No state has been more dangerous than Florida for bicyclists over the past decade, according to federal statistics. Just ask Alan Snel, a man whose frustration over the way Florida drivers endanger bicyclists led him to flee the state.
A veteran Tampa Tribune journalist, Snel left the paper in 2006 and became an influential bicycle rights activist for the next six years, representing the South West Florida Bicycle United Dealers. He spent his days educating elected officials about the need to make more people aware of bicycle safety. And then it got personal.
As he rode along Old Dixie Highway near Fort Pierce in 2017, a motorist hit Snel from behind, knocking him unconscious. He was later diagnosed with two broken vertebrae, a concussion (even though he was wearing a helmet) and a badly battered right leg.
His physical condition was exacerbated by the emotional pain he felt when he learned that the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Department didn’t even issue a traffic ticket to the motorist who hit him, he recalls in his recently published memoir, Long Road Back to Las Vegas.
“Welcome to bicycle life (and death) in Florida – the state where you can slam your car into an unexpecting, innocent bicyclist and get away with it without a ticket,” Snel writes.
Snel left Florida for Las Vegas, where he now writes for a website about the business of sports. He says the way that Florida licenses, enforces and punishes motorists who injure cyclists is “broken.”
“I just think the motorists are just too uneducated, too distracted, they drive too fast, and we allow a certain level of behavior on our roadways that consistently imperils the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians,” he says.
Advocates trying to look on the bright side say that they are encouraged to see bills filed for this spring’s 2019 Florida legislative session to deal with distracted drivers – the cause of so many accidents. But they also point out that the laws already on the books aren’t properly enforced. That includes the law that says that drivers passing bicyclists should allow a safe distance of “not less than 3 feet.”
“How many motorists in Florida know about that law?” asks Becky Alfonso, executive director of the Florida Bicycle Association.
Less than a month after Snel’s accident, another high-profile bicycle death occurred: a motorist hit and killed former Osceola County Commissioner and state Rep. Frank Attkisson as he rode his bike near St. Cloud in Central Florida.
The official numbers detailing bicycle fatalities tell the Sunshine State’s grim story.
Florida has by far the highest per-capita bicyclist death rate in the country, and according to federal statistics cited by the Wall Street Journal, the state’s recent 10-year cyclist fatality rate of 6.2 deaths per 100,000 residents is 59% higher than the rate in Louisiana, the state with the second-highest level.
The worst region of the state for bicyclist deaths has been Tampa Bay. In fact, the Tampa-St. Petersburg region led the nation in 2016-2017, and three other Florida major metropolitan areas were right behind – with Jacksonville, Orlando and Miami taking the 2-4 slots, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In trying to explain why Florida leads the nation in bicyclist and pedestrian deaths, state officials and advocates cite several factors at play: Florida is a warm weather state where people ride bicycles all year long; bicycles are the only form of transportation in many low-income areas; too many streets and intersections are poorly lit; and there are too many uneducated motorists and cyclists on the roadways.
Cycling deaths in Florida dropped to 116 in 2017, the lowest since 2010. However, the rate has gone back up this year, up to 122 as of December 14, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
Alfonso, of the Florida Bicycle Association, frequently invokes what the League of American Bicyclists calls the five essential elements of bike safety: education, engineering, enforcement, evaluation and encouragement.
“Those were five areas you could work on to make a bicycle-friendly community,” she says.
How communities plan and build roads makes a huge difference, says Hugh Aaron, founder and executive director of the non-profit Bike Walk Indian River County group. Aaron cites the Netherlands, where road designers consider the safety and convenience of bicyclists on an equal footing with motorists. More cities and counties in Florida are adopting protected bikeways – on-street lanes that are separated from motorized traffic by poles, curbs or other barriers. More common are “buffered” bike lanes, strategically marked to alert drivers to watch for cyclists. New state regulations now call for standard bike lanes to be wider – from four feet to seven feet.
Since 2014, many major regions of Florida have embraced so-called “Complete Streets” policies. Complete Streets in mixed-use urban areas have narrower lanes, more street trees, bike lanes, sidewalks, crosswalks and other “traffic calming” measures.
In a 2015 address, then-Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Jim Boxold said the state’s transportation policies should be designed to ensure safety for all users.
“We’re going to build the right street, in the right place, to serve the right function,” he said, adding that this represented “a major shift in thinking at Florida DOT.”
Trenda McPherson, who manages the Florida DOT’s bicycle and pedestrian safety program, says the state has made major infrastructure changes to improve safety for bicyclists and pedestrians.
They include a $100 million, five-year project to provide lighting at 2,500 different intersections throughout the state that will be half completed within the next year. McPherson says that it’s not just street lighting, but directional lighting as well, meaning a motorist will have more visibility to see a pedestrian or cyclist crossing a roadway.
In 2011, the state developed a website called AlertTodayFlorida.com that provides information about safety measures.
McPherson says that while the state continues to make “Complete Streets” changes, the DOT’s biggest challenge is human behavior.
“It’s really significant a culture shift to encourage everyone to work together and protect each other on the roadway,” she says.
Days after bicycle activist Snel’s horrific accident in Fort Pierce, the Tampa Bay Times editorial board wrote:
“Safety requires a change of attitude, and until Florida quits accepting the injuries and deaths of pedestrians and cyclists as collateral damage in a culture focused on cars, don’t expect much to change.”
Snel lived and worked in Colorado as a reporter for The Denver Post in the mid-90s, where he saw a much different culture.
“Out west, bicycling is seen as just another legitimate form of transportation, and it’s all part of the mix,” he says. “But in Florida, the majority of elected political leaders don’t understand that bicycling is just a slow-moving vehicle on the right of way. That’s all it is, and as a result we have motorists who – I think more than any other state that I’ve ever lived in – are engaging in just dangerous driving behavior.”