TAMPA — The Tampa region is on track to record the lowest number of fatal traffic crashes in 35 years.
Still, pedestrian and cyclist traffic deaths remain nearly as high in 2014 as in past years, ensuring the region continues to rank near the top nationally as a place hostile to walkers and bikers.
Preliminary figures from the Florida High Patrol show 129 fatal crashes in Hillsborough County through Christmas Day — a drop of nearly 25 percent over 2012. Pinellas and Pasco counties also saw drops in fatal crashes this year — 21 percent and 11 percent each, compared to 2012.
The last time Hillsborough County reported fatal crashes anywhere near 2013 number Jimmy Carter was president and the county had about half its current population of 1.2 million. Back then, Hillsborough recorded 116 fatal crashes, according to records from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which catalogs traffic fatalities back to 1975.
Florida Highway Patrol Lt. Jeff Frost cautioned that the 2013 crash figures could change. They won’t be officially finalized until next spring to allow all counties and cities in the state to report their crashes.
Federal figures, based on state reports, show fatalities across the region’s three counties combined have been on the decline since hitting a historic peak of 374 in 2006.
In the past few years, they’ve hovered around 300, which traffic experts have attributed at least partly to the weak economy taking commuters off the roads.
Crashes jumped about 10 percent in 2012, a year when unemployment declined steadily.
So what caused the sharp drop between last year and this year?
That’s not entirely clear.
“Numbers are going to fluctuate,” said Sgt. Steve Gaskins, spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol’s Tampa office. “You can’t predict when a fatal crash is going to happen.”
But there are could be several factors bringing the numbers down, he said.
“The enforcement side of it is there,” Gaskins said. “I’d like to think the educational component is out there as well.”
Improvements in road design -- smoothing out the humps in the new stretch of Interstate 275 through Tampa, for example -- also help reduce crashes, he said.
Gaskins said the highway patrol has been putting more troopers on the state’s roads and pushing safe-driving messages on motorists more than in past years. Safer cars equipped with airbags continue to help bring down the number of drivers and passengers who die in crashes, he said.
The same can’t be said for pedestrians and bicyclists hit by cars.
The highway patrol has no preliminary figures for deaths among pedestrians and bicyclists in 2013, but 2012 figures showed crashes killed 107 pedestrians and 28 cyclists then across the three-county region.
Pedestrian and bicyclist deaths remain stubbornly high across the region and the state. They’ve become a focus of the Florida Department of Transportation, which hopes to bring them down by reminding drivers to watch out for non-drivers and by urging walkers and bikers to obey the rules of the road, said DOT spokeswoman Karen Smith.
Gaskins put it more bluntly: “Frankly, most of the pedestrian crashes are the pedestrian’s fault,” he said. “They have a duty to comply with the law.”
That’s especially true at night, when it’s harder to judge the speed of an oncoming car, he said.
Federal figures show nearly a third of all fatal crashes in the Tampa region happen between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m.
Jaywalking, wearing headphones or texting on a mobile phone all put walkers and bikers at risk of dying in crashes, he said.
“They’re in their own little world,” he said.