Greetings from the Gulf: On the road to ending a nightmare

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By John Morton

Ever heard of a neutral drop?

It’s what teenage punks do in parking lots to impress their friends and ruin their transmissions.

You put the car in neutral, floor the gas, and then crank ‘er into drive. A squeal of the tires is the reward as you burst forward.

I’m guilty of this obnoxious little trick, and it sent the family’s Buick Electra to an early grave.

But I have a defense: I learned how to drive in Sarasota.

It was 1980 and I had just gotten my license. Well, remember how the driveway into the businesses down along Phillippi Creek used to not have the traffic signal? Upon leaving, sitting at a standstill on that steep incline, hoping to take a blind left heading south, was nothing short of terrifying. Hence, the neutral drop became my go-to tactic.

That, and a scream of “whoahhhh!” as I went for it, knuckles as white as can be.

Years later, the traffic signal arrived. I hate to know why, but I can guess.

Now that the traffic has slowed (only figuratively) here a bit, let’s talk about road safety.

Despite mastering that hideous turn, as well as that cruel intersection on the north end of the Key where Higel Avenue and Midnight Pass roads merge (now also home to stoplights), I thought I’d by now be fearless on the local roads. That’s not the case at all.

I’m from the land where Canadian honkers are geese flying in a “V” formation. Now, they are angry motorists from Ottawa who roll down their window and point out that I’m going too slow on Tamiami Trail.

Now is the time to slow it down, for heaven’s sake. Tight little barrier islands are tricky, of course, but the way many of us are driving we aren’t giving those on foot or pedal a chance.

Remember, we had a bicyclist die when struck by a trolley in February. He was “at fault,” but was he really? The poor guy was 74, trying to navigate the brutal intersection at Midnight Pass and Stickney Point roads. It’s a tough one by car, for crying out loud.

In recent years, there has been an emphasis on cutting back on automobile use. But how can we encourage this when the options often feel like suicide missions? 

A report entitled “Dangerous by Design 2020” found Sarasota among the six most dangerous metro areas in the U.S. for pedestrians and bicyclists, based upon 2019 data. The others were all Florida cities, as our state remains by far the most deadly for non-motorists.

I lived on Fort Myers Beach, where bike riding was laughable until proper lanes were just recently installed.

Over the bridge in Cape Coral, a motorist killed an 8-year-old girl at a school-bus stop during my time there.

I also lived in Pinellas County, where I constantly reported on bike and/or pedestrian fatalities.

I once attended a FDOT open house where plans for the redesign of a major thoroughfare were on display. The logjam of cars on that road was notorious.

However, to my surprise, it showed the removal of a car lane in exchange for a bike lane. Several people groused. I applauded.

Pinellas is also the place where a guy is proposing an above-ground monorail system. If you’ve been on U.S. 19, you aren’t laughing.

Meanwhile, Pinellas is also the place where an ongoing nightmare originated for me.

I was driving along Alt. U.S. 19 (it’s the original 19 – what a dubious distinction!) just south of Tarpon Springs. It’s a crowded roadway that’s as narrow as it gets.

That’s when I heard the chilling screams of a young girl who I saw kneeling roadside.

I was one of many cars to pull over, only to see her puppy, still on her leash, dead in the ditch.

So, back here on the Key, let’s talk about what we can do.

There is now a mobile message board on Stickney Point Road as you approach the island, asking drivers to be alert and drive carefully.

That’s nice, and I wish we could bolt the thing down, but we know warning signs and speeding tickets aren’t the answer.

By the way, how can cars speed in gridlock you ask? Well, while Stickney often feels like “Stuckney,” it also becomes a raceway once there’s a sliver of an opening. I know people are anxious to get to the beach, but come on.

I’m talking about a cultural change. A community mindset. You know how some places have those “Tree City” designation signs? Let’s come up with something similar, but promoting walkers and bikers. “Here, Pedestrians Come First” could be a good campaign.

They’d look good with our “No. 1 Beach” signs.

Watching cars blast in and out of the public beach is also concerning. That’s why we need to support the upcoming roundabout project there. I suggest two more of them find their way to the Key in the next few years.

Slowing things down has to become a priority. Let’s not just talk the talk, but walk the walk — hopefully without fear of being clobbered by a car.

A study by the AAA Safety Foundation shows that once cars reach a speed of just above 20 mph, they rapidly become more deadly. For example, a person is about 70% more likely to be killed if they’re struck by a vehicle traveling at 30 mph vs. 25 mph. In collisions at 30 mph, about one in five pedestrians will not survive.

Those odds get significantly worse for older pedestrians, and we of course have many of those.

Whether this island becomes its own town or not, let’s start a push for a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere that sets the standard. Let’s start now.

Finally, kudos to FDOT for its powerful “How Many Pedestrian Deaths are OK?” ad campaign.

You’ve likely heard it, but here it is again. Let it sink in.

“Did you know in Florida, an average of 800 pedestrians and bicyclists are killed in car crashes each year? What do you think is a more acceptable number?”

The person in the ad answers “Acceptable? Maybe 50?” It’s then we see 50 people turn the corner and approach the man. He recognizes them as his family, his friends.

So now, what do think is a more acceptable number?” asks the narrator.

“Zero. Definitely zero,” the man answers.

And his daughter runs up to him for a hug.

I’m tired of having those nightmares of that little girl and her dog. I want nice dreams.

And, I’m ready to dream big.

Here’s to a big number. Here’s to zero.

(John Morton is managing editor of Siesta Sand.)

John Morton
Author: John Morton

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