December 18, 2005

Daily News Investigation of ‘Bloody 98′ Traffic Accidents Yields ‘Shocking’ and ‘Terrible’ Findings: Intersection at Santa Rosa Boulevard on Okaloosa Island Earned Itself the Dubious Distinction of Being Host to 334 Accidents ? Nearly 100 More Than at Any

By Amy Leigh Womack And Wendy Victora, Northwest Florida Daily News, Fort Walton Beach, Northwest Florida Daily News, Fort Walton Beach

Dec. 18--From her home in Navarre six blocks off U.S. Highway 98, Betty Franklin has gotten used to the sound of emergency vehicles rushing to accidents. "Almost daily," mused Franklin. "We hear sirens almost daily." Most are from emergency vehicles responding to accidents on the busy highway. Still, Franklin was surprised to hear that -- by the numbers -- U.S. 98 is even more dangerous than she had imagined. In 28 months, more than 7,600 accidents have occurred on a 71-mile stretch of U.S. 98 along the Emerald Coast, a Northwest Florida Daily News analysis found. Those accidents killed 33 people and injured 795 others. "I think it's horrifying," said Franklin, who has sat in traffic watching helicopters land to rush victims to hospitals. "It's not the inconvenience. It's the fact that people are dying or getting injured on that highway almost every day." Though the region's congested eastwest traffic artery has long had a reputation as a dangerous highway, the newspaper's analysis quantifies it in a way that has never been done. Even state Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, who chaired the House Transportation Committee last year, hadn't heard the statistics spelled out so starkly. "Wow," Sansom said. "Mmm, mmm, mmm. "I knew the numbers were terrible, and (those) are worse than I thought." Bloody 98, from end to end

The stretch of roadway studied by the Daily News cuts through all of Walton and Okaloosa counties, as well as most of Santa Rosa County.

The 7,615 crashes occurred from July 2003 to October 2005.

But U.S. 98 has had a reputation as a dangerous highway for much longer than that.

In 1988, then-state Sen. Vince Bruner dubbed it "Bloody 98," a nickname that is still in common use. At the time, he was trying to focus attention on the danger. "There's probably not anybody who's lived here any length of time who doesn't know someone who's lost someone on that road," Bruner said. Like others who talk about how dangerous that road is, Bruner found the most recent numbers disturbing. "I think it's shocking for even people who live here and read the paper every day, and drive the road," he said. "That's really, really shocking."

The Daily News study reveals that an average of nine accidents a day occur along U.S. 98.

Those accidents result in about one injury per day. Someone dies slightly more than once a month.

Chris Liberty was 24 when he died on Okaloosa Island in January 2005.

He left behind his mother, his sisters and the 3-year-old daughter he was raising. The little girl misses her daddy so much that she pretends to see his shadow.

"He was born on Christmas Day, a gift from God," Liberty's mom, Evangelia Boltz, said through tears. "I love my other two kids, but with him, I connected right away.

"It just breaks my heart. I wish he was alive and I was dead so many times." Dangerous intersections

When local motorists think about U.S. 98, it's not intersections such as the one at Santa Rosa Boulevard on Okaloosa Island that they fear the most.

That intersection earned itself the dubious distinction of being host to 334 accidents during the time period studied. That's nearly 100 more than at any other intersection.

But no one died there.

"When you get into the areas with the traffic lights, you're stopping and going to the next intersection and stopping," said Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Steve Preston.

The more dangerous areas of U.S. 98 are the ones where speeds are the highest.

At the point where County Road 395 crosses U.S. 98 in Walton County, there were three fatalities. On June 27, 2004, teenage sisters from Freeport were killed at that intersection while driving home from their jobs. Nine months later, an elderly man died there.

Capt. Danny Glidewell of the Walton County Sheriff's Office said the 28 miles of U.S. 98 in his county pose some unique challenges for drivers.

In Walton County alone, there were more than 1,000 crashes, which included 11 fatalities and 171 injuries.

"Pretty bad," said Glidewell, after hearing the numbers.

"Probably the biggest issue is we have stretches where you can get up to 60 or 65 mph for the speed limit," he said. "Anytime you have that kind of speed limit and a lot of traffic, you'll have accidents."

Glidewell added that the intersection where the sisters died, as well as one other along that stretch, have since received traffic lights, which he hopes will reduce the number of wrecks. Troubleshooting

Authorities are short on solutions for the dangerous road.

U.S. 98 travels along a narrow corridor of largely developed land that is bordered by water and Eglin reservation. Hundreds of roads intersect with it. There is no simple way to solve the road's safety issues.

But law officers have identified some trouble spots.

For example, Okaloosa County Sheriff's Sgt. J.D. Peacock said the problem on Okaloosa Island, where three people have died this year, is the sand. It's not uncommon for lawmen to see a crash caused by a motorist drifting off the asphalt into the sand and then trying to get back on the roadway.

"They dig in and go to flipping," Peacock said. That's why DOT crews try to keep a layer of gravel over the sand. Another problem everyone seems to recognize is congestion. On Okaloosa Island, for example, between 45,000 and 50,000 vehicles travel on U.S. 98 daily. "The bottom line is it's a very busy roadway," said the FHP's Lt. Preston. And law enforcement officers agree that speed is a key ingredient in the severity of the crashes. In Okaloosa County, along the 4-mile stretch from Florosa to the Santa Rosa County line, seven people died during the period the Daily News analyzed. That stretch can't claim the busiest intersections or the most traffic crashes. Just a staggering amount of human tragedy. "When they have a crash out there, it's a bad one because of the speed," said Peacock, head of the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office Traffic Unit. It's these types of areas where high speeds make it easier for cars to lose control and cross into the median, striking a car coming from the opposite direction, Peacock said. A well-known Fort Walton Beach business owner died along that stretch in January. David Ball, of Mary Esther, apparently overcorrected while pulling onto the highway. He was crushed under his vehicle when it rolled into a ditch.

"He was very warm and friendly and good-hearted," said Carol Magmer, director of the Better Business Council for the Emerald Coast, where Ball was a board member.

The owner of Dave's Heating and Air Conditioning was also a family man who drove his young daughters to school every day.

Like many chamber members, the Mary Esther man had to drive U.S. 98 into Fort Walton Beach for work and for meetings.

"Many of our members come from that Navarre area or west of Hurlburt, and many times they're late for work because they're stuck in traffic or behind an accident," Magmer said.

"(Dave's death) was a shock to all of us," she added. Solutions hard to find

In hopes of coming up with a solution to U.S. 98's traffic woes, state legislators formed the Northwest Florida Transportation Corridor Authority in June. The authority is tasked with coming up with a plan for improving U.S. 98.

Sansom chaired the committee that formed this new board.

He said Federal Highway Administration officials studied data on U.S. 98 from Escambia to Wakulla counties, then came out and drove the road themselves.

Their findings confirmed that something needed to be done.

"They told us (U.S.) 98 is one of the most difficult highways for long-term solutions in the country, and also one of the most dangerous," he said. Sansom said the new transportation authority is less "bureaucratic" and should be able to get more done quickly. But what they will do is uncertain. And chairman Randall McElheney of Panama City said it'll be awhile before changes start happening. "To get your arms around a master plan for that entire area is a real ambitious job," he said. "It's such a big animal." McElheney said the authority has a July 1, 2007, deadline for coming up with a fix, but he said he hopes to get the ball rolling a lot sooner. The authority must complete a report identifying priorities early next year, and at that point, McElheney hopes to start searching for funding. "We think that it's a critical enough problem that we want to attack it immediately," he said.

Any fix will require cooperation with Eglin Air Force Base.

But Eglin Mission Enhancement Committee chairman Bob Arnold said the base can't help solve U.S. 98's woes until someone proposes an overall plan.

"You need an integrated, comprehensive look as in anything else," Arnold said, stressing that asking the Air Force to give up land should be considered only after all other options have been exhausted.

"We will look at this," he added. "We will look at ways we can mitigate a common problem." Taking safety by the hand

In the meantime, other local agencies have recognized U.S. 98's danger and have started brainstorming plans.

Peacock is chairman of Okaloosa's Community Traffic Safety Team, which consists of representatives from law enforcement, the county and other community members.

He said keeping cars from crossing medians could help in several cases. A way to do that would be to install barriers of some kind along dangerous stretches, such as in Florosa.

Peacock said he's hoping to make a recommendation by next summer to the Florida Department of Transportation to install the barriers.

The barriers could resemble a guardrail or could be a wire fence with heavy tension.

Either way, he said the project would carry too big of a price tag for anyone other than DOT to implement.

Aside from traffic safety team projects, DOT spokesman Tommie Speights said improvements to make U.S. 98 safer are being added in when workers make road repairs.

After Hurricanes Dennis and Ivan swept away lanes of U.S. 98 between Fort Walton Beach and Destin, Speights said workers removed openings in the median, limiting the places where motorists can make Uturns.

"Anytime you take some of the median openings out, you prevent the turning conflicts and that results in a safer thoroughfare," he said. "And that cuts down on the accident rates."

But Speights said the next major project to improve U.S. 98 isn't scheduled until 2010. And that's on a three-mile section of roadway just east of Gulf Breeze.

As Northwest Florida waits for a solution, lawmen say although motorists can't fix the problem themselves, they can make driving a little safer.

"It's all statistics on paper, but they're people," Preston said. "Drivers have to be responsible for themselves so they don't endanger themselves and other people.

"It's going to have to be a concerted effort from everybody," he said.

For folks like Betty Franklin and her husband, Tommy, the solution is simple. Avoid U.S. 98 as much as possible, particularly during the peak traffic times.

In fact, when they moved from Fort Walton Beach to Navarre two years ago, Betty told her husband that they'd better hurry up and retire so they wouldn't have to make that drive as often.

"We love it out here," said Tommy. "It's just that 98 is one of those real deterrents. No doubt about it.

"I think it's reached capacity -- 98 is just maxed out."


Copyright (c) 2005, Northwest Florida Daily News, Fort Walton Beach

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