Thursday, Jul 31, 2014
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Hernando crash rate levels off after influx of new residents

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Not even an hour after a helicopter took off from the scene of a crash last month at Hale Avenue and State Road 50, an ambulance was speeding to another accident near the intersection of Cortez and Barclay.

There a man with folded arms and blood in his ear circled his car, which was flipped on its side, overlooking the same intersection where days earlier a young woman lay unconscious in the grass after being ejected from her vehicle during a five-car collision.

The wrecks are part of a trend that worsened in 2011 when Hernando County saw its first spike in traffic accidents, with 456 more traffic crashes than in 2010, according to Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles data.

Otherwise, starting in 2008, the situation looked a lot different: There were about 200 fewer traffic crashes than the prior year, for a total of 1,493 reported crashes, state highway data shows.

That number dropped again by about 70 in 2009, then down once more to 1,386 total crashes in 2010, data shows.

There is no simple explanation why the trend turned in 2011 and peaked at just shy of 2,000 total crashes in 2012, said Sgt. Scott Lamia with the sheriff's office's traffic division.

Rather, Lamia said, it's likely a culmination of factors including gas prices, employment rates, winter tourism, driving habits, public safety campaigns and a general population increase.

"Looking from 2007 to 2013, there were a couple interesting things that happened, one being the population has gone up by about 6,000 people," said Lamia. "That's just who we know are here; obviously there are tourists, and another thing taken into account was the unemployment rate and gas prices: Do people drive more when unemployed, or less being at work? You can't say for sure."

The total number of reported accidents in Hernando in 2012 reflects similar increases in traffic crashes for prior years, with 1,995 total reported accidents, up from 1,841 in 2011.

Although crashes in Hernando increased during those years, data suggests that, paradoxically, fewer of them resulted in deaths until this past year.

State highway data shows 28 drivers on Hernando County roads died in 2010, 29 in 2011, and then 24 in 2012. However, by 2013, the outlook shifted.

"I think we had 29 fatalities in 2013, which they're all preventable, and we'll do our best to try and reduce that every year if we can because one is too many," Lamia said. "Last year was a good year because we knocked our crashes down by about 420, and we're out there every day to think outside the box and educate the public and do enforcement."

Between 2010-12, 11 of those fatal crashes occurred on State Road 50 from Brooksville to U.S. 19. Although U.S. 19 has a reputation among Hernando roadways for being most dangerous, state statistics shows only eight fatal crashes in comparison on U.S. 19 in the past three years, from the intersection of Commercial Way and State Road 50 down to County Line Road.

Commercial Way's deadly reputation would seem to have developed farther south in Pasco County, with 34 fatal crashes from County Line Road to Holiday throughout that same time period.

Although both U.S. 19 and State Road 50 have undergone road resurfacing and widening projects at the same time traffic crashes increased in Hernando, there is not a causal link between the two, Lamia said. If anything, the construction has had a positive effect on motor safety, he said.

"We're not seeing anything major with the speeds so slow, so in a way the construction guys are doing us a favor and slowing people down," he said.

? ? ?

Brooksville Police Department reported 350 traffic crashes in 2013, more than double the 167 crashes in 2012, according to Florida Highway Patrol and Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles data.

Where there otherwise have been moderate increases in traffic crashes in the city from one year to the next, last year marks the greatest increase recorded in the last four years, data shows.

Where, how and why 183 additional crashes occurred during the last year is not data Brooksville police currently are compiling and analyzing, police Chief George Turner said, although it is an initiative the state is undertaking through various traffic safety programs.

"We send all our accident reports to the state, and not just specifically for red-light cameras," Turner said. "Everything is electronically done now. We file our accident reports in the DHSMV's online database, and then they compile all the agencies."

The city hasn't compiled raw traffic crash data since 2009-10, Turner said, when a divided City Council requested it to determine the effectiveness of the city's red-light camera program in reducing traffic accidents.

But like other jurisdictions, the traffic crash data used in that study was general and non-specific, including only total overall crashes and not precise accident location or type.

Statewide surveys submitted by jurisdictions with red-light cameras both support and refute claims that the cameras increase accidents at the intersections where they are located.

However, it does not appear that increased accidents at intersections, whether with or without red-light cameras, have contributed to the increase in Brooksville traffic accidents.

While a 2013 report by DHSMV shows traffic accidents have typically increased at intersections both statewide and in jurisdictions with red-light cameras, this was not the case for Brooksville.

Brooksville had fewer intersection crashes last year than in 2012, or 20 total intersection crashes compared to 26, according to crash data compiled by the state.

However, whether traffic crashes have increased or decreased at intersections in Brooksville with red-light cameras is unknown, according to DHSMV Press Secretary John Lucas, because the city does not specify in its data which intersections have cameras and which do not.

Although the bill authorizing use of the cameras in counties and cities - The Mark Wandall Traffic Safety Act - specifies the cameras are to be used to promote "public health, welfare and safety," almost half of all jurisdictions with them have yet to submit data showing safety improvements.

Brooksville is among more than 40 percent of jurisdictions in the state with red-light camera programs that are not tracking crash data at red-light camera intersections, overall crash data or data related to specific collision types, such as side impact or front-to-rear impact collisions, according to a 2013 survey of the program.

"I think they're supposed to submit it, but there's no penalty for it," Lucas said. "Our data looked at the overall trend at all red-light intersections, not just red-light camera intersections."

And if a county or city with red-light cameras isn't tracking that data or never submits that data to the state, the department isn't going to do that research for them, according to Lucas.

"All we do is compile the information," he said.

The state Legislature recently increased the threshold requirement for counties and cities in reporting traffic accidents to the state, which might have skewed 2012-13 city and county data with more minor accidents reported, such as fender benders, according to DHSMV.

With that taken into account, the total number of reported accidents in Hernando in 2013 parallels crash data for 2007-08, before the decreases began, with 1,577 total accidents last year.

That trend also could carry through the better half of 2015 with recent announced delays on the $39.4 million State Road 50 road widening and resurfacing project, which had a total of 67 approved delays in construction days, the last delay being approved on Jan. 2.

Most of those delays - 44 - have been due to weather, and the remaining 23 for holidays dating back to November 2012, according to state transportation data.

With little more than 15 months so far on the project, the contractor has about 500 days left after adjustments to complete the job under the existing contract, which puts the estimated completion date at around July 2015.

"People need to be patient and slow down. It's not all about writing tickets, but also it's about education," Lamia said. "I'd rather see them arrive late than not at all."

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