Pasco County used to be Pinellas’ rural neighbor. It was quiet, bucolic and beautiful. It was close enough to Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater if you wanted to do something but far enough from the hustle and bustle. Now, all that’s changed.
In a five-year period ending in 2016, Pasco’s fatal crashes occurred at a rate of 1.66 per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. The national rate is 1.18, the rest of Florida is 1.32, and a six-county Tampa Bay region rate is 1.36.
Pasco has become the center of the universe for serious car crashes. You can blame it on a population surge, an outdated infrastructure, bad roads or whatever else you can but the fact remains that Pasco leads the nation in a grim statistic.
The numbers are even worse for crashes with injuries. Pasco’s five-year injury crash rate is 24.07 per 100 million vehicle miles, more than double the state average of 10.22.
If Pasco mimicked the state average, there would have been 504 injury crashes annually. Instead, the county injury crashes topped 1,100 each of the past three years.
“That’s horrible,’’ said Commissioner Kathryn Starkey.
The most dangerous road then is the same as it is today — U.S. 19 in west Pasco — and recent numbers show traffic fatalities are more prevalent here than elsewhere in the region or state.
The grim statistics of several years ago sparked a significant community response. Police conducted traffic safety blitzes on U.S. 19, and volunteers handed out blinking lights for pedestrians to carry or wear. New easier-to-read street signs with larger lettering went up. And the state Department of Transportation installed street lights along 14 miles of the mostly unlit route.
Making the highway safer became a key component of the original Penny for Pasco sales tax referendum in 2004. Millions of dollars were earmarked for DOT improvements that included sidewalks, channelized medians and a continuous right-turn lane to allow through traffic to pass by slow-moving motorists looking for business addresses.
Traffic fatalities began a three-year decline, but topped triple digits again in 2007 with 101 fatal crashes. They’ve never been as high since and dropped to a low of 55 in 2013 before trending upward again.
Despite the improvements — and 15 years after the all-time fatality record — Pasco roads remain more dangerous than the rest of the Tampa Bay region, the state of Florida and the nation.
DOT and elected officials had better get a handle on this soon. The situation is out of control and is threatening to ruin Pasco’s reputation.