Fatal crashes in Lee County 2017. Video by Michael Braun
Going into the final weekend of the year, 116 people have died in Lee County crashes in 2017, making it the deadliest year in more than a decade.
The deaths also mean the first back-to-back years of triple-digit fatalities since 2006-07.
It stems from a deadly mix of more people living in Southwest Florida, more tourists on our roads and more attention-grabbing technology, some experts say.
Trooper Kenneth Watson, a spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol, said there was a direct connection between the rising number of fatal crashes and more people on the state's roads.
"We're all vying for the same space," he said. "The roadways, the intersections, aren't getting any larger."
Watson said the population in Southwest Florida will only increase.
"We're booming again, and that's great," he said, adding. "There's going to be a rise in fatalities."
Add tourists to the state's permanent residents and the result is even worse, he said.
Numbers released last week by Gov. Rick Scott showed a record 98 million domestic visitors came to Florida last year. Added to that were 14.8 million international visitors.
"That means another 15 million or so vehicles on the state's roads," Watson said.
Many fatal crashes can be looked at as a matter of choices, said Jay Anderson of the Stephen Emerson Driving School of Fort Myers and executive director of Stay Alive ... Just Drive Inc.
Anderson cited recent fatal crashes where a wrong choice could have turned the crash deadly.
"Look at the crash on Veteran's Parkway," he said. "The guy probably drove that every day. It was raining, and you know what happens when it rains. He might have been going a bit too fast and lost traction."
A crash along Alico Road in early December claimed a man's life when his vehicle collided with a dump truck.
"He wasn't wearing a seat belt," Anderson said. "If he was wearing one, he'd probably be alive."
Drivers are the weakest link, Anderson said, and many fatalities are preventable if people obey traffic laws.
"This whole issue of fatalities puzzles all of us," he said. "How do we change this behavior. That's what's so frustrating, that's what we all ask ourselves."
His driver training classes cite three "magic words" Anderson said: "See, think, do."
The first of those to go is "think" he said.
Watson and Anderson cited the growth of technology and gadgetry as a bane for drivers, grabbing their attention at inopportune times.
"Unfortunately, people get bad habits," Anderson said. "And those habits turn deadly."
There was a five-year period a decade ago when road deaths in Lee County climbed into the hundreds: 106 in 2007, 121 in 2006, 150 — the peak — in 2005, 108 in 2004 and 121 in 2003.
Traffic fatalities in Lee County dropped precipitously in 2008 after the real estate crash and hit a low of 64 in 2012.
The country's economic downturn was cited for the drop as fewer people had jobs, fewer drove and there was less traffic.
Deaths in bicycle-related fatal crashes decreased this year by two-thirds, but deaths from pedestrian-related crashes rose after having been stable for three years.
Of the 115 Lee fatalities, 23 came from crashes involving bicyclists or pedestrians, statistics from Florida’s Integrated Report System, which provides access to data and documents related to crashes occurring in the state, showed.
While bicycle crash deaths dropped to just three in 2017, pedestrian deaths rose to 20.
Those numbers have stayed fairly stable with bike deaths reported at nine in 2016, four in 2015, nine in 2014, three in 2013 and two in 2012. Pedestrian fatalities reported in Lee were at 17 in 2016, 2015 and 2014; 24 in 2013 and 12 in 2012.
Those figures were highlighted by a recently released 2016 study from Smart Growth America's Dangerous by Design that ranked the Cape Coral-Fort Myers metropolitan area as the most dangerous in the country for pedestrians.
The study used a measure called a "Pedestrian Danger Index," or PDI, to calculate the share of local commuters who walk to work and the most recent data on pedestrian deaths.
The Cape Coral-Fort Myers area was shown to have a 283.1 PDI, according to the study.
The study said this area was joined by seven other Florida areas in the top 11 most dangerous metro areas.
Traffic safety consultants pointed to people just not paying attention as a big problem.
“Unfortunately, it appears far too many of us are so self-absorbed that even in the face of indisputable evidence that doing anything other than paying full attention when mixing with traffic, whether behind the wheel, on a bike, or on foot, will eventually cause us or others harm we continue to be distracted or otherwise don't take our responsibility serious,” said Dan Moser, a founding member of BikeWalkLee, a coalition advocating for public transportation, pedestrians and bicyclists in Lee County.
Statewide there were 2,761 fatalities from 2,584 crashes in 2017.
Lee County fatalities
2017 (As of 12/28) 116
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