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A community collaboration aims to break Lee County's roadway fatality streak

Newly appointed FMPD Chief Jason Fields discusses at Fenway Park how speeding is a large contributor of roadway injuries and fatalities in Fort Myers.
Gwendolyn Salata
LeeConnected businesses and nonprofits meet at Fenway Park to address the rising number of roadway fatalities and injuries in the county.

Last year, 136 people were killed on Lee County roads, marking the fifth year in a row the county ranked number one for roadway fatalities in Southwest Florida.

With 70 more deaths this year, local businesses and safety coalitions have formed a collaboration called LeeConnected in the name of Target Zero – a Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) initiative to reduce transportation-related deaths and injuries.

Terry Lewis, the founder of LeeConnected and organizer of the county’s Target Zero campaign, compares the death toll to a Boeing 737 plane crashing every year.

“We've kind of, maybe as a society across the United States, gotten to the point where fatalities on the roads are acceptable,” she said. “It’s just a risk you assume, right? Whereas if we had fatalities in airplane travel, it's not acceptable.”

According to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (FLHSMV), Lee County has seen a 30% increase in fatalities since 2018.

The FDOT website says that about “eight people are killed and 49 are seriously injured on Florida’s roads every day,” citing driver behavior as a factor in most of those cases. Target Zero was launched to identify those behaviors and influence safer driving.

This month LeeConnected met at Fenway Park to engage the community. Chief Jason Fields of the Fort Myers Police Department said reducing traffic fatalities requires a multifaceted approach.

Fort Myers Police Chief Jason Fields discusses speeding issues and distracted driving. He says FMPD is dedicated to reducing roadway accidents.
Gwen Salata

Fort Myers Police Chief Jason Fields discusses speeding issues and distracted driving. He says FMPD is dedicated to reducing roadway accidents.

Fields also addressed speeding as a major issue in the city. “Our roadways have sometimes been called raceways,” he said.

Fields, who also bikes, said the department will be “working tirelessly” alongside the community to improve safety conditions, including public service announcements and engagement about driver and pedestrian accountability.

“We want to educate people…if it takes leaving the home a little bit earlier so you're not getting somewhere late and then trying to make up time by speeding a little bit,” he said.

“I know that there's times I probably shouldn’t be riding a bike on Daniels, but I go at off times, when I know there’s minimal traffic,” he added.

Florida statistics show there were 633 car crashes involving bicyclists and pedestrians last year. Of those, nine bicyclists and 32 pedestrians were killed.

While LeeConnected supports stronger enforcement of laws, it believes more long-term solutions are required, like red light cameras. Installation of school bus cameras, which was approved this year, would discourage drivers from illegally passing children who are loading or unloading.

Terry Lewis, the founder of LeeConnected, addresses the community at Fenway Park. She and other Target Zero sponsors are calling for stronger enforcement of speeding and impaired and distracted driving.
Terry Lewis, the founder of LeeConnected, addresses the community at Fenway Park. She and other Target Zero sponsors are calling for stronger enforcement of speeding and impaired and distracted driving.

Terry Lewis said another phase of Target Zero would be to improve infrastructure and change road design, for instance, narrowing the lanes on Daniels Parkway. Much of the road has a posted speed of 45 miles, which she said most people do not follow.

"And the reason is, there's a psychology in road design that you drive as fast as you feel safe,” Lewis said. “Law enforcement gets frustrated because Daniels is designed to be safe driving 65 miles an hour.”

The Southern Trails Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes bringing more multiuse trails to the area, is another sponsor of Target Zero.

Four years ago, Executive Director Matt Leger was out with his running group when a driver hit him and another runner at Daniels Parkway and Westlinks Drive, an intersection with a crosswalk and no traffic signal.

Leger said his head hit the driver’s windshield, cracking the glass and leaving him with a concussion. “My head was cut open,” he said. “I was a bit out of it for a couple weeks.”

Leger said he would normally run with his two daughters in a double stroller back then. But that day, they stayed home with his wife.

“If I would have been pushing them, it would have been a far worse situation for them than it was for me,” he said.

Leger is also a biker, but he no longer rides in the bike lanes on the roads. And he always wears a helmet, something he did not do before the accident.

“We have a problem where more people are injured and killed by car than almost anywhere else in the country,” he said.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s most current data, Florida ranked third for the most traffic fatalities in 2020.

The Friends of Bonita Estero Rail Trail (BERT), another Target Zero sponsor, is a group of advocates for the 14-mile rail-to-trail project that would stretch from Bonita Beach Road to Alico Road. If completed, it would tie into the John Yarbrough Linear Park in Fort Myers.

Craig Jacobson, a Friends of BERT member, believes distracted driving needs to be addressed.

“If you are at any red light in Lee County, most likely you'll see one of the lanes isn't moving because someone's looking at their phone,” he said. “Well, they don’t stop looking at their phone…when they're moving.”

Fort Myers resident Oscar Rattenborg also spoke at the event. He was on a 2021 organized ride in Alva when two fellow riders were struck from behind in a hit-and-run.

While one rider survived, 64-year-old Debra Purcaro did not. “She basically was crushed by the truck,” Rattenborg said. “The bike was snapped in half, and there was absolutely nothing to be done.”

The driver who hit Purcaro has never been identified. “The thing that really bothers me is that nobody stepped up and said, ‘I’m the one who hit her,'" Rattenborg said.

In 2022 in Lee County, 12 people were killed and 796 were injured in hit-and-run incidents. Seven people have been killed and 489 have been injured in the same fashion this year.

Syndi Bultman, the Prevention Resource Coordinator for Trauma Services for Lee Health, said impaired driving sends a lot of people to the trauma unit.

“The percentage of people that come in as trauma alerts, that doesn’t mean all the other people on the roadway, 48 to 52% have alcohol or illicit drugs on board,” Bultman said. “And the illicit drugs are either marijuana, cocaine or barbiturates. If I included opioids, it’d be higher.”

Lewis said more enforcement on speeding and distracted driving is a good start. But she believes the consequences for hitting a pedestrian are not always severe enough and that stronger ones would cause drivers to be more vigilant.

Lewis returned to the comparison between road fatalities and a major commercial plane crash.

“If it's not acceptable for a plane, why is it acceptable on the roads?” Lewis said. “From a media perspective, what would happen if we had a plane go down and have [136] people die every year at the airport?”

This story was produced by Democracy Watch, a news service provided by Florida Gulf Coast University journalism students. The reporter can be reached at  gwendolyn.salata@yahoo.com.