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Assessing and mapping dangerous intersections, traffic fatalities in your community

A still image from the Orlando Sentinel's Blood in the Streets animated video.

By Scott Powers and Arelis Hernandez, the Orlando Sentinel

This past winter, after an Orlando Sentinel editor almost ran down a pedestrian for the umpteenth time – a moment which occurred about the same time that our breaking-news desk had to write its umpteenth story about a pedestrian who was, in fact, tragically run down – the realization finally sank in: Pedestrians and drivers are a really bad mix in Central Florida.

We had, of course, seen and written about numerous reports that came out over the years declaring Orlando as the deadliest metropolitan area in the country for pedestrians. But, frankly, such stories never got much more traction than stories about other studies that rank the fattest cities, or the most sinful, or the most pet-friendly.

This time, we thought it was pretty serious, though. Sentinel editors decided to give full attention to the pedestrian problem, seeking to define it with numbers and faces. We – Arelis Hernandez is a breaking news reporter and Scott Powers a data/projects reporter – were teamed to determine if greater Orlando really is one big pedestrian killing zone, why, why it matters, and whether anything is being done about it.

Behind The Story
Addressing transportation safety has been a data project in several newsrooms recently, relying on crash data to classify and map the most dangerous intersections in their communities. Here’s a look at a few other projects and their methodology:

The Montreal Gazette: Intersecting dangers

The Gazette analyzed six years of accident data from police reports to determine the most dangerous intersections and segments to those on foot, bikes, and four wheels.

The News Journal: Dangerous intersections

A News Journal analysis found 185 intersections in the state averaged more than 15 car crashes per year between 2010 and 2012. Read the methodology

A New York-based project that reports more than 220,000 pedestrians and bicyclists have been injured and over 2,000 have died in the years of crash data displayed on CrashStat. 

We turned first to data, obtaining five years of crash report data for the years 2007-2011 from the Florida Department of Highway Safety & Motor Vehicles. The 2012 data became available before the series published so we updated all data for six-year totals. The easy-to-obtain findings were stark: more than 850 pedestrians are struck in the greater Orlando area every year. Between 40 and 70 die. Another 150 are seriously injured.

These data and the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System data both are reported from the individual uniform traffic crash reports, which cops fill out at almost every car crash in the country, and give almost every quantifiable detail on those reports. The FARS databases have the advantages of being cleaner, broader and deeper, allowing state-to-state analysis and going into far more detail. But the state data have the advantages of being fresher, easier to link to local law enforcement agencies’ paper files and -- most importantly, at least in Florida -- providing names, addresses, dates of birth and all sorts of other identifying information about drivers and pedestrians.

Primarily using Access and Excel, we combed the data for two purposes: to find the geographic, demographic and chronologic patterns, and then to identify specific cases and individuals that best represented (or fell outside) the patterns.

As a breaking news reporter, Hernandez had written dozens of briefs and covered some of the most tragic stories in our region. Relying on memory of those crashes and cross-referencing them with the data, we were able to pinpoint people we thought would make great stories. We also identified those crashes that occurred in some of the deadliest intersections.

We extracted crash report numbers from the data and requested the crash reports from the Florida Highway Patrol, and in some cases full traffic homicide investigation reports. We spent hours going through the reports to read the investigators’ narratives, to find details of each case and to find more names, addresses and phone numbers of people involved. We made a list of all the potential sources and, one by one, Hernandez called drivers, survivors of non-fatal crashes and family members of pedestrians who died, to learn more about the crashes that had changed their lives.

It took some convincing, but the drivers were amazingly open to talking about their experience killing someone on the roadways. They told incredible stories of grief, of pain and of renewal. The families told of un-healing grief brought on by such unexpected deaths. The surviving pedestrians spoke of a yearning to get things changed. We were able to capture a few of them on video and had them retrace their steps and actions from the day of the crash.

We -- Powers, Hernandez and photographer George Skene -- then walked most of the 20 deadliest pedestrian intersections in Central Florida, assessing the lay of the land and pedestrian and driver behaviors, and conducting literal man-on-the-street interviews all over town.

Powers turned his attention to case files that wound up in court in the four counties making up the metro-Orlando market. We sought more details on the crashes, especially those relevant to prosecutions and defenses; tracking the dispositions; and looking for more contact information – attorneys and, in some case, home addresses and phone numbers of pedestrians and drivers.

That led to another round of interviews with drivers, victims, cops and lawyers. And then came another round, with experts and public officials.

We had only one public records skirmish, which we won. After golfer Tiger Woods ran his Cadillac Escalade into a tree over Thanksgiving weekend in 2009, the Florida Highway Patrol was inundated with crash scene investigation photo requests and set a new policy making such photos prohibitively expensive, even to examine. We convinced the patrol to rescind that policy, giving us the chance to cull through hundreds of pedestrian crash scene photos to help illustrate some of our stories.

We started in January and finished the first drafts by the end of May. We published our project, “Blood In the Streets,” with four mainbars, seven sidebars, three videos, an interactive map and numerous graphics, over a two-week period in July.

We reached a number of concrete conclusions and likely findings. Some were no surprise: a lot of pedestrians get struck and killed in Central Florida. Most of the crashes occur on our biggest, fastest roads, and more predominantly in poorer sections of town. Pedestrians usually are at fault, darting into traffic or tragically judging their chances to cross. The most common factor to fatal crashes was high speed traffic.

A few were revelations: Despite Orlando’s role as a tourist town, almost none of the crashes involved tourist drivers or pedestrians. Crashes mostly happened in parts of town tourists rarely visit. The demographic makeup of pedestrians skewed toward white, middle-age men, rather than minorities, youngsters or retirees. When drivers were at fault they rarely received much more punishment than a traffic ticket, even if the pedestrians died. Even drivers who were drunk or who committed hit-and-runs rarely were sentenced to more than a few days in jail, even in fatal cases.

But our most profound findings came from the personal stories we got from the drivers, surviving pedestrians and grieving families. Pedestrian crashes occur with split-second suddenness, yet the impact is overwhelming, if not fatal then life-changing. It’s no wonder there is a disturbing, old American adage, referring to the potential of unexpected tragedy, that goes, “Yeah, but I could get hit by a car tomorrow.” It happens all the time, at least in Orlando.

The project drew immediate responses from Florida’s Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad and Central Florida legislators calling for more attention to pedestrian problems and investigation of the root causes. A federal official behind the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s new pedestrian safety initiative declared Blood In the Streets an “effective and sobering” tool in convincing people that pedestrian safety is a critical problem.

And then there was a singular response from one of the drivers whom Hernandez had convinced to share his story of anguish and depression after he had killed a pedestrian.

“Thank you for sharing my side of the story. You did a great job and I feel like this chapter in my life has closed. I'm glad I shared a personal story with you,” Edward Coffie wrote. “To see it in writing really made me emotional. I feel like this burden on my shoulders has subsided thanks to you.”

Scott Powers is a data/projects reporter and Arelis Hernandez is a breaking news reporter for the Orlando Sentinel.
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