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Longboat Key Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020 6 days ago

Can Gulf of Mexico Drive be safer?

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Longboat Key leaders begin to look at what can be done on state highway after five fatalities since May 2018.
by: Eric Garwood Managing Editor

Four traffic crashes that killed five people since May 2018 on Gulf of Mexico Drive bear little in common but have the town thinking about the safety of drivers and pedestrians along the state-maintained highway and what can be done.

A pedestrian crossing the road early in the morning, a cyclist riding in the bike lane, a truck driver tending to his rig on the side of the road and the driver and passenger of a sedan pulling into traffic from a driveway have been killed in the last 19 months. The only thread running through each of the incidents, which took place in daylight, night and before dawn,  has been the 11-mile-long road itself.

Most recently, Charles and Marjory Barancik, leaving their home at the En Provence condominium community around dusk, died in a collision with a police car which was responding to a fire alarm with a fire truck on Dec. 18. Sarasota Police are investigating and have not released any details beyond a basic description of the circumstances.

While the inquiry into the December crash continues, Town Manager Tom Harmer, Police Chief Pete Cumming and other town leaders have begun examining what the town can accomplish on its own, acknowledging the road is under state jurisdiction.

Among the first considerations: the possibility of some local controls over vehicles that are permitted by state agencies to park and work in Gulf of Mexico Drive's right of way and eliminating instances of vehicles improperly parking on the highway's center turn lanes, in adjacent cycling lanes or anywhere else sight lines might be obstructed. The town has also sought a safety review of the highway from the state and has begun working with county emergency-management officials on how non-emergency citizen reports of vehicles parked along Gulf of Mexico Drive can be relayed to police officers in the field fast enough to make a difference.

"I've asked the staff to research and let me know what can we do that may or may not be beyond what the state may require,'' Harmer said. "For instance, like the driveways, can we put a distance there to say within a driveway that exits onto GMD, you have to have X amount of feet of clearance. Can we do that?''

Cumming said officers are serious about taking action to rectify dangerous situations that arise on GMD, such as when the driver of a car-hauling tractor-trailer or other vehicle parks in a turn lane to load or unload -- a violation of state law. Or, in a more informal way, simply asking someone to move a vehicle from a dicey location, even if it's parked legally.

Cumming said the wide variety of trucking companies and drivers working for those companies makes it hard for word to get through about the danger of parking on the road. Little by little, though, he said he hopes the message builds in understanding, both with service providers and their local clients. 

"Our philosophy, if you want to put it that way, it's always been compliance over punishment,'' he said. "However, some people only respond to punish. But again, we're seeing different drivers all the time. It's not like, 'I just told you last week.' Now clearly if that happens, there's a citation.''

Sarasota police, investigating the Aug. 31 crash that killed a New York City truck driver in the 1400 block of Gulf of Mexico Drive, came to the conclusion that Kryzstof Troyanowski was to blame for his own death. The report of the crash says Troyanowski parked his car-hauling rig partially in the roadway to begin unloading a vehicle and was struck from behind by a northbound car, driven a man who was also injured. The investigator also cited poor roadway-lighting conditions, the lack of reflective safety gear worn by Troyanowski or set up, as required, behind the truck and a generally darkened tractor-trailer. The car driver was not charged.

Both Harmer and Cumming noted Gulf of Mexico Drive is something of an unusual thoroughfare, with its residential and commercial traffic, mixed with cyclists and pedestrians, newcomers, visitors and long-time permanent residents. Of late, the town's underground-utility contractors have been at work with heavy equipment along the road, as have other communications companies working on underground facilities of their own. TECO has been working along GMD under a state permit to replace natural gas lines.

Harmer said Florida Department of Transportation officials were generally receptive to some kind of safety review, predicated by the out of character fatality rate since May 2018. Before the string began, the previous fatality on GMD took place in 2012. 

"I think having them as the responsible party to come in and look at visibility and viewsheds and the type of conflicts we've had here to see if that warrants any other state rules or regulations or maybe even permit conditions when they're doing work,'' Harmer said. "But we just thought we needed to raise our hand and say, 'Hey, you know, we're concerned and it's your road. We think you should come in and do a safety review.' '' 

Harmer and members of the police department also recently visited the county's emergency communications center to learn more about how non-emergency reports of possibly dangerous situations are handled and prioritized by county call-takers and dispatchers. 

"We're all concerned, and I know that we're looking at this thing through a different lens,'' Cumming said. "We're trying to see it from a different perspective. How can we either create something to enforce or get compliance for things that are not so statutory, but they're safety issues. This tends to be a state issue boiling down to a community issue. And I think all all players have to get in the game.''

 

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