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A Times Editorial

A road too dangerous

Despite the frequent fatalities on U.S. 19, efforts to make the highway safer seem to lack urgency.

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 18, 2000

During the past month, while a Pinellas County task force studied quick fixes for U.S. 19, four more people died on the highway. One was killed pulling out of a driveway into fast traffic. Three were killed crossing several lanes to make turns at median openings.

Unfortunately, those deaths and their causes are not unexpected. On average, someone dies every month on U.S. 19 in Pinellas County. Accidents often involve cars entering the highway from one of hundreds of driveways or cars making daring dashes through median openings rather than turning at intersections. The deaths are reason enough for federal, state and local officials to act together -- and decisively. Yet there has been a lack of urgency.

Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel heads the latest task force on U.S. 19, a job she volunteered for and took on with energy. To its credit, the task force got various police agencies along the highway to cooperate on traffic law enforcement, a U.S. 19 address map added to the Yellow Pages and lighted street signs erected at major intersections.

On some of the key safety issues, however, the task force came up short.

For example, it recognized the danger posed by 104 median openings where cars can stack up waiting to make left turns, U-turns or crossovers. The task force recommended that the openings be "channelized" (altered to allow left turns and U-turns, but not crossover traffic), which should prevent some accidents. But many of the median cuts should have been closed to save lives.

The numerous driveway cuts are another safety concern. Every business along U.S. 19 wants a driveway, but allowing so many entrances into traffic creates frequent conflicts between slow-moving and fast-moving cars. The task force's solution -- to require fewer (and shared) driveways for future construction -- could take too long to make a difference.

The ultimate solution for U.S. 19 -- a federal highway maintained by the state that passes through several cities -- is to transform it into a limited-access highway by building overpasses at all major intersections. That will cost several hundred million dollars, yet Gov. Jeb Bush has earmarked only $100-million for the highway, and it won't be available until 2009. Too little, too late.

That makes an upcoming public meeting about U.S. 19 with U.S. Reps. Mike Bilirakis and C.W. Bill Young so important. Those attending the meeting need to be clear that only federal and state cooperation can fix U.S. 19, and that the time to act is now. (The meeting will be July 22 from 10 a.m. until noon at Clearwater High School.)

It is no mystery why people die on U.S. 19. The puzzling thing is why we haven't done more to stop the slaughter.

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