PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. - As the first stretch of guardrails was installed along State Road 80 near Belle Glade this summer, officials gathered to remember a mother and her two daughters who drowned this year after driving into a canal near that very spot.
The long-sought guardrails are among the measures that local officials hope will help continue a steady decline in traffic deaths on Palm Beach County roads over the past five years.
There were 123 traffic fatalities in Palm Beach County in 2010, down from 151 in 2009, according to the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
Though the trend encourages local law enforcement officials, they're only cautiously optimistic, especially since traffic deaths this year are keeping pace with a year ago.
And some say the county's turnaround is threatened by worrisome factors such as distracted driving.
Donna Bryan, spokeswoman for the Safety Council of Palm Beach County, cites 2009 data from the U.S. Department of Transportation showing there were nearly 5,500 fatal crashes nationwide involving distracted drivers.
"I think we as a society need to work on this type of behavior," she said.
Compounding the problem is that Florida has no laws limiting either texting or talking on mobile phones while driving. Efforts to enact such laws failed during the past two legislative sessions, but new legislation has been filed for the 2012 session.
Laws, gas prices help
Palm Beach County's decline in traffic deaths mirrors a statewide trend of decreases in each of the past five years, according the highway safety department.
Several factors have contributed to the decline, officials said. They include recently enacted state traffic laws, the economy and gas prices.
"Our law enforcement initiatives such as Click It or Ticket (have been important)," Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Tim Frith said. "There's been a huge emphasis on that with the primary seat belt law taking place.
"And our community is fortunate to have so many advocates of traffic safety," he added. "It's a year-round accomplishment, and the numbers going down, I think, speak for themselves."
Sgt. John Churchill, a traffic homicide investigator for the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, said the sluggish economy and high gas prices have more drivers opting to make fewer trips or use public transportation.
"Some of the traffic counts are showing they're driving a bit less," he said, adding that fewer drivers on the roads translates to fewer deaths.
Though Churchill and others are hopeful that deaths will continue to decline this year, there were 94 traffic fatalities countywide as of Oct. 4, compared with 90 at the same point in 2010.
Cars already hitting rails
A key initiative in halting any backward slide for Palm Beach County, Frith said, is installing guardrails along a stretch of State Road 80 - long one of the deadliest stretches of highway in South Florida.
The work began this summer near Belle Glade in response to at least 12 drownings since 2004 between Belle Glade and the 20-Mile Bend area. State transportation officials have said they hope to have the project completed by January.
Frith said cars have damaged some of the completed guardrails.
"Hopefully that prevented someone from going into the canal," he said. "That was a hot-button topic that was addressed both by local and state leaders. I think that's a real reason where we may see a significant decrease there."
Another reason, Frith suggested, is that local law enforcement agencies have aggressively targeted drunken drivers. There were 31 alcohol-related traffic deaths in Palm Beach County in 2010, compared with 62 in 2009, according to state data.
"The saturation patrols are the most effective," Frith said.
DUI units are concentrating on areas that have had many traffic crashes, he said, such as stretches of Military Trail, Forest Hill Boulevard and Okeechobee Boulevard.
The Safety Council of Palm Beach County, meanwhile, credits law enforcement as well as local organizations' driver programs with helping to save lives on roads.
"It really takes a combination of educational efforts along with enforcement to make a change in behaviors," Bryan said.
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