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Dying to Cross: Can we get to zero pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities?

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Posted at 6:08 AM, Jun 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-02 18:18:57-04

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla.  — When Megan Roski took her bike out for a ride down the Pinellas Trail with a friend, she didn't expect the one small section of the miles-long dedicated bike path would change her life forever.

In the United States, a recent report shows that pedestrian fatalities reached a 40-year high with an average of 20 deaths every day. According to the report, both Florida and Texas had more than 100 additional pedestrian deaths in 2021. In Florida, an estimated 899 pedestrians, which includes bicyclists, died.

A LIFE FOREVER CHANGED

On April 15, 2020, Roski was hit crossing the Pinellas Trail at Skinner Boulevard in Dunedin. A notoriously dangerous hot spot for pedestrian injuries and fatalities. She sat down with ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska to share her story for the first time.

"I had stopped. Everybody had pushed the light, and it was flashing. Everyone else was stopped. There were three other cars that were fully stopped, and I had crossed with a few families, and one driver was not paying attention," Roski said. "She went into me going about 45 miles an hour."

As Roski bounced over the car flying through the air, her bike was dragged and lodged underneath the vehicle. The sound of the impact sent people in nearby businesses, like Kafe Racer, running outside to see if everyone was okay. Roski was on the ground, barely moving.

"I think my body went into shock. And then as I was coming to, I remember screaming, I remember the worst wail I've ever heard from someone — I didn't even know it was coming from me — and I want to like say some good stuff about Kafe Racer, they were the first there to put pillows up on my body and keep me stable until EMS arrived," Roski said. "That day was probably the worst day of my life, and just having really good talented professionals there that were able to bring me peace about it, you know, just really made, it made a lot of difference."

Roski was severely injured. The once active bicyclist is disabled for the rest of her life.

"I do now have a titanium pelvis. Doctors had to pull my leg out of my body. I had a 65-pound weight attached to my knee, pulling my leg out," Roski said. "And then from there, I spent 10 days in the hospital, just relearning how to walk and eat and go to the bathroom and just, you know, realize what I went through."

She now walks with a cane. Moving slow, she deals with the pain; every step forward is a small victory in her forever new normal. Doctors told her she would never walk again.

"I just did physical therapy every day," Roski told me. "I just busted my butt trying to make sure I could do it. And with so many people cheering me on. You can't let those people down. That's the only way you're able to walk again; they tell you, 'you can't walk again.' Like, hey! No! We are doing this because there is no other way."

We interviewed Roski next to the crosswalk where she nearly lost her life. Roski would often stop, clap, and cheer as people safely made it across throughout our interview.

"Get it, guys, get it. I believe in you. We aren't getting hit today," Roski yelled. "Go! You got this (claps) that's beautiful, that's beautiful."

A LIFE LOST 

A year and a half later, in nearly the exact same spot, Thomas "Tom" Murtaugh, 78, didn't make it across. 

Murtaugh was a member of the West Florida Y Running Club.  

"Tom was such a sweet person or caring person," Skip Rogers, the club president, said. "We ran early in the morning, Tom carried a flashlight, and I carried a light."

Rogers said Murtaugh volunteered for his local church at soup kitchens and worked most of his life as a teacher and counselor, helping people in need.

Most Mondays, Rogers jogged with Murtaugh, but he couldn't make it that day.

"It goes through in my mind; what if I'd have been there with him? Would I have gotten him stopped? Or would I have been hit?" Rogers said. "You know, and that's what plays with your mind."

According to law enforcement, the day Murtaugh was hit, he had his trusty flashlight and was in the crosswalk with the flashing lights to warn approaching vehicles to stop illuminated. The driver told law enforcement she didn't see him.

"People blow through stop signs and lights all the time," Rogers said. "I think as far as runners and bikers, they need to be cautious. They need to. If it doesn't look like they're going to stop, they need to stop and make sure they're not going to get hit."

LONG OVERDUE SOLUTIONS

Experts across the country and in the Tampa Bay area are working to answer the question — Can future injury and death be prevented?

"We need to accommodate, not vehicles, but humans," Dr. Pei-Sung Lin said. 

Dr. Lin is the program director of ITS, Traffic Operations and Safety at the Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR) at USF.

"This is a human-centered approach, how to do that. And safe mobility is very important," Dr. Lin said. "It's not mobility or safety; the one you want to choose is a safe mobility," Dr. Lin said.  

Nearly three decades ago, Dr. Lin said Europe and Australia experienced similar trends in fatal pedestrian crashes involving vehicles. However, Dr. Lin said those countries acted to fix the problem while the United States kept with the status quo. 

"They changed their mindset," Dr. Lin said. "They made this decision, made a determination on what they're going to do. It was implemented 20 to 30 years ago in Europe and Australia, and they have seen very good results."

Those countries adopted the Safe System Approach, and Dr. Lin said they've seen serious injuries and death plummet.

"The safe system approach recognized first that serious injury and death are unacceptable. And recognizes humans make mistakes, and humans are vulnerable," Dr. Lin said. "So, 20 years after their implementation, they see 50 to 70% reduction in fatalities. Sweden, in particular, had a 70% reduction."

In 2022, the United States launched its version of Sweden's Vision Zero campaign for road safety thinking. Vision Zero can be summarized in one sentence: No loss of life is acceptable.

According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, "the approach is based on five key elements that, together, are designed to provide a systematic approach to traffic safety: safe road users, safe vehicles, safe speeds, safe roads, and post-crash care. The redundancy offered by these multiple layers of protection – known as the 'Swiss cheese model' – is the central tenet of the

Safe System approach. If one layer fails, the others will provide a protective effect and lessen the likelihood of a serious or fatal injury in the event of a crash."

"If you can cut a fatality and serious injury in half but you double minor (injuries), it's worth it. So that's a totally different way of thinking," Dr. Lin said. 

HEALING AND CHANGE

FDOT recently installed a light and crossing system at the intersection where Roski was hit and Murtaugh was killed. There are also plans for two roundabouts to slow drivers approaching the crossing and other road designs for vehicle and pedestrian safety.

"Me getting hit, I can get over that, I can walk again, but sharing my story and sharing for other cyclists and pedestrians and motorists alike is a beautiful opportunity," Roski said. "I hope that with all of these things, it gives the motorists a little bit more incentive to be a little bit more alert. And the fact that now there's a light here may make it a little more appealing for people to stop. Because now it's a light, it's not just a slap on the wrist, it's not just a little thing, you're running a light, and when you hit someone."

"I know you have a tough road ahead with your recovery; it'll be with you forever. Are you going to be okay?" Paluska asked Roski.

"I got these two surgeries coming up. I'm very hopeful. Hopefully, once we get these screws out, I'll be able to possibly bike again, after some physical therapy that may take a few years, you know, but it's going to be good," Roski said.

According to court records, the drivers who hit Roski and Murtaugh were cited.

Tina Marie Sunday was cited with failure to yield to the right of way to a pedestrian in a crosswalk for hitting Roski. Documents show her license was revoked for 90-days and court-ordered to complete an advanced driver improvement course.

Jennifer O'Rourke hit Murtaugh; her citation was also for failure to yield to the right of way to a pedestrian in a crosswalk. As a result, her license was revoked for six months, and she had to complete a court-ordered advanced driver improvement course.