The challenging road ahead: Hwy. 98 safety: ‘We have to do something right now’

Matt Algarin
This makeshift memorial on the side of Highway 98 near the Airport Road intersection is a constant reminder of a dangerous crossing. The memorial was placed in memory of Shelly Meadors, who was killed in a hit-and-run near the spot in 2002. The case remains unsolved.

Crossing U.S. Hwy. 98 can be a risky proposition, so city leaders are determined to find a way to safely move pedestrians across the city’s main drag.

“We have to do something right now to make sure folks can get across that road,” Councilman Jim Wood said.

During a pedestrian safety workshop Tuesday night, city leaders and representatives from the Florida Department of Transportation and consulting firm Renaissance Planning Group met to discuss possible solutions for the stretch of roadway that’s been dubbed “Bloody 98.”

According to data from the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, there have been 248 vehicle versus pedestrian, which includes vehicle versus bicycle, accidents in Destin since 2002. Just in 2012, there have been 35 incidents, which is the highest number of accidents in one year since 2007, where there were 28. According to law enforcement officials, there have been zero pedestrian fatalities in Destin in 2011 and 2012, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Based on a Log investigation in 2010, there were nine pedestrian fatalities during the decade in Destin. In 2011, Robert Crawford and Michael Brewster were both killed just outside city limits by motorists on Okaloosa Island. In Walton County, Galina Bumbalova and Kurt Lang Frankel were killed across the Walton County Line after being struck from behind while riding bicycles on the roadway.

“We’re inviting people to come down to the harbor and enjoy themselves, so it’s our responsibility to get people safely across the road,” Mayor Sam Seevers said. “The key is to make the decisions we need to in the short term first, then we can make decisions for the long term.”

Given that Hwy. 98 is the city’s only major east-west artery, city leaders are somewhat limited in the options they have available to them. While the goal is to safely allow pedestrians to cross the roadway, allowing traffic to continue flowing is also important.

Options for the city to consider are a pedestrian activated HAWK signal, which hangs on mast arms above the roadway; horizontal pedestrian beacons, which are vertical posts on the side of the roadway with crosswalks; basic crosswalk enhancements; or a full traffic signal that includes signalized crosswalks, which could cost up to $300,000.

Ideally, Wood told his colleagues that he would like something overhead, which would be easier for motorists to see, as opposed to something on the ground.

“Whatever you do, you have to make it the most visual thing you can, because if you don’t, people are not going to stop,” he said.

For Councilman Jim Bagby, a fully equipped traffic signal wouldn’t make sense. He said there was no need for something that would stop cars 52 weeks a year.

“Really, we have an eight-week problem,” he said, adding that most of the pedestrian traffic comes during spring break and the 4th of July weekend.

Based on various studies, Scott Swearengen from Renaissance said the HAWK system has a high compliance rate from drivers, but it would require a warrant study (to determine if it was needed) from the FDOT. The systems also cost between $40,000 to $150,000.

With Renaissance’s recommendations in hand, city staff will put together as much information as possible and present possible solutions to the city council at a future meeting. Community Development Director Ken Gallander said ideally, they would like to bring their report back by January.

“DOT won’t move forward until we provide them data,” he said.