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No left turns could be solution to reducing crashes at Gulf to Bay & Belcher

Posted: 3:52 PM, May 20, 2019
Updated: 2019-05-20 17:47:51-04
Michigan u turns.jpg

CLEARWATER, Fla. — It's one of the most dangerous intersections in Pinellas County. On average, there are more than 100 crashes a year at the intersection of Gulf to Bay and Belcher in Clearwater.

Yet, a new plan to improve safety at the intersection has some drivers puzzled.

Pinellas County is considering a plan to eliminate left-hand turns at the intersection and instead requiring drivers to make u-turns in new medians.

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The cost to change over the intersection would be around $13 million, a much cheaper alternative to building an $80 million overpass at the intersection.

County leaders believe the change could improve traffic flow and safety by using something called “Michigan U-turns" with u-turn medians 500-700 feet east and west of Belcher. That means drivers heading east or west on Gulf to Bay would have to go through the intersection, make a u-turn at a signalized median and then a right turn to go north or south on Belcher. Drivers heading north or south on Belcher would have to turn right on Gulf to Bay and then make a u-turn to head east or west.

The project would be the very first in Florida, although county leaders say similar designs have reduced the number of accidents at intersections in other states by 30 to 50 percent.

Michigan has been using median u-Turns since the 1960s and today has several hundred intersections using the design.

Nancy McKibben in Pinellas County's public works transportation department says the key is eliminating left turns, which are among the most dangerous maneuvers on the road.

Between 2014 and 2018 there were 526 crashes and three fatalities at the intersection of Gulf to Bay and Belcher.

Yet, not all drivers think it's a good idea. Matt Drowne works at Outspoken Bicycles near the intersection. He worries it will only increase congestion and confuse drivers.

“I think that’s really a horrible idea. People are impatient enough as they are. I think totally changing traffic flow is not a good idea, especially if it’s on an intersection by intersection basis,” he explained.

McKibben says the county will meet with drivers this summer before voting on the project. She says the design works a lot smoother than drivers realize and could be key to saving lives at the crash-prone intersection.

"This intersection ranks year after year at the top of the list for the number of crashes. We need to do something sooner than later," she added.

The Federal Highway Administration put together a video of how the median intersections work. You can watch it here.