"Most of these crashes have occurred at night as a result of pedestrian violations, specifically (pedestrians) not using crosswalks and walking into the path of an oncoming vehicle.”
DESTIN — Following the second pedestrian fatality at the same intersection in a span of eight months, local officials and residents are looking for solutions as to how to make some of Destin’s most dangerous intersections safer for pedestrians.
In the early morning hours of Feb. 15, 41-year-old Alfred Trimble Jr. of Pensacola was crossing U.S. Highway 98 at Stahlman Avenue when he was hit by a commercial vehicle, according to the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office. He was pronounced dead at the scene by Okaloosa County EMS.
Just over eight months prior, on June 7, 2017, 40-year-old Margaret Beck of Lake Charles, Louisiana, was crossing the same intersection at nearly the same time, just past 3 a.m., when she was struck by a vehicle and killed.
Investigations into both pedestrian collisions are still ongoing, according to the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office. But the fatalities in such close proximity have drawn closer attention to issues faced by both pedestrians and motorists when trying to cross U.S. Highway 98 at some of Destin’s most dangerous intersections.
“Since these investigations are ongoing, I can’t discuss specific details,” said Sgt. Brian Parkton, who works in the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office traffic unit, in referring to the two most recent fatalities. “I can, however, say that most of these crashes have occurred at night as a result of pedestrian violations, specifically (pedestrians) not using crosswalks and walking into the path of an oncoming vehicle.”
Ben Phan, who works at Harbor Nails and Spa in the McGuire’s shopping center, right at the corner of Stahlman Avenue and U.S. highway 98, called the intersection there “a mess.”
“It ain’t pretty,” Phan said, adding that he has seen many people nearly get hit or killed while trying to cross the roadway. “We need to do something.”
A history of dangerous crossings
Pedestrian collisions in Destin are nothing new; between 2014 and 2018, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office has investigated 47 pedestrian vs. vehicle collisions from the Marler Bridge to the Okaloosa County line, a stretch of roadway that has proved particularly deadly for people trying to cross the street.
Five of those collisions have resulted in pedestrian fatalities, according to the OCSO, including the Pensacola man and Louisiana woman crossing the highway at Stahlman Avenue. On July 11, 2016, 63-year-old Rickie Lloyd Sanborn was killed while crossing the highway at Palmetto Street in Destin, approximately a quarter mile east of Stahlman Avenue. On March 25, 2016, 62-year-old Albert Frank Digiovanna was killed while crossing the highway at Marler Street, approximately a quarter of a mile east of Palmetto Street. Eric Walter Vega, 37, of Destin, was struck and killed while crossing the highway at Henderson Beach Road on March 8, 2015.
Several more pedestrians, both those walking and biking trying to cross the street, have been critically injured.
In the summer of 2016, the city of Destin gave the green light to expedite a $750,000 crosswalk project, which had originally been scheduled to be completed in 2019, in response to the need for safer pathways for pedestrians to cross the highway. With a plan to be reimbursed over the next five years by the Florida Department of Transportation, the city and FDOT installed five crosswalks across U.S. Highway 98 at some of Destin’s most dangerous intersections.
“These locations in Destin draw a large amount of foot traffic due to the great restaurants and exciting nightlife,” Parkton, the sergeant with OCSO, said. “In order to increase public safety and reduce traffic crashes involving both pedestrians and bicyclists, the city of Destin installed five HAWK (High Intensity Activated Crosswalk) beacons…unfortunately, these programs do not work unless pedestrians utilize what is offered.”
Three of those crosswalks were installed within approximately a mile of each other, at Marler Street, Melvin Street and across from AJ’s Seafood and Oyster Bar, just east of Palmetto Street.
Four crosswalks, each with lighted signals, already existed at the Stahlman Avenue intersection.
But people who work at businesses near those crosswalks say they are seldom used, or used incorrectly.
David Baxter owns One Feather Native American Store, in the Palmetto Plaza shopping center at the corner of U.S. Highway 98 and Palmetto Street. On Thursday morning as he stood outside his shop talking about the problems with people crossing the highway, at least one man on a bike and one woman on foot crossed the busy road in front of him, less than 200 feet from the nearest crosswalks.
“That guy is about to cross right there, instead of just going right down there and pressing the button,” Baxter said as he pointed to the crosswalk in front of AJ’s approximately 200 feet to the east of Palmetto Street. “And it doesn’t even look like he looked.”
Baxter said he sees people crossing the street “all the time” during the day and night.
“A lot of the tourists, when they come down here, they’re always just looking around and not paying attention,” he said. “A lot of them think they can run across and then they get stuck in the middle.”
Just down the highway at the Stahlman Avenue and U.S. Highway 98 intersection, Phan, who works at the Harbor Nails and Spa in the McGuire’s shopping center, said many people who cross the street at that intersection are “reckless” and he is “scared to see people crossing.”
“I’ve seen a whole bunch of (people) run across the street without the green light on the crosswalk,” Phan said. “Its very dangerous. And sometimes, like at midnight, I see some of the people still crossing without using the light. Vision is very limited at night and the driver wouldn’t be able to see the pedestrian.”
Phan said he’d like to see more lighting, and possibly an overpass or underpass, at the intersection.
“I always tell customers to use the light,” Phan said. “I say, ‘do not cross the road without using the light,’ and some of them say yes. I have families that come back, though, and they say they almost got killed because they did not use the light.”
Phan said he has also noticed that some motorists tend to travel at high rates of speed after crossing the Marler Bridge, especially at night. The speed limit on the bridge and just after the bridge is 35 miles per hour, but Phan often sees people traveling in excess of 60 miles per hour.
“We need to do something,” he said. “They should probably build a bridge or a walkway to cross the street instead of using the light. Sometimes the drivers, they only see green, and they don’t see the pedestrians, even if the pedestrians have the right of way.”
Problem not going away
As parking on Destin’s popular harbor district seems to become more and more scarce with each busy tourist season, more people are turning to parking lots north of U.S. Highway 98, which requires them to cross over the highway to reach the harbor. Most notably, the recent addition of two pay-for-parking lots on the north side of U.S. Highway 98, at the corner of Marler Street and U.S. Highway 98 and Zerbe Street and Sibert Avenue, are located near the Marler Street and Stahlman Avenue crosswalks.
Ian Satter, spokesman for FDOT, said that as foot traffic across the highway becomes more frequent, it’s imperative for people to use the crosswalks that are already in place.
“When I’ve looked back at the reports of all of the incidents (involving vehicles and pedestrians), unfortunately people are not using the crosswalks, and that’s why they’re there,” Satter said. “They are designed as safety measures to allow people to cross the street safely. So if you don’t utilize the crosswalks, then the safety of those crosswalks is negated.”
He also said FDOT is considering adding additional lighting and signage to the area as part of its Highway 98 resurfacing project.
“That is coming up in 2019,” he said of the project. “It’s a little under three miles, replacing any of the worn signage out there, especially pedestrian signage, and we are in the process of looking at doing any additional lighting…looking at that particular area, I think our emphasis is really folks using the crosswalks.”
In addition, the city is in the design phase of a Calhoun Avenue pedestrian pathway that will connect a sidewalk on Calhoun Avenue under the Marler Bridge to the harbor boardwalk. City spokesman Doug Rainer said Destin is coordinating with FDOT on the project, and there is currently not a schedule or timeframe for completion.
Parkton said the Sheriff’s Office is “exploring future opportunities through the Department of Transportation to enhance pedestrian safety.”
“Pedestrians need to utilize the afforded crosswalks to help increase their safety and reduce traffic crashes,” he said. “This is especially imperative during the nighttime hours, and adding alcohol to the equation does not help...motorists also need to slow down and be extra cautious in that area, and pay attention to the crosswalks but also keep an eye out for those who, for whatever reason, aren’t using what’s available to their safety.”