In a split second, lives can change forever
At any given moment, on any given day, at any Northwest Florida highway intersection, traffic violations are happening.
Those violations often — actually, too often — lead to collisions, and those collisions to injury or death.
Intersections, according to the Florida Driver’s Association, are among the most dangerous places to drive. One estimate indicated more than 40 percent of all accidents occur in or around intersections.
“So why are intersections so dangerous?” the Driver’s Association asks on its website. “Primarily because many drivers don’t obey the traffic signals.”
No statistic bears this out better than one provided by Lt. Adam Falk with the Walton County Sheriff’s Office. Between March 13 and April 27, Falk said, 15 traffic accidents occurred at four U.S. Highway 98 intersections between the Okaloosa County line and Sandestin.
“All have been rear-end collisions while the victim in each case was either stopped at the traffic light or slowing down for the traffic light,” Falk said in an email. “These accidents could be avoided if citizens would pay attention to the road.”
The Northwest Florida Daily News recently enlisted the assistance of law enforcement officials in Okaloosa, Walton and Santa Rosa counties in an effort to identify the most dangerous intersections in the region.
'Bloody 98' tops list
Patrol officers for the three counties' sheriff’s offices identified 12 intersections along U.S. Highway 98 — the east-west corridor that hugs the coastline through the Panhandle — among those holding the most potential for disaster.
“Drivers need to maintain a safe speed and distance between vehicles on 98. Many times accidents are due to tailgating, following too closely or speeding,” Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Michele Nicholson said.
While "Bloody 98," as it is called, was by far the most frequently cited roadway, emergency officials pointed to other hot spots, on both Emerald Coast major thoroughfares and less traveled roadways, as potentially deadly.
They also discussed the driver errors that tend to elevate the likelihood of tragedy.
In Okaloosa County’s Central District, any major intersection can be the scene of a big crash, deputies report. Those include the Racetrack Road intersections with Eglin Parkway and Beal Parkway, and the Mary Esther Cut-Off intersection with Beal Parkway.
“The big thing is not to try to beat the light before it turns red,” said Nicholson.
Excessive speed on a road with two sharp curves makes Airport Road and Wayne Rogers Road north of Crestview a dangerous place, according to Okaloosa’s north county law enforcement contingent.
Several miles away, the intersection of State Road 85 and Auburn Road also was cited as dangerous. There, a failure to yield the right of way or running a stop sign are often blamed for serious accidents.
Too often, vehicles failing to slow for the “daily traffic congestion” close to the intersection of SR 85 and Col. Greg Malloy Road near Crestview leads to wrecks, deputies said.
U.S. 98 has dangerous intersections at Stahlman Avenue, Calhoun Avenue and State Road 293 in Destin, Okaloosa’s South District deputies reported. On Okaloosa Island, the pressure points are at Santa Rosa Boulevard and Pier Road.
To the west, Sunrise Drive and U.S. 98 in Navarre is an intersection at which Santa Rosa County deputies respond to serious accidents, including those “involving life flight or med calls,” said Sheriff’s Office spokesman Sgt. Rich Aloy.
Aloy attributed the accidents primarily to high vehicle volume, motorists pulling out of a Tom Thumb convenience store, a failure to use turn signals and running red lights.
High traffic volumes make the U.S. 98 and Avalon Boulevard intersection in Gulf Breeze dangerous, Aloy said. The same holds true at the intersection of U.S. 90 and Bell Lane and U.S. 90 and Woodbine Road in Pace, as well as U.S. 90 and Glover Lane in Milton.
The 15 recent wrecks on U.S. 98 at Sandestin Boulevard, Scenic Gulf Drive, Poinciana Boulevard and Holiday Road in Walton County motivated that county’s Sheriff’s Office to launch an aggressive driving campaign. The campaign was initiated May 16 and will run through June 8.
Marked and unmarked patrol cars at the intersections will be enforcing violations for speeding, reckless or careless driving, texting, running red lights and following too close, a news release from the Sheriff’s Office said.
“From spring break 2016 to spring break 2017, WCSO saw almost a 30 percent increase in wrecks, despite doubling the number of traffic stops,” the news release said.
“This campaign is to ensure the safety of both our visitors and citizens of our county,” Sheriff Michael Adkinson was quoted as saying.
While inattention or negligence cause many accidents, it is speed that kills, said Tracey Vause, Okaloosa County’s Chief of Emergency Services.
“No one intersection stands out as more dangerous than another,” Vause said. “For us, an injury is most predictable when there’s high energy transfer. A crash itself can be caused by any number of reasons, but the severity of the injuries is always a factor of speed.”
Deadly MLK/Commanche juncture
Vause edited his comments, however, at the mention of one Okaloosa County intersection that this year alone has taken two lives.
There is no traffic light at the intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Commanche Street in Fort Walton Beach, which gives drivers going north and south plenty of time to build up the speed required to cause serious injury in a collision.
Melinda Cornelius of Baker died Jan. 14 when a woman turned left out of Commanche Street and into the path of the motorcycle on which she was a passenger.
Jeffrey Shaffer of Mary Esther died just over a month later on Feb. 21 at the same location. He was operating a motorcycle in the rain on MLK Boulevard when a man in a Dodge pickup turned left in front of him.
“Shaffer hit the left side of the pickup truck and was thrown from the motorcycle,” the Florida Highway Patrol reported. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
He was 33, the father of four.
Shaffer’s wife, Erin, collects her children on weekend days and drives past the Commanche Street intersection, where a green cross has been erected in Jeffrey’s honor.
“I don’t know why it’s so comforting. I just have to drive by there,” she said.
Lt. Eddie Elmore, spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol, said problems at the Commanche Street intersection are caused at least in part by drivers pulling into a turning lane in the middle of MLK Boulevard that impairs sight lines for drivers trying to make a left turn out of Commanche.
Shaffer’s death was at least the third fatal motorcycle accident at the intersection. In May 2001, the Daily News reported the death of 64-year-old John Paul Wilson, who was killed when the motorcycle he was driving “collided with a vehicle that had pulled in front of it” from Commanche Street.
The “smaller cross section” of a motorcycle, as compared to a car, truck or SUV, makes them harder to see when visibility is an issue, Elmore said.
That doesn’t mean four-wheel vehicles are immune from crashes at the intersection, though. Rollover accidents at MLK Boulevard and Commanche are not uncommon, and in 2006, Navarre resident Jeffrey Norton died when he lost control of his car near the infamous juncture.
Following the death of Shaffer, Okaloosa County conducted an investigation to weigh the risks of putting a stoplight at the MLK Boulevard/Commanche Street intersection, where 76 accidents had been reported in the “last few years,” according to county Public Works Director Jason Autrey.
"It’s a delicate balance. Signals don’t always result in fewer accidents,” Autrey explained as the reason for thoroughly investigating the issue. “Our review determined the intersection warrants a signal.”
For Erin Shaffer and others who travel Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard frequently, signalization at Commanche Street is long overdue.
“There should have been a light out there a long time ago,” Erin said. “That’s a crazy intersection.”
Pedestrian, bicycle fatalities
Elmore said that when accidents do occur with some frequency at a particular intersection, the Highway Patrol enlists the help of the Florida Department of Transportation to study possible causes.
“We’ll look further into what’s going on at the intersection to see if certain things need to be done,” Elmore said.
FDOT looks for engineering issues, Elmore said, and the Highway Patrol for issues that heightened law enforcement focus can curtail.
Seldom, the trooper noted, is the issue an engineering problem.
Vehicle-on-vehicle collisions are not the only intersection danger. Since 2012, there have been 31 pedestrian and five bicycle fatalities in Okaloosa County; 18 and six, respectively, in Santa Rosa County; and nine and three, respectively, in Walton County
Between March 9 and April 9 of this year, the city of Crestview recorded five pedestrians and one bicyclist struck by drivers. All of the accidents happened on State Road 85, called Ferdon Boulevard in the city.
One of the pedestrians struck, a man hit in the dark on SR 85 during a pouring rain, died. Police believe he was standing in the roadway when he was run down.
Another victim was hit by a driver who swerved across five lanes of traffic, and a third and fourth as they stood in the road looking at a dead dog. One woman was crossing SR 85 while looking down at her cellphone. The bicyclist was trying to cross the highway near Cracker Barrel Road.
Crestview Police Chief Tony Taylor said a lack of attention on the part of either the victims or the drivers involved in the spree of accidents was largely to blame for their occurrence.
He said none of the six accidents happened at what he believes are the most dangerous Crestview intersections. Those, Taylor said, are SR 85 at the Walmart entrance road, Redstone Avenue and SR 85, and U.S. 90 and SR 85.
Taylor said that accidents take a toll not just on the victims, but also on police officers and rescue crews who show up at the scene. Though young officers receive extensive field training, Taylor said, nothing prepares someone for the carnage that can occur when thousands of pounds of metal come together at high speeds.
He recalled one officer walking away from a traffic accident in a catatonic state when he arrived on scene to find the driver decapitated. He never returned to the police force.
WCSO's Falk said, during 18 years in law enforcement, he has seen his share of traffic accidents so horrific they haunt him.
He, like other officers, vent their frustration at the fact that so many of the wrecks they see should never have happened.
“To have to see the injuries that these crashes cause, when it could all be prevented, will make an impact on anyone’s life,” Falk said. “I have had the misfortune of seeing children die simply because they were not made to wear a seatbelt or because it was more important for that new driver to be texting.”
Taylor said drivers seem less and less inclined these days to abide by the rules of the road.
“It appears to me drivers are getting more aggressive every day. Everyone has a mission and that mission is more important than anyone else on the road,” he said. “Driving is not a leisurely activity, for some it’s combat 101.”
Elmore and his fellow state troopers spend a lot of time in classrooms, attempting to educate young people about safe driving.
“We do a lot of school presentations, and if it can change one person’s behavior, one out of a hundred, I think it’s worth it,” he said.
Taylor advises adults to “teach kids to drive every other car they encounter on the road.”
“They need to learn to anticipate what that other driver is going to do,” he said.
Elmore said the Highway Patrol has begun focusing on “parental engagement,” trying to convince adults to act as role models when children are in a vehicle with them.
“Kids are going to mimic the behavior of their parents,” he said. “If a parent is driving down the road talking on the phone ….”
When Elmore speaks to any audience, his message is sure to resonate. He is a fatal wreck survivor.
Elmore said he was 14 when he and his brother and sister were involved in a tragic accident. He spent a lot of time in a hospital bed, he said, but nonetheless survived.
His siblings were not so lucky.
“As a sole survivor of a car crash, this stuff hits home to me.” he said.
2017 BY THE NUMBERS
OKALOOSA COUNTY: Through May 25, there have been 1,196 motor vehicle accidents, leaving 730 injured and 10 dead. Two pedestrians and one bicyclist have also died.
SANTA ROSA COUNTY: Through May 25, there have been 697 motor vehicle accidents, leaving 592 injured and six dead. One pedestrian and one bicyclist have also died.
WALTON COUNTY: Through May 25, there have been 467 motor vehicle accidents, leaving 272 injured and 14 dead. Three pedestrians and no bicyclists have been killed.
TOTAL: Through May 25 for the three counties, there have been a total of 2,360 wrecks, 1,594 injuries, 30 motor vehicle deaths, six pedestrian deaths and two bicyclist deaths.
2013-2017: Over the last five years, Okaloosa County has averaged 3,008 motor vehicle accidents each year, Santa Rosa 1,812 and Walton 1,135. Those numbers have mostly trended upward, Florida Integrated Report Exchange System data showed.
ACCIDENTS: In Okaloosa County, the number of vehicle crashes went up every year from 2012 until 2016, when the total dropped from 3,362 to 3,214. The number of injuries in these collisions increased every year, though, despite the drop in total crashes. It went from 1,239 in 2012 to 1,377 in 2016.
FATALITIES: Traffic fatalities over the last six years in Okaloosa County went from a high of 35 in 2015 to a low of 21 in 2016. There have been 10 to date in 2017.
PEDESTRIANS: 31 pedestrians have died in the six-year period since 2012. Last year saw the greatest number of pedestrian deaths, 8, recorded since 2012. The number of pedestrian deaths has risen since 2012, with the exception of 2014 and 2015, when six died each year. A single biker has died each year, with the exception of 2016, when no bicycle death was recorded.
INTERSECTIONS: 31 of the total Okaloosa County deaths between 2013 and 2015 happened at intersections — 11 on SR 85 and nine on U.S. 98.
SANTA ROSA COUNTY
FATALITIES: In Santa Rosa County, the number of traffic fatalities dropped significantly, from 19 to 12, between 2015 and 2016. The county recorded 31 traffic fatalities in 2013, which was 11 deaths more than the second-highest number of deaths recorded in any year between 2012 and 2016.
PEDESTRIANS: 19 pedestrians have died in the last six years, including five in 2016. There have been six bicyclists killed, including one this year.
INTERSECTIONS: A total of 10 Santa Rosa County traffic deaths between 2013 and 2015 happened at intersections.
FATALITIES: Walton County has seen a total of 85 people die in traffic accidents since 2012, including 14 thus far in 2017.
PEDESTRIANS: There have been nine pedestrians killed in the last six years, including three pedestrian fatalities in 2017. Only three people have died in collisions between vehicles and bicyclists in the last six years.
INTERSECTIONS: A total of 15 Walton County deaths between 2013 and 2015 occurred at intersections, with three each coming at junctures on U.S. 98 and U.S. 331.