Deadly by Design? Why so many people are hit by cars in Lee County

Published: March 2, 2021 6:00 PM EST
Updated: March 2, 2021 6:43 PM EST

More people died walking down the street last year in Lee County than riding motorcycles. Among the 22 pedestrian lives lost: a 15-year-old who loved the outdoors and aspired to be a mechanic.

Shane MacDonald died in early December while hanging out with some friends near an empty lot behind his Lehigh Acres home.

There are no sidewalks, limited streetlights, and no stop signs on the stretch of roadway where a car hit him.

“Right away somebody should have been out here let’s see about putting more lights up let’s see about doing something making it safer for these children to walk down,” said Marcella Grimm, MacDonald’s grandmother.

Grimm partially blames the infrastructure issues for her grandson’s premature death, but she’s also very angry with the driver who left the scene of the crash. Adrian Zurita, a teenage driver who was coming home from work, now faces criminal charges for hitting MacDonald and his friend for not stopping to call 9-1-1.

MacDonald’s friend survived the crash. Zurita pleaded not guilty He is awaiting trial.

Most drivers in these crashes do not face criminal charges as long as they do not leave the scene because the pedestrian is oftentimes at fault. A WINK News analysis of state crash records for the first three quarters of 2020 showed that the driver was only at fault twice out of 16 fatal accidents.

“Perhaps the pedestrian was in a dark area and darted out into traffic, and that’s unfortunate and we do not want that to happen,” said Lt. Greg Bueno with the Florida Highway Patrol.

FHP does pedestrian and cyclist education in the most common areas for these types of crashes where they discuss the safest ways to cross intersections and hand out bike and backpack lights.

WINK News mapped crash data for 2020 and found hotspots for pedestrian and bicycle crashes along US-41 and Palm Beach Boulevard in Fort Myers and Pine Island Road and Del Prado Boulevard in Cape Coral.

View Lee County 2020 Ped/Bike Crashes in a full-screen map

However, the map shows dozens of pedestrians and cyclists hit within neighborhoods like where MacDonald died. In fact, out of 308 total crashes in the period that WINK News analyzed 143 happened on a local road.

“I think it’s important to remember that these tragedies can happen anywhere,” said Bueno.

But Southwest Florida ranks amongst the most dangerous places in the country for pedestrians and cyclists according to a 2019 report by Smart Growth America, a Washington DC-based transportation advocacy group. The report, “Dangerous by Design“, placed the Cape Coral-Fort Myers metropolitan area as the 8th most dangerous place for walking and cycling.

“Usually out of everybody that are killed on our roads in a year it should be no more than 12 or 15 of them that are non-motorists. But here we’re at 25 to 30 every year. Every year this has been going on for decades,” said Dan Moser a longtime advocate with Bike Walk Lee.

Moser said that it has actually improved since he first started advocating for bicycle and pedestrian safety. He pointed to the Lee County Metropolitan Planning Organization’s complete streets initiative as a success story.

But according to Don Scott, the executive director for the Lee County MPO, too many areas of Southwest Florida were not originally developed with necessary infrastructure, such as sidewalks and bike lanes.

“It’s unfortunate the facilities weren’t built to begin with. Retrofitting after the fact is extremely expensive,” said Scott.

He provided a recent study that estimated it would cost more than $1 billion to add sidewalks to neighborhoods in Cape Coral.

Federal funding is available to use on local roads, but according to Moser, there has to be political-will to dedicate money to those projects.

“It’s mostly now the elected officials that have to change priorities more than anyone else because the engineers and the planners are well aware of what needs to be done,” said Moser.