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Deadliest State: Florida Roads Have Highest Bicyclist Fatality Rate in The Nation

| March 30, 2015

One of Flagler's numerous wrecks involving bicycles took the life of 15-year-old Kirt Smith on Seminole Woods Blvd. in 2011. (© FlaglerLive)

One of Flagler’s numerous wrecks involving bicycles took the life of 15-year-old Kirt Smith on Seminole Woods Blvd. in 2011. (© FlaglerLive)

Frank Gilbert has been nudged a few times while riding a bike to work. Nudged is his term for cars bumping into him.

If you close your eyes and think of someone riding a bike to work, you might picture spandex and neon helmets. Maybe jean shorts and a handlebar mustache.

But that is not what Gilbert looks like. Gilbert is middle-aged, wearing khaki pants, a blue blazer and tie while cruising in his recumbent bike four miles to downtown Orlando. The trip takes him through residential streets and across busy highways four days a week.

“A part of my approach is to assume I’m invisible,” Gilbert says while riding to work one recent morning.

Gilbert is one of the estimated 1,300 people in Central Florida who use a bicycle as their main way to get to work.

It’s such a small sliver of his commute, but Gilbert has to constantly worry about people not seeing him in the road. I see his invisibility watching a line of cars make a right turn to get to a parking garage without yielding, one after the other.

“If I went out there, I would have to depend on them seeing and recognizing me,” Gilbert said.

Orlando is latching on to a growing trend across the county of choosing a bike over a car to get around.  And nationwide, bike transportation is the fastest growing mode of transportation.

While more people are riding their bikes as their main means of transportation, in Florida it’s a deadly endeavor. The Sunshine State has the highest per capita rate of deadly bicycle accidents in the country.

One reason: Florida spent decades building roads designed to move commuters from homes in sprawling suburbs as fast as possible. Conventional wisdom says these roads were built for speed.

“That’s unfortunately true,” said Joan Carter, the traffic safety specialist for the Florida Department of Transportation.

The state hired her to make the roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists. One example: the DOT passed a complete streets policy in October, which requires planners to include pedestrians and cyclists when designing roads.

“I’ve always said that DOT is kind of like a dreadnought,” Carter said. “Originally it was aimed specifically at managing vehicular travel.”

But now they have to accommodate this growing number of cyclists. Now this may seem counter-intuitive, but what Florida needs is more cyclists and more pedestrians.

The idea is that, with critical mass, more drivers will see them, says Stefanie Feskin, deputy director of the National Complete Streets Coalition at Smart Growth America. And events like a bike to work day held recently in Orlando can help.

“Building those numbers, it really does make safety even better,” Feskin said. “So you can be physically active without fearing serious injury or death with the more people out there.”

And some cities in Florida are taking matters into their own hands. Casselberry, Matiland and Winter Park brought in Bill Nesper to show them how to make their cities more bike friendly.

Nesper is with the League of American Bicyclists and Orlando hopes he’ll improve their rating. SunRail, the mass transit train for Orlando-area commuters, is a piece of the puzzle.

During a recent morning commute, Nesper rolled his bike onto a pretty crowded train car at a station in Winter Park.

“You’re seeing good things happen,” Nesper said. “So right now, this is an example. I’m on Sunrail right now. I rolled my bike on here and I’m able to go to downtown Orlando now.”

Meanwhile, Frank Gilbert wraps up his 20-minute bike ride to work, from his Orlando home to his downtown job as an Orange County Public School administrator. To him, the risk of being hit is worth the saving of not owning a second car.

We pull into the garage at his work. The bike rack is right up front.

“I think you experienced it wasn’t a honk honk, beep beep kinda trip,” Gilbert says to me.

How often does that happen?

“It’s rare,” he said.

–Abe Aboraya, Health News Florida

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22 Responses for “Deadliest State: Florida Roads Have Highest Bicyclist Fatality Rate in The Nation”

  1. Groot says:

    I have never seen so many bicyclists riding against traffic as here in PC. Pedestrians walk against traffic and bikes are a part of the traffic flow and should ride with traffic. A bike is a vehicle.

    • The problem with riding “with” traffic is that you can’t see the cars coming up behind you. When riding against traffic, it’s easy to tell if a driver doesn’t see you or isn’t going to yield. Believe it or not, riding against traffic is a natural reaction bikers have to unsafe roads.
      I promise they’re not just doing it to drive you crazy. There’s an actual reason. :-)

        • Yep. And while it’s right in the vast majority of situations, it still isn’t right all the time. The specific road, drivers on it and skill level of the biker play a big part in the outcome of various situations. For example, the first diagram in the example you posted would be the fault of the bike. While the driver in that diagram SHOULD look both ways, it’s on the biker to make eye contact. Without that kind of acknowledgement you simply don’t place yourself in front of any car.

          We can go back and forth about this all day, but the fact remains, you can only avoid the obstacles you can see. If laws nor roads favor the biker or pedestrian, and drivers are distracted in large numbers like they are in Palm Coast, there is NO SITUATION where riding with traffic and remaining blind to all of it is advisable.

          You can’t tell if the driver behind you is distracted without taking your eyes off the road in front of you.
          Sorry. I’ve had two major accidents on bikes. Both put me in the hospital, and both happened while riding with traffic. In both cases the driver was distracted. One of these accidents almost killed me.

          Nope! Never again. If I can see you coming, it’s going to be virtually impossible for you to hit me. Even if you’re trying. Drivers may disagree, but they’re not the ones with their lives on the line.

        • Groot says:

          Agree Bill and I did some research. In Florida and pretty much every place else since 1968, a bicycle is considered to be a vehicle and must ride with traffic and observe all signs, signals and rules of the road.

      • Doyle says:

        Hi, I have seen auto drivers look way to long. This is the problem with that. The driver will drive the auto where they are looking. That is why the bicycles gets hit. That is why people get hurt in all kinds of ways. Be nice on the roads and the people on the roads will not get hurt as much. When a driver looks face to face with a bicycle they will not look as long. I ride, drive & walk all the time and the drivers need to be nice and drive in the roadway lane they are in at all times. The autos need to use the auto lights to let the other drivers know what they are doing. Thank you all!!!!!!

  2. Ugh. I so agree. As a NYC kid, I know what bike friendly roads look like. But a big part of road safety is the rules. In NYC, pedestrians have the right of way. It sounds like a meaningless thing, but it isn’t. This simple statement is what’s at the center of all road design.

    Palm Coast is the first city I’ve ever been to that has pedestrian stop signs. It’s also the only city I’ve been to where many of the intersections are marked is such a way that cars must stop in or after a crosswalk.

    In NYC you’ll get killed because of the number of cars on the road, but bikes are expected. People are expected. Everyone is looking out for the inevitable j-walker or red light taker, but most drivers in Palm Coast meet one pedestrian in a cross walk a week. Maybe two if it’s really busy. But it seems that Florida designed their roads against the logic of accepted traffic rules.

    I’ve mentioned this to the Mayor on one occasion and he seemed shocked that I thought there was an issue,
    But there is. Approaching any intersection from the right is a death sentence in this town. Everyone just looks to the left and goes when it’s clear. Even when there’s a person right in front of their car. :-(

    Jerry Full, may he rest in peace, ran against Frank Meeker a few seasons back. One of the big reasons he had my support was that he understood pedestrian infrastructure and acknowledged the danger our walkers and bikers were in. I sincerely hope this is a conversation we can have in the very near future.
    As this article points out, our lives depend on it.

  3. Sherry Epley says:

    I am thinking the #1 reason Florida’s roads are so unsafe for walkers, runners, bikers and other drivers is not just how the DOT builds roads, but DISTRACTED drivers. Until texting, talking on the phone, accessing computers/internet is made completely illegal when driving and even walking/biking. . . and those laws are strictly enforced. . . our streets will continue to be unsafe.

    Every Time I get into my car I see drivers weaving/driving much too slowly/turning without looking/blowing through STOP signs. . . all with their eyes on a high tech device. Drive into Flagler Beach village and watch out for those who step out in front of cars without even looking up from their cell phone. . . this happens all the time!

    Hang Up. . . and focus on driving, walking and biking safely. . . for the sake of yourself, those who love you and those trying to share the road with you! SAFETY FIRST!

  4. YankeeExPat says:

    Wether you are a Bicyclist, Pedestrian, Baby stroller pusher or mobility scoter rider, traversing Palm Coast is like original Mad Max movie. A number of years ago I witnessed a (walking) gasoline customer who was hit by another driver at the Racetrac gas station. The driver who was on her I phone while she backed up over the old guy never put down her phone even while being questioned by the sheriff. Her Mom showed up minutes later and just like the teen never got the phone. The older gentleman who was hit later died of his injuries at Flagler Hospital.

  5. Groot says:

    This is a helpful site that has links to laws and regulations. We all share the same road:

  6. ted bundy says:

    florida drivers are awful, the end!!! also cops dont enforce traffic laws, the end 2…

  7. markingthedays says:

    Using this logic, I should drive against traffic in my car so I can see the other drivers’ eyes!

    • While I can’t be sure, I’m assuming you’re responding to my comment about riding in the wrong direction.

      Actually no. Using the logic I “think” you’re referring to, roads are safe for cars and not bikes or pedestrians, so you should keep doing what you’re doing.

      Using this logic, we should improve pedestrian conditions. Like I said, “Believe it or not, riding against traffic is a natural reaction bikers have to unsafe roads.” Unsafe roads are all we have in Palm Coast.

      Lancer makes a good point below: Use the sidewalks and most of us do when we have that option, but what happens when we don’t? There is no extra pavement where a biker can ride without being in serious danger. Yes. Sidewalks are the obvious temporary solution but reconsidering our roadways is going to be a required step.

  8. Lancer says:

    …cycliists could always use the extremely large sidewalks that the county offers. “We’re vehicles too!” seems to have little relevance when you’re splattered on the side of the road.

    Cyclists now know that there is a risk they take when using the roadway. When writing a standard pro/ con list about riding on the road, under the con will be “death”. Seems like the pro “ride on the extremely wide sidewalk” outweighs it.

  9. ted bundy says:

    one million people in forida driving with with a suspended or no license..get them off the road and the accidents have to decrease!!! PERIOD

  10. Ron says:

    Sidewalks are actually very dangerous for bicyclists, especially if they are traveling on the side of the road opposite to the normal flow of traffic. Drivers pulling out of driveways and parking lots pose big issues to both pedestrians and bicyclists on sidewalks. In addition, common obstacles such as debris, fire hydrants and utility poles are also problematic on sidewalks. In my experience, the best place for a bicyclist to be is where drivers normally expect to see other cars.

  11. confidential says:

    Florida roads are unsafe for pedestrians,cyclist and bikers simply because the lack of stricter laws that respect human lives and the vulnerability of all those that are not behind a steering wheel of over a one ton or more four wheeled machine. Victimizers and killers of pedestrians, cyclist or bikers in Florida, get just a slap on the wrist and a “do not do it again” in these courts. Just like if you are any of the mentioned three you are disposable. Have some tough laws like in CA and you are going to see drivers aggression and fatalities reduced to the minimum or none. My child is a cyclist and as her competitive cyclist friends almost given up road rides or training. Too risky. Meanwhile we are supposed to share the roads not taking them.
    Pedestrians, cyclist, bikers and lets do not forget wildlife too, have the same right to use our highways and deserve respect other than all treated as the same road kill! Watch out all bullies at the steering wheel out there, as I slow, yield and will be a willing witness of any vehicular abuses against pedestrians, cyclist, bikers or innocent wild life in our roads!

    • While I agree that laws are a big part of the problem, it’s also design. Intersections, crosswalks, and the roads themselves don’t take this form of traffic into consideration. The general lack of shoulder, the huge number of stops that are beyond, i.e. through, the crosswalk, the minimal visibility considerations at many intersections where bushes, streets and other beautification impedes or eliminates meaningful visibility…

      I was just out driving to the bank and many kids were walking home from school along Belle Terre. At intersections, cars needed to rest in the crosswalk to see oncoming traffic and the kids had to leave the crosswalk and walk behind (preferably but not always) the turning car to get through it. These intersections / crosswalks also have pedestrian stop signs, meaning that when they are struck it is the fault of the walker. Not the driver. This is the first city I’ve lived in where the very design of the roadways supports the idea that pedestrians DO NOT have the right of way.

      My son has stood at the north east corner of Belle Terre and 100, where there is a crosswalk, and waited two or three lights to cross Bell Terre, even though he had the light. With the crosswalk and required stop before making a right, 90% of drivers still refuse to let him cross.

      Is this one of those safety situations Palm Coast hoped to fix with a camera that sends tickets to those that don’t stop, or worse, do stop, but then proceed while yelling at the person trying to cross the street? (Yes, this happens all the time too.)

      No. This place is designed back-assward, and while many of the problems are very simple fixes, the City does need to develop a long term plan to cover the cost of much needed improvements.

  12. Hellooooooo says:

    The laws need to be changed or that those the ride bicycles are riding against traffic so they can see cars that are coming at them and allow them the opportunity to perhaps get out of the way. Those that are walking are required to walk against the traffic so it makes absolutely no sense for those the ride bicycles to ride with traffic.

    I can’t imagine anyone who would want to get out on our roadways with all the traffic knowing that we have older citizens on the road as well as young drivers and drivers that are on substance and alcohol. Not worth the risk to me.

  13. markingthedays says:

    Riding your bicycle against the flow of traffic is a horrible idea, period.

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