Hernando has had 20 traffic fatalities this year, two fewer than last year. Citrus County deaths are up significantly: from 16 last year to 25 this year.

    Drunken driving is still a big problem, officers said. Of the 53 fatal crashes this year in the city of Tampa, nearly half were alcohol-related.

    Though officers are arresting more people each year for drunken driving, more are dying in traffic crashes. That's because many people refuse to wear seat belts, said Sgt. Alan Hill of the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office. At least 60 percent of the people who die in traffic crashes aren't buckled up.

    On this long Thanksgiving weekend, local law enforcement is stepping up patrols to try to reduce the number of deaths. Teams of Florida Highway Patrol troopers, sheriff's deputies and city police officers are being stationed at high-crash locations, looking for speeders, unbuckled passengers and drunks.

    "The visibility helps a lot more than the enforcement," said King of the FHP. "It slows people down."

    Speeders weren't difficult to find Wednesday morning in North Tampa.

    Sixteen Tampa police officers on motorcycles and in marked cruisers stopped 180 drivers on a stretch of I-275 between Fowler and Fletcher avenues.

    "One hundred eighty people in four hours," said Tampa police Sgt. Robert Dubose.

    His officers didn't stop people who were driving just 5 or 10 mph over the speed limit. All of the drivers stopped were going at least 15 mph over the limit, which is posted at 55 mph on that stretch of interstate.

    One man was clocked doing 95 mph. Another was doing 101.

    "Everybody's in a big hurry," Dubose said.

    Asked why he wasn't stopping everyone who violated the speed limit, Dubose just grinned and shook his head.

    "I don't have enough police officers to do that," he said.

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