The beginning of every year should be a time of hope, with the possibility of changing behavior for the better. Tragically, a traffic crash only three days into this new year ended in death for five children, ages 9 to 14, on Interstate 75 in Gainesville.
My nightmare began on Feb. 23, 1996. My 14-year-old twin daughters were the victims of a crash caused by reckless and distracted driving. Five children were killed, including my daughter Dori. Her twin survived with serious injuries. This event consumed my mind and my heart. I dedicated my life to road safety.
In 2000, I was elected representative for the Florida House, and subsequently re-elected five times.
In 2004, I started the Dori Slosberg Foundation to improve road safety by working with law enforcement, legislators, and the public. In 2009, the Dori Slosberg and Katie Marchetti Safety Belt Law passed, allowing police officers to stop cars for occupants not wearing seat belts. In 2011, the Dori Slosberg Driver Education Safety Act was approved, adding $5 to traffic tickets. This has contributed more than $85 million directly for driver education programs in public and private schools across Florida.
My two decades of traffic safety advocacy have taught me that learning the cause of crashes is imperative to reducing fatalities. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigates many highway crashes, but it is unclear when or if it will investigate the Gainesville tragedy, as staff are on furlough due to the federal shutdown.
I call on the president and Congress to reopen the government so the NTSB can work together with Florida law enforcement and transportation officials to investigate the crash. The parents and family of those lost deserve to know what happened.
For drivers in Alachua County, Thursday’s wreck was not the first crash of this magnitude along this stretch of road. Many other serious crashes have taken place along Interstate 75 in the Alachua/Marion counties area:
In 2012, a horrific wreck on I-75 near the Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park killed 11 people.
In July 2017, a tractor-trailer struck an RV that had pulled off the side of I-75 near Micanopy. The bassist for a metal band based out of New York was killed.
Hours later, a semi-truck driver caused a nine-vehicle wreck after failing to stop and hitting a guardrail on I-75 near Belleview in Marion County. One person died, several more were injured.
State and local officials have worked to get answers on how to make I-75 safer. It’s such a dangerous stretch of road that Sgt. Art Forgey with the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office advises avoiding it.
“It’s bad enough that I tell my friends and loved ones not to get on the interstate,” Forgey said.
At one point, the idea of building a new road between Alachua and Marion counties was discussed but never materialized. The purpose would have been to offset I-75 traffic.
A task force was also created to study documented problems on I-75. Ultimately, that task force made a series of recommendations, including implementing truck-only lanes, expanding freight rail alternatives and enhancing intercity bus service.
But, as the News4Jax I-TEAM has learned, it doesn’t appear as though anyone ever acted on those recommendations. Matt Surrency, mayor of Hawthorne and one of the task force’s members, said he hasn’t seen any of the changes yet.
According to the Florida Department of Transportation, local governments have shut down most of the ideas, or at least put them off. That’s a source of frustration to Surrency, whose committee offered some viable guidance.
“I think that you get frustrated after awhile, especially with the pace government works at sometimes,” he said.
Because the cause of Thursday’s crash remains under active investigation, Surrency was reluctant to point fingers. Instead of trying to find someone to blame, he said, now is the time to band together and take action.
“It’s something we can do this year,” Surrency said.
The number of crashes in Alachua County has increased overall, according to data from the Florida Highway Patrol. In 2017, there were 55 fatal vehicle crashes — an increase from both 2015 and 2016.
For now, the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office is looking at increasing patrols along that stretch of highway. Currently, state troopers and deputies work the road together, but the sheriff wants more resources to deter dangerous driving.
Copyright 2019 by WJXT News4Jax – All rights reserved.
Florida is in a relentless competition to attract and retain high-end businesses and the talent that supports them.
Our quiver includes some common fiscal arrows — low taxes, less regulation and, in some cases, loads of taxpayer-funded incentives.
Of course, luring and nourishing businesses is not all about finances. Quality of life matters. That can mean good schools, easy weather, robust transit or a vibrant arts and entertainment community.
It also means outdoor places to play. Places to canoe or spot an alligator. Places that keep our water clean. Places to bag a deer or catch a trout. Places that you may never visit but are glad won’t be covered in concrete.
In 2014, Florida voters overwhelmingly passed an amendment to use a slice of existing real estate taxes to preserve environmentally sensitive land and water resources. Few likely voted for it as a way to keep us globally competitive. Even so, it could help do just that.
A decade from now, another 5 million people could be living here, according to some forecasts. That’s more than the entire state of Alabama. By 2030, the population could exceed 26 million, more than everyone who currently lives in Australia.
Some of your new neighbors will happily live in the condo towers going up in our downtowns. But many will want a single family home on their own quarter acre of paradise.
Just look at Hillsborough County, east of Sun City Center. Twenty years ago, it was mostly small towns, farms and wilderness. Now development creeps up State Road 674 and Balm Road. Further north, home builders have broken ground east of the upscale FishHawk Ranch community, which basically didn’t exist 20 years ago. How soon before it’s all at the doorstep of Alafia River State Park?
Developers will happily oblige our dreams, buying more farmland or pushing further into Florida’s limited wilderness. Who can blame them. It’s what they do. Beside, they can only do it because our elected officials let them.
That’s why 75 percent — 75 percent! — of voters wanted the state to use $300 million a year to buy up land. Unlike so many of our legislators, they understood that we need government to lead on this. The private sector is better at a lot of things, but the voters don’t trust it to protect the land that needs protecting.
So far, however, the state Legislature has thwarted the voters’ will. In four years, it has used the pot of money to buy nearly no new parcels. In fact, it has used tax dollars to pay for lawyers to fight off lawsuits from groups that want the state to preserve more land. Is your head spinning yet?
It’s a showcase in short-sightedness. In 30 years, it won’t be easy for the future governor or members of the Legislature to lure or cultivate the next Apple or Microsoft if the state’s wilderness is covered in six-lane roads, parking lots and tract housing.
Many of the high-skilled jobs of the future — the ones that every state covets — will just as easily be done from Denver as Tampa, Salt Lake City as St. Petersburg. If we can’t offer an appealing lifestyle, including easy access to outdoor pursuits, we’ll lose the race for businesses and workers more often than we win.
And there aren’t many do-overs on the environment. Preserve it now or spend a lot more money recapturing it later.
This is not an argument to buy up every plot of land in sight. There has to be a balance. We have to have room for more homes and more development. But it’s myopic to think that curtailing building in some vital areas will adversely affect the economy. In the long run, it will have the opposite effect. It will make us more desirable to the companies and people who we want to attract and the ones we want to keep.
Contact Graham Brink at email@example.com. Follow @GrahamBrink.