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Mean Streets

Pedestrians, bicyclists look for safe passage on Greater Orlando’s notoriously deadly roadways.

As Greater Orlandoans, we don’t need studies to tell us that we have some of the nation’s deadliest roadways for pedestrians and bicyclists—we see, hear and experience those dangers firsthand. In the last month of 2016 alone, at least three locals died after being struck by vehicles while walking our mean streets, not to mention the injuries and close calls that happen daily.

Moreover, until 2016’s Dangerous by Design [DBD] report, which was published in January by Smart Growth America and the National Complete Streets Coalition, the Orlando region was ranked as the most dangerous for pedestrians. Darryl Johnson, assistant project manager for Orange County’s Traffic Engineering Division, says that civic leaders are “…making a concerted effort to reverse that at the local, regional and state levels.”

The Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford area has been somewhat successful in that goal, dropping to the third-most dangerous metro area for pedestrians after topping 2014’s report. (However, the new top-two entries weren’t included in previous reports.) And while DBD doesn’t factor in bicyclists, they too run a severe risk of injury and death in Orlando—especially given how frequently they share roads with motor vehicles.

For instance, while Orlando resident and former avid bicyclist Kevin Hallmark was never struck while riding, he has seen and experienced several near misses, including one that left him injured and averse to biking.

“Last January, a car cut me off at the intersection of Lakemont Avenue and Glenridge Way,” he says, explaining that his bottom-right rib impacted on his bike’s handle bar during the ensuing short stop. The result was a broken rib and damaged bike, but Hallmark still had to ride several miles to get home. “There was no one in a position to help me. I’m still dealing with the effects of that today.”

Fortunately, officials in Orlando and Orange County are well aware of these dangers, and they’re working to improve safety. What’s more, you and your family can take steps now to reduce your risk, no matter how you traverse Greater Orlando’s roadways.

Understanding the Problem

While Greater Orlando’s pedestrian danger index (PDI)—a statistical aggregate that indicates the likelihood of a person on foot being struck and killed by a vehicle—dropped slightly from 244.28 to 234.7 on 2016’s DBD report, it’s still noticeably higher than the first non-Florida city, Jackson, Mississippi, which ranked at No. 8 (189.6 PDI). What’s the root of the problem? Local experts say that it largely comes down to poor planning by our forebears.

“Primarily, it’s the design of our roads,” says Amanda Day, executive director of Bike/Walk Central Florida (BWCF). “It you look at the history of the whole Sunbelt area and those cities and locations that are most dangerous, it’s really due to the suburban sprawl.”

Billy Hattaway, a 28-year veteran of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) who was recently hired as Orlando’s transportation director, agrees.

“The interstate has basically become a commuting route, as did all of the state and federal highway system, because there wasn’t an additional network planned and built to support all that trip-making,” he says. “So, all those roads got widened, the intersections got bigger and bigger to where you’ve got six-lane roads meeting six-lane roads, sometimes with double and triple left turns or double right turns, and the larger the intersection, the more daunting it makes it for a pedestrian to cross.”

Another factor working against pedestrians and bicyclists can be found in just about anyone’s pocket or purse: smartphones. “We are a distracted society,” says Day. “The more gadgets we put in our phones, the more distracting it is.”

Johnson adds that Orange County tops the state in distracted-driving crashes, but says, “… distracted walking is becoming more and more prevalent as people use cellphones and wear headphones while walking.”

Finally, says Hattaway, is the fact that too many citizens simply aren’t informed about the laws related to pedestrian, bicyclist and driver behavior. “While you’ve got some folks who know the law and just flaunt it, like red-light running, there are a lot of people that don’t really know the law,” he says, noting that the problem applies to drivers and bicyclists alike.

“A good example is the [Three Feet Rule],” he adds, referring to the state law that requires drivers to move over at least three feet when passing bicyclists, “or people’s awareness of the rights of bicyclists to operate in the road if they’re obeying the laws. It’s a big part of the problem.”

Finding Solutions

State and local governments, as well as organizations such as BWCF, are working to combat the problem. At the state level, the FDOT’s Complete Streets Policy and Complete Streets Implementation Plan are intended to provide safer, context- sensitive roads by putting the right street in the right place. In other words, roads are being designed, or sometimes redesigned, to serve the transportation needs of everyone who uses them, including motorists, cyclists, pedestrians, transit riders and freight handlers.

In Orange County, Mayor Teresa Jacobs’ Walk-Ride-Thrive! pedestrian-safety initiative establishes and maintains a coordinated, comprehensive response to pedestrian and bicyclist safety issues. Furthermore, Jacobs’ INVEST in Our Home for Life initiative dedicated $200 million for road improvements, plus $15 million for intersection and pedestrian-safety upgrades over the next five years.

“These improvements will provide sidewalks, crosswalks, signals, turn lanes, updated signage and other necessary safety improvements,” says Johnson, as well as updated pedestrian-crossing treatment guidelines and a new Land Development Code, among other efforts.

The county will also implement a Pedestrian Safety Action Plan and a Complete Streets policy in 2017, and it’s using routine resurfacing work to evaluate ways to make roads more multimodal while bolstering walkability and safety.

Orange County residents can even become an active part of the solution. “You can make pedestrian improvement suggestions by calling 311, or through the 311 smartphone app that allows you to photograph, pinpoint and report problems—from potholes to cracks in sidewalks to a lack of pedestrian walking lanes—directly from your smartphone to Orange County’s 311 Service Center.”

Inside the city limits, Hattaway says, “I’ll be developing a safety plan for the city specifically related to bicycles and pedestrians, but obviously, that benefits all users.”

Hattaway will also work on educating his staff, and he’s primarily focused on seven key categories: data analysis and evaluation, driver education and licensing, highway and traffic engineering, law enforcement and emergency services, communication and outreach, and legislative changes. “There’s a lot being done,” he acknowledges.

Arrive Alive

Even with the concentrated efforts of state and local authorities, and our slightly better ranking on 2016’s DBD report notwithstanding, Greater Orlando’s roads aren’t going to become safe overnight. In the meantime, there are several ways you and your family can minimize the risks of walking and biking.

“In both cases, be visible,” says Hattaway. “When I join my bike-ride group every Saturday morning, I am lit up front and rear. … I’m seeing more walkers and runners that are using lighting as well to make themselves more visible, but wearing light-colored clothing, obviously, is really important.”

Day agrees that visibility is key. “Especially now with daylight savings over,” she says, “a lot of the accidents that do occur happen at dusk or at nighttime because people aren’t visible and cars can’t see them crossing the street or riding on the road.”

Hattaway also maintains that beyond making themselves visible, pedestrians and bicyclists need to make sure that drivers actually see them. “One of the biggest mistakes I think pedestrians make is when they assume they’re being seen,” he says, “when in fact many times they’re not.”

To that end, Johnson recommends that pedestrians always cross busy streets at an intersection or marked crosswalk, make eye contact with drivers, stop before crossing in front of cars, and avoid using earbuds or headphones while walking near traffic. Furthermore, pedestrians should walk facing oncoming vehicles while keeping as far left as possible.

Day notes that cyclists must remember that they are operating a motor vehicle by law, which means the same rules of the road, such as stopping at four-way stop signs and traffic lights, applies to them as well. “Orlando’s police department has been doing more enforcement for bicyclists who are not obeying the law, and they’ve been handing out tickets or warnings about that,” she says. “So, education is key all the way around.”

Bicyclists and pedestrians should also avoid roads that pose extreme danger. “There are certain places in which I’m not as comfortable to bike or walk, and a lot of it has to do with the speed of the road,” says Day.

Ultimately, keeping yourself safe—rather than finding the shortest route—should always be your top goal when biking or walking. Otherwise, you run the risk of becoming a statistic in the next DBD report.

“The fact is, in the state of Florida, we have over 50 people dying every week on our roads, and nobody seems to think that’s a problem,” says Hattaway. “We’ve got so much to do. But it can be done.”

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s February 2017 issue.

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