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Countdown to crossing improvements

After a Largo man is killed at a crosswalk, residents and officials call for new signals and more time.

By DEMORRIS A. LEE
Published April 22, 2007


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LARGO - The residents of the Shangri-la community were stunned to learn a neighbor was killed as he crossed Missouri Avenue at Jasper Street late last month.

But they weren't surprised. The residents of the 55-and-older community off Missouri Avenue say the six-lane intersection is poorly lit and that the crosswalk doesn't allow enough time to cross, particularly with turning traffic often barreling down on pedestrians.

"The intersection is a screw hole," said Bill Kendig, 61, and a resident of Shangri-la, which has 150 homes.

The death of Armando Fallo, 85, on March 25, and the serious injury of his 80-year-old wife, Mary, point to the harsh reality of pedestrian safety in Pinellas County. And it highlights a growing concern that more could be done to make intersections safer, particularly for the elderly.

Last year, 29 pedestrians died on Pinellas roads - five while using crosswalks. Another 465 were injured, 112 in crosswalks.

And Florida, in a 2005 survey by the National Highway Transportation Safety Association, proved to be the deadliest for pedestrians with 3.24 deaths per 1,000 residents. The most likely age to perish in any state was pedestrians over 70, the study found.

Fallo's death has prompted the officer who investigated the accident, Largo police Sgt. Butch Ward, to recommend the city extend the time to cross the intersection and install a new-style signal - one that displays a countdown of how much time is left to cross.

But experts warn the best safety for a pedestrian remains a good defense - including fully understanding crosswalk signals.

"It's in the pedestrian's best interest to be alert at all times, no matter the environment," said Xuehao Chu, of the University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research, who recently completed a study for the state Transportation Department on pedestrian movement.

Staying alert "before, during and after the cross, and I think that's really what saves pedestrians from being hit," Chu said.

The Fallos and friend Helen Zurag, 85, who'd walked to McDonald's for ice cream, had 29 seconds to cross Missouri Avenue - a national standard based on a walker covering 4 feet a second. That standard is used along Florida highways with exceptions made for intersections near special populations such as schools, assisted living or housing for the disabled.

But when the Fallos and their friend ran out of time, they left the crosswalk, hoping to put more distance between themselves and oncoming traffic, police said.

Traveling south on Missouri about 8:15 p.m., Laura Joy Kile, 38, had the green light but did not see the elderly trio, police said. She swerved to miss Zurag and hit the Fallos.

In an effort to make crossing intersections safer for pedestrians, many communities are moving from the traditional blinking crosswalk signs to a countdown signal that displays the seconds left to cross a road safely. The hope is that the signs are easier to interpret.

Pedestrians often don't understand how to interpret the current walking signals, said Kris Carson, of the state Transportation Department.

"If they step off the curb when it signals walk, they will make it. When it starts flashing, many people think they have to go back. If you haven't started walking and it flashes, it means don't walk."

But Sharon Roerty, director for community programs at the National Center for Bicycling and Walking in Bethesda, Md., contends sign changes aren't nearly as important as expanding the time allotted to cross the road.

"Countdown signals are great, but in addition, you have to give people enough time," Roerty said. "You have to ask, 'Who are the users in this community? What is the traffic?' We are always much more forgiving with the motorist in this society, and the pedestrian, somehow we are always making them speed up and that doesn't make sense."

But more than a few seconds will have to be added to get Margie Figureido, 84, to use the crosswalk at Missouri Avenue and Jasper Street. She said that six months ago she was almost killed there. Now, she crosses in the middle of the block because she doesn't trust crosswalks.

"I went to cross, I didn't see any cars, and all of a sudden they were on me like a speedboat," Figureido said last week. "They don't give you enough time to cross safely."

For Kendig, he'll take his chances crossing three lanes at a time, standing in the median until traffic clears, and crossing three more.

"It says walk, you get in the middle of the street, the walk sign starts blinking," Kendig said about using crosswalks. "I cross in the middle of the street because you only have to look one way at a time."

News researcher Angie Drobnic Holan and photographer Douglas R. Clifford contributed to this story. Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 727 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com.

-The national standard for the time allotted to use a crosswalk is 4 feet per second. At the intersection of Missouri Avenue and Jasper Street, pedestrians are given 29 seconds to cross. That's not enough time, says a Largo police officer who investigated the fatal accident that killed Armando Fallo. He's recommended extending that time and updating the crosswalk signal to a new style that counts the seconds until the traffic light will change.

-At left, for seven seconds, the signal displays a walking figure, signaling pedestrians can enter the crosswalk safely. At right, for 16 seconds, the image turns to a blinking hand, signaling that no one else should enter the crosswalk and that time is waning for those already in it. For the final six seconds, the hand stops blinking, signaling the light will soon change.

-At left, initially, the signal displays a walking figure with no numbers. At right, most of the time, the signal shows a blinking hand and displays the number of seconds left until the light will change.

[Last modified April 22, 2007, 00:08:28]


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