Local News

Highway safety stats mixed for Highlands County

— When Sebring High School student Bobby Brown was asked to walk toe-to-toe Tuesday, he found that difficult because he was wearing special goggles.

“I couldn’t even walk straight,” Brown said.

That’s because the goggles provided by Lt. Greg Bueno of the Florida Highway patrol simulated the type of vision a person would likely have if they were intoxicated.

“You wouldn’t want to get in a car with someone who can’t walk a straight line,” Bueno said to the students.

Bueno and student groups were stressing traffic safety, educating students about the dangers of driving under the influence, the protection that seatbelts provide and concerns regarding distractions, such as texting.

Apparently, such programs are having some success in promoting safer driving.

Overall, Highlands County ranks well on highway safety, compared to the 17 other counties with a population of 50,000 to 200,000. The Florida Department of Transportation ranked the counties on several different factors, including crashes with fatalities and injuries, alcohol-related accidents, bicycle accidents with fatalities and injuries, motorcycle accidents with fatalities and injuries, pedestrian fatalities and injuries, speed-related accidents, vehicles with occupant protection, aggressive driving, teen drivers involved in accidents and drivers 65-years old and older.

Besides Highlands, the counties were Bay, Charlotte, Citrus, Clay, Columbia, Flagler, Hernando, Indian River, Martin, Monroe, Nassau, Okaloosa, Putnam, Saint Johns, Santa Rosa, Sumter and Walton.

In most of the categories, which are based on statistics from 2008 to 2012, Highlands County ranked among those counties with the safest roads in that group of 18 counties. However, it was ranked fourth in terms of having the most accidents with people 65 years old and older.

On the more positive side, Highlands County had the fewest accidents involving juvenile drivers and had only one county below it in terms of the total number of accidents with fatalities and or injuries, the number of bicycle accidents with fatalities and or injuries and in aggressive driving.

But while Highlands County had among the lowest numbers of fatality accidents from 2008 to 2012, the numbers have increased so far this year.

Bueno said that so far Highlands County has had 10 traffic fatalities this year, which compares to five during the same period last year.

The rankings for 2008-2012 were based on incidents that law enforcement discovered or those that were reported, said Lora Bailey Hollingsworth, chief safety officer for the Florida Department of Transportation.

But there’s a caveat regarding the figures she said: Aggressive driving tends to be under-reported, while some crashes aren’t reported.

As to whether the rate per capita of non-observed or non-reported incidents would be about the same in each county, Hollingsworth said, that would be “impossible to know.”

“I would expect some law enforcement agencies have different priorities based on the challenges they face in their communities,” he said.

In other categories with 18 being the best ranking, Highlands County was 14 in regards to alcohol-related crashes, 11 in terms of accidents where motorcyclists were killed or injured, 13 in accidents involving pedestrians, and 16 in speed-related accidents.

To improve those ranks in counties, the Florida Highway Patrol tries to be protractive, besides holding education programs at school, Bueno said.

The Highway Patrol “educates the public to drive in accordance with the laws, know what the laws are and to abide by them,” he said.

At Sebring High School, Bueno urged students to wear seatbelts. He gave a demonstration showing the cab of a truck rotating about 20 miles per hour and dummies barreling out of the windows. He said that people not wearing seat belts have a 23 percent greater chance of dying.

“It was pretty scary to see how fast it got ejected,” said Kristin Webb, a student.


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