Newsmakers


The Madness: How Southwest Florida Drivers Go So Wrong on the Road

"(Southwest Floridians) look at traffic laws as traffic suggestions."

 

I drive. a lot. Fifty-nine miles round-trip from my home in Fort Myers to the Gulfshore Life office in Naples. Twelve and a half miles from home to downtown Fort Myers and back at least five days a week—sometimes more than once a day, depending on which kid has what activity at which time. And then there are all those live interviews… Naples, Fort Myers, Everglades City, Immokalee, Olga, Cape Coral, LaBelle, Bonita Springs. You name it; in the past 12 months, I’ve been there.

And so, I can safely say I am qualified to offer an assessment of Southwest Florida drivers.

You stink.

Really. I’m from Massachusetts. I know bad driving. (They don’t call us “Massholes” for nothin’.) But Southwest Florida—this is one big drag race, slowed only slightly by traffic signals, when they are actually obeyed.

On the day I write this, I have been stuck behind a 20-year-old Toyota in Estero driving just under the speed limit in the left lane, prompting commuters to jut right and then back left; watched an Audi in North Naples honk at a pickup for having the audacity to pause for an ambulance; and observed a Corvette pull the classic intimidation move—tailgate hard and “peek” around the rear bumper to signal the burning need to pass. Only, this guy fell back resignedly because it’s 4:50 p.m. on College Parkway in Fort Myers, and where are you gonna go?

Any good journalist knows a story doesn’t rest on her observations alone, so I set out for some hard evidence defining the state of our roads. I found some of the most damming of it at the Lee County Justice Center, where traffic court for varying levels of severity is held five days a week in multiple courtrooms before a slate of county judges and hearing officers.

Lee County Judge Josephine Gagliardi questions a defendant during traffic court at the Lee County Justice Center.

Criminal traffic arraignments start at 8:30 a.m. sharp Monday mornings in Courtroom 1A, the building’s biggest. This could well be the unhappiest place in Southwest Florida, row after row of solemn faces seated on uncomfortable wooden benches. A woman near the front is nodding off; so, too, is the big bald guy in the red polo who’ll end up being among the last called. A Portuguese-speaking woman looks nervous; a dad accompanying his in-trouble son stares stonily. I’d hate to be either kid or dad on that ride home.

These drivers are accused of anything from leaving the scene of a crash to driving under the influence to driving with no license or on a suspended license. There are lots of the latter. Let’s not dodge the issue; most of these defendants look like they came from somewhere else and rely on the court interpreter to translate. This is among the reasons I am terrified of getting hit—that and the fact that a quarter of our drivers don’t carry insurance.

On this particular Monday, there are 96 people waiting to stand before Judge Josephine Gagliardi. A light day, noted her assigned deputy, Paul Johnson.

Many drivers rely on help from an interpreter to understand the court proceedings.

Seated at the tables in front of Gagliardi are Mary Anderson of the state attorney’s office and Veronica Batt of the public defender’s office. Over the next two and a half hours, Gagliardi will offer lots of continuances for those needing time or legal help to straighten out their messes. Batt will hand out lots of business cards. It makes me wonder how much taxpayer-supported resources are diverted to the defense of bad driving. But I suppose whatever is spent is more than captured in the fees of all those who plead “no contest” because they know they aren’t going to win.

The fees go something like this:

  • $500 fine
  • $220 court costs
  • $50 cost of prosecution
  • $25 clerk of court surcharge

The amounts vary according to the driving offense, but I don’t think anyone who settled that day walked out owing less than $500. Payment plans available. All told, Lee County collected $17.1 million in traffic-related fees and fines in fiscal year 2014-15. Collier collected $10.4 million.

There were a couple of cases in which defendants brought back proper documentation and Judge Gagliardi thanked them (she makes a point to commend those who follow the law—what does that tell you?) and sent them on their way. She’ll cut you a deal if your record is pretty clean. For the Portuguese-speaking woman, who’d been charged with driving on a suspended license, Gagliardi withheld adjudication, assessing only fees. For the teenager, caught speeding and violating the restrictions on his license, the judge crafted a let’s-nip-this-in-the-bud kind of sentence, ordering him to attend a driving class taught at the trauma center (“Your eyes will be opened.”); research the outcomes of traffic crashes (“I want you to see how serious it is to be behind the wheel of a car.”); and complete 25 hours worth of community service. “If he does everything, dad,” she says, “I will handle this appropriately so he doesn’t have a record.”

But overall, you’re not going to talk your way out of trouble.

Drivers from Southwest Florida appear in traffic court.

One young man, charged with illegally racing his motorcycle, asked for community service. The judge looked at her computer screen, looked back to him and advised: “You have some things in your criminal history that make me think you would be better served with an attorney.” Batt passed him a card. The interpreter translated.

My favorite attempt had come a few days earlier in a civil traffic court where drivers appear for speeding tickets, seatbelt violations and similar citations. One man, Dominic Duval, tried to plead “not guilty” to speeding. Two Florida Highway Patrol troopers took the stand. One explained how he’d nabbed the guy as part of an aerial sting, detailing step by step how the process had unfolded—down to the type of specialized stopwatch used to calculate his speed, the date of the watch’s last inspection, the weather conditions and visibility of that day, the altitude of the helicopter, the man’s speed at the time he’d been spotted (about 90 on I-75).

“Mr. Duval?” the hearing examiner said.

He paused.

“I don’t know what to say,” he finally blurted.

Even the straight-faced hearing examiner cracked a smile. He was charged a fine and ordered to take a four-hour driving course.

Do you know what percentage of civil traffic cases in Lee and Collier counties are ruled “not guilty” or dropped?

Zero. 

 

Traffic court is pretty indicative of our driving habits, but it’s still a one-day snapshot. I wanted the big picture. So, I delved into the numbers.

Mary Anderson (left), an assistant state attorney, and Veronica C. Batt, an assistant public defender, present information.

Are you ready for this? Here are the driving citations for 2014:

  •  Lee County noncriminal traffic violations: 62,884
  •  Collier County noncriminal traffic violations: 23,059
  • Lee County criminal traffic violations: 11,408
  • Collier County criminal traffic violations: 4,964
  • The grand total: 102,315

The biggest criminal offenses in both counties were driving under the influence (3,479 cases) and offenses involving registrations and licenses (like not having one). As far as noncriminal offenses—Southwest Floridians love to speed and have an issue with red lights and yielding to the car that has the right of way.

“If you are looking for a one-word definition of our drivers: distracted.” I catch Sgt. Daniel Leffin, who heads the Lee County Sheriff’s motorcycle unit, by phone on the day before Thanksgiving. He confirmed just about everything I’ve thought about our driving habits.

“They are not focused on their driving; they are in a hurry to get to the next traffic light; they are tailgating, changing lanes, and all they do is get to the next traffic light,” he says. “It’s amazing to us.”

His unit alone will issue some 250 to 300 tickets in a week—and that’s just for the violations that could cause harm, like speeding, red light running and careless driving. He leaves issues of expired tags and the like to other patrol units. And, he notes, his unit generally goes after the people who are really speeding—15 miles per hour over the limit and beyond. If the deputies were to crack down, we’d all be paying fines.

Leffin finds that his unit has more of an impact working as group—there’s just something attention-grabbing about seeing one, two, three cars pulled over and knowing you’re likely next. The deputies will jointly target the spots where drivers are notoriously naughty. One such place: the intersection of College Parkway and U.S. 41 in Fort Myers. A two-hour stoplight sting will yield some 25 to 40 violators—and that’s monitoring only the drivers turning northbound on to U.S. 41, and not the ones turning from 41 onto College (the left-hand turn I personally rank as one of the worst in Lee County).

Or sometimes, the unit will swoop down upon drivers to remind them of basic safety, not to mention the law. They’ll do seatbelt checks at places such as the intersection of Daniels Parkway and U.S. 41. Three hours will yield as many as 85 violations. “And that’s just from one direction,” Leffin says. Consistent patrols do nudge driving habits—the last sting in the same spot saw 38 tickets. But leave an area alone for too long, and the violations shoot right back up, he says. The old, bad habits prevail.

 

I wanted to ride with someone who really knows these roads, so I reconnected with Jay Anderson, the founder of Stay Alive … Just Drive, a nonprofit advocacy group working to combat distracted driving. I’d met Anderson back when he started the organization a decade ago; in the years since, he’s gone on to work at a state, national and international level.

Stay Alive … Just Drive founder Jay Anderson

Here’s his basic assessment of Southwest Florida’s driving attitude: “We look at traffic laws as traffic suggestions,” he says, from the front seat of his Ford pickup. “‘No U-turn’ does not pertain to you.”

As if on cue, a commercial vehicle blew the traffic light at Daniels Parkway.

Everyone wants to blame the roads, Anderson says, but the roads aren’t the problem. He took me to Treeline Avenue, a relatively new road with an unusual number of curves. They were engineered that way to slow people down—not that they do (Leffin busts people going as fast as 70 mph), but that’s not the road’s fault.

Anderson pointed out a stretch of Colonial by the I-75 interchange where the driveway into the Walmart Supercenter had been altered and new signage posted to cut back on drivers charging into traffic and confusing the highway on-ramp with an access road. And he told me about how engineers manipulate lights to keep traffic flowing, elongate the yellow warning signals and bring traffic from all directions to a halt before flipping one direction to green—an attempt to clear the intersection and avoid potentially fatal T-bone crashes, like the one that killed two young women and critically injured a young man at the intersection of Veronica Shoemaker Boulevard and Michigan Avenue in September. The driver, who was one of the victims, ran a red light and hit a truck. She’d been going double the posted limit.

“The fact remains, it’s us,” Anderson says.

The distractions are getting worse, he continues. Cell phones have been problematic for years. Now dashboard screens, GPS devices of questionable accuracy and other new technologies compound the situation.
“It’s the people who know better, the ones who should be setting an example—it’s grandma and grandpa,” he says. “I have literally thousands of photographs of people on their devices.” A new report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration blames smartphones for the 8.1 percent increase in U.S. traffic deaths in the first half of 2015.

“What people don’t realize is everything you do behind the wheel impacts everyone else,” Anderson says.

 

Mention Southwest Florida driving, and you’ll get eye rolls and war stories about the day’s commute. But the state of our roads is a matter for serious consideration. As of mid-November 2015, 39 people in Collier County and 84 in Lee had died in traffic fatalities. Lee County had already surpassed 2014’s 81-person fatality count; Collier, which saw 39 deaths in all of 2014, will likely do the same.

Lt. Mike Dolan of the Collier County Sheriff’s Safety Traffic Enforcement Bureau says his agency is analyzing crash scenes carefully to determine whether engineering improvements, education or enforcement might prevent repeat accidents. “Other jurisdictions in Florida are seeing a similar trend,” Dolan says in an email. “We are participating in a statewide research project to determine why the entire state is trending upward. The state is positing this is due solely to traffic volume. Our analyst is looking deeper into the data to determine if there may be other factors as well.”

Speaking of Collier, 35 percent of all crashes happen right smack in the areas of North Naples that I most frequently drive: Airport-Pulling Road, Livingston Road, Immokalee Road, Vanderbilt Beach Road, U.S. 41 North and Pine Ridge Road—oh, Pine Ridge Road, the equivalent, I swear, of a grown-up bumper car course. With terrible consequences.

Many of our driving problems have persisted for years—the speeding, light running, tailgating, electronic distractions. But we have some troubling new trends emerging, too.

Driving under the influence is up—and not just because of alcohol use, says Dr. Nelayda Fonte, a surgeon at Lee Memorial Health System’s regional trauma center, which treats patients from throughout Southwest Florida. She and her colleagues are seeing a jump in the number of traffic-related traumas linked to marijuana and prescription drug use.

“Whether it’s the cell phone or your mind wandering somewhere else, things happen so quickly that that little distraction could make a difference between you stopping in time.” — Lt. Greg Bueno

In 2013, 7 percent of motor vehicle-related trauma cases involved pot; in 2014, the figure jumped to 12 percent. For drugs other than marijuana (including prescription medication), the incidence grew from 17 percent to 24 percent between 2013 and 2014.

“That’s a significant jump,” Fonte said during a press conference in December, part of an awareness campaign to curtail the number of accidents linked to driving while drinking, distracted, drowsy or using drugs. The problem is people don’t realize how their prescriptions affect them, or how the combination of a medication plus alcohol could impair their driving.

Don’t call them “accidents,” Fonte continued. Some 98 percent of crashes are preventable.

That’s what gets Lt. Greg Bueno of the Florida Highway Patrol. Automobile manufacturers are continually improving safety, but the best-made vehicle won’t prevent you from being thrown through the windshield if you fail to wear your seatbelt, he says. He sees preventable deaths all too often.

“Whether it’s the cell phone or your mind wandering somewhere else … things happen so quickly that that little distraction could make a difference between you stopping in time,” Bueno says. “It’s coupled by speed, aggressiveness out there, tailgating—all of that plays tremendously into crashes.”

 

Do I commit these driving sins? Yeah, I’ll fess up. I’m from New England, remember? We are born in a hurry. I would characterize my driving as more assertive than aggressive. Still, I know I’ve flashed the seniors and tourists “Sunday driving” down McGregor Boulevard more than once. I’ve finished my makeup, brushed my hair and untangled my necklaces while driving southbound on U.S. 41. (Only at red lights, I promise!) My newsroom-cultivated potty mouth comes up with all sorts of curses to hurl at other drivers. And the phone thing… the 50- to 60-minute ride home is when I catch up on calls to out-of-state family and friends; the protracted red lights when I check for texts. Even in silent mode, the phone tempts like a siren’s song. “Look at me!”

But here’s the thing about my job—it forces me to stop and think about various issues. Writing this piece makes me want to put the phone in the backseat, pry myself out of bed just a few minutes earlier and learn the fine art of meditation to keep my temper at bay. If nothing else, perhaps renewed personal caution might give me a better shot at surviving the rest of you.

Because you stink.

OK. Because we stink. And it’s time we do something about it.