Local News

Why is U.S. 27 so dangerous?

LAKE PLACID - A 24-year-old Sebring motorcyclist died after a collision with a pick-up truck Tuesday afternoon on U.S. 27 north of Lake Placid turned deadly, making the accident the third fatality on Highlands County's main artery in five days. Andy Vega, 24, was going south on an inside lane of U.S. 27 by Lake Josephine Drive, the Florida Highway Patrol said. Jose Valdovinos, 48, from Lake Placid, was stopped at the stop sign on Lake Josephine Drive and then entered the intersection, authorities say. As his 2003 Chevrolet Avalanche entered the median, the motorcycle struck the pick-up's left rear, the report states, coming to a stop in the southbound inside lane, facing south.
Vega was flown to Highlands Regional Medical Center where he was pronounced dead, the FHP adds. Neither Valdovinos nor his passenger, Gabriela Valdovinos, 18, suffered any injuries, authorities say. Vega, who was riding a Suzuki GSXR, was wearing a helmet, the FHP adds. On Thursday, a four-car pile on U.S. 27 between Flare and Hammock roads took the life of Francis Gero and his wife, Barbara, who died from her injuries two days later. Susan Higgins, who said she passed two of the recent wrecks, has been definitely unsettled by the "horrific crashes." Linda Hunt also has been "rattled" and has changed her driving habits. Tuesday's motorcycle crash also has raised the number of fatalities the FHP worked in the county to 11. Last year's number for the same period was 10. Highlands County's Emergency Management Services Director Harvey Craven said this October was a "pretty high" month for crashes. EMS responded to 69 crashes for October alone, he explained. As a comparison, in September, emergency responders attended to 54 crashes. Monthly accident numbers usually average from the mid 40s to 50s, depending on the time of the year Harvey said. While summers are steady, he said, seasonal visitors add to the number of vehicles on the road, making winters busier for emergency responders. Since U.S. 27 has the biggest volume of traffic in the county, a big part of the crashes happen there, Harvey reasoned. According to the Florida Department of Transportation, Highlands County had 355 crashes, four fatalities and 274 injuries on U.S. 27 in 2012. This year, up to the end of August, U.S. 27 had 214 crashes, five fatalities and 153 injuries. With the three more road deaths within the week, the fatality count on U.S. 27 has risen to eight so far and there are two more months left in the year. William Oliveri thinks more law enforcement patrolling would help to curb some of the accidents. But Highlands County Sheriff's Office's Chief Deputy Mark Schrader said they had no plans to step up enforcement after the Tuesday fatality. Schrader said he didn't know the cause behind the crash, but the majority of accidents are due to right-of-way violations, not speeding. Every month, a law enforcement analyst does a detailed traffic report, which lists the intersections where most of the crashes happen, what the motorist was cited for, and which law enforcement agency worked the scene. For October, the intersection of U.S. 27 and Stryker Road in Avon Park and the area on U.S. 27 between Sparrow Avenue and Vickie Drive, adjacent to Lakeshore Mall, were the most heavily involved. The sheriff's office uses the report to inform deputies who are patrolling those areas to keep an eye. In the past, the sheriff's office could dip into its overtime budget to pay deputies to work just traffic; with budget cuts and less money, that has become a challenge, he said. Monica Morse Stone blames some of the snowbirds for road accidents. "I had one cut me off yesterday where I had to run off the road to avoid hitting them," she said. Corinna VanDermark thinks reckless driving - not age - is the culprit. "I was just in an accident on the 1st (Nov. 1) and it was a young driver who rear ended me. I think drivers need to be more cautious and pay more attention," VanDermark said. Connie Federico has a suggestion: Younger people should stop texting and driving and older people should be screened twice a year with a road test to see if they are "fit to drive a car." Jennifer Martinez is in favor of one unified speed limit and exhorted drivers to pay attention on the roads. "The day before last, we had three extremely close calls because of people being impatient," she said. "There was no common age, both young and old. By the time we got home our nerves were rattled." U.S. 27's speed limits vary from 45 mph to 65 mph, depending on where the road runs. In the open areas close to Lake Placid, the speed limit rises, and falls in the business district. FDOT's Traffic Study Analysis Specialist Tanya King said state statutes determine speed limits and described U.S. 27's speed limits in Highlands County as typical for a highway in an area with our demographics. Karen Sparr thinks the speed limit "may be fine with less traffic in the summer... but it is way too fast for the amount of traffic in the winter." People need to "adjust for congestion," Sparr said. Many others who responded to a query on Highlands Today's Facebook page felt lowering speed limits was not the answer if drivers continued driving too fast and without regard for road rules and courtesy. Adam Belcher felt lowering the speed limit by even 10 mph could cause a fatal crash. "I've responded to several of the crashes recently and would blame the drivers, not the speed limit," he said. Karron L. Neale Tedder felt one of the biggest culprits are trucks who take all three lanes, businesses without turn lanes and intersections without a turning lane. Sarah Richardson said Tuesday's accident happened right in front of the road she lives on. "These accidents aren't happening because of the speed limit. They are happening because people are being careless and not paying attention when they pull on to a highway. If people were more aware of their surroundings we wouldn't have this problem." Some others felt public transportation would reduce the volume of vehicles on the road and give elderly drivers a chance to go from place A to place B without having to get behind the wheel of a car. Some portions of U.S. 27 run through the City of Sebring's business district. Sebring Mayor George Hensley said he has received no complaints or suggestions from his constituents about reviewing the city's speed limits on U.S. 27, underscoring what Schrader said - that speeding was not so much the culprit as right-of-way violations. "I'm not aware of any effort to make a change," he said. "In my opinion, frankly, we need to keep traffic moving." Helen Bogus, who has a business in West Shore Plaza, a little north of where Thursday's car pile-up happened, said she would like to see a traffic light on U.S. 27's intersection with Ryant Boulevard. The strip mall has many doctors' offices, she said, and a mobile home park is close by. Drivers line up at the crossover, making the situation an accident waiting to happen. Turns out, it's fairly easy for residents such as Bogus to request a feasibility study for a traffic light or even to review the speed limits. All they have to do is to request one from FDOT's Bartow office. FDOT conducts such studies if there is new construction in the area or if somebody - from municipalities or residents request one - although King said they have not had a request for U.S. 27 in Highlands County since 2009. When the road widening project on U.S. 27 is complete, for instance, FDOT will do a speed study to see if the speed limits are appropriate. J