Gainesville was not alone in experiencing hit-and-run fatalities in 2020.
The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles launched an awareness campaign on Monday aimed at reducing the number of incidents in 2021 and beyond. There were 254 in 2020, an increase of over 18% from the past year. Department data revealed pedestrians and bicyclists to be at the highest risk, making up nearly 64% of these fatalities. The department found 85% of the incidents happened during low-visibility hours such as nighttime, dawn or dusk.
The department’s top goal is to get drivers to stay at the scene when a collision occurs.
“When you flee the scene of a crash, you’re not only breaking the law, you could be leaving someone who needs immediate medical attention,” the agency’s Executive Director Terry L. Rhodes said.
Florida law states that a driver must immediately stop at the scene of any crash that results in property damage, injury or death. If no significant injury or property damage is sustained, the drivers involved must gather names, driver’s license, insurance and tag information then file a report online. Drivers convicted of leaving the scene of an accident will be charged with a felony and have their licenses revoked for at least three years. Additionally, offenders can face a minimum sentence of four years in prison.
“Leaving the scene of a traffic crash is a serious offense,” Florida Highway Patrol Director Colonel Gene S. Spaulding said. “It’s your duty as a driver involved in a crash to remain at the scene and provide assistance to other motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians or other parties who have been injured or received property damage.”
Gainesville has recently seen the impact of pedestrian fatalities when two University of Florida freshmen died from traffic homicides within the past two months. Maggie Paxton and Sophia Lambert were both 18-year-old students killed in crashes along West University Avenue. Paxton’s death was a hit-and-run homicide on Dec. 9. Gainesville police announced on Friday the vehicle involved in the homicide had been identified through license plate recognition.
Paxton’s case remains an ongoing investigation and the GPD Traffic Safety Unit encourages anyone with additional information to contact them at 352-393-7744 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Following these tragedies, community demands for increased pedestrian safety efforts have focused on making traffic safety improvements to West University Avenue, the large road bordering the University of Florida. Evidencing these demands, petitions have emerged calling for increased traffic safety for UF students and speed bumps on University Avenue, with both forms receiving over 15,000 signatures as of Monday.
Addressing the issue of traffic safety, Gainesville law enforcement officers previously cited efforts to increase enforcement of traffic violations. Local law enforcement officials demonstrated a pedestrian safety enforcement detail Friday to raise awareness of pedestrian safety laws, such as the rule that motorists must yield to pedestrians in the street.
West University Avenue, however, is a state road, so the city has limited power to instill long-term changes, such as installing speed bumps or lowering speed limits. City police officials and Mayor Lauren Poe have called for collaboration from state leaders and the Florida Department of Transportation in bringing reforms to make Gainesville’s streets safer.
The Stay at the Scene campaign is one of the first steps taken at the state level following these and over 200 other incidents statewide. The Florida Department of Transportation also announced Thursday that new signage would be installed near University Avenue to remind motorists to stop for pedestrians.
The state is also asking the public to submit information relating to open hit-and-run cases, a list of which can be found on the department’s website.