The rate of fatal car crashes in the Tampa metropolitan area is among the highest in the country, but the numbers statewide are higher still, a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
There were 12.6 deaths per 100,000 people in Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater during 2009, according to the CDC findings released this week. The national rate is 11.1 deaths per 100,000, and Florida's rate is 13.1 deaths per 100,000.
Factors such as population and large, crowded roads contribute to Tampa's high rate, state and local officials said, but drivers bear most of the blame.
"The vast majority of traffic crashes are the result of driver error, carelessness, inattention or illegal behavior such as DUI and aggressive driving," Florida Highway Patrol Sgt. Steve Gaskins said.
Also contributing to the local crashes, Gaskins said, are high the number of major highways converging in Tampa, including Interstate 4, Interstate 275, Interstate 75 and U.S. 301.
"Seventeen million people visit Tampa annually," Gaskins said. "Due to population and traffic density throughout the Tampa area, crash rates are equal to or higher than other areas of the state."
The Jacksonville metropolitan area has the highest fatal car crash rate in the state with 13.3 deaths per 100,000 residents, according to the CDC report. The Orlando-Kissimmee area's rate is 11.3 and the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale-Pompano Beach area is 11.1.
By comparison, the Birmingham-Hoover metropolitan area in Alabama has the highest rate in the country at 15.3, which dwarfs the Los Angeles area at 6.6 and the New York area at 5.1, according to the CDC.
"If you look at the data, it's not just a Tampa problem," said Pei-Sung Lin, a professor of transportation engineering at the University of South Florida. "Generally, the major Florida cities rank on the high side. We're a tourist state."
People visiting Florida's theme parks and beaches, combined with a large population of retirees and snowbirds, add to the state's traffic density and contributes to the high fatal crash rate, said Lin, a program director at USF's Center for Urban Transportation Research.
Crashes in Tampa frequently occur on or near interstate ramps, said Beth Alden of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization. Drivers running red lights have also contributed to the high death rate, she said.
The CDC report compares vehicle crash death rates in the 50 most populous metropolitan areas using statistics compiled in 2009 by the U.S. Census Bureau and other federal agencies.
The study looks at two groups – fatal car crashes involving people of all ages and fatal crashes involving people 15 to 24, where motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death, the CDC report said.
The rate in Tampa for the 15-to-24 demographic is 19.5 deaths per 100,000 residents, the CDC found. Orlando's rate is 17.6, Miami's is 18.0 and Jacksonville's is 25.4.
The CDC report did not include crashes involving bicycles or pedestrians, but those types of crashes also are frequent in the Tampa area, Alden noted.
All told, there were 153 fatal crashes in Hillsborough County in 2010, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Of that number, 25 involved motorcycles, 42 involved pedestrians and 12 involved bicyclists.
Lin, the USF engineering professor, said getting the word out to drivers and pedestrians would help reduce Tampa's fatal crash rate.
"The next step is education," he said. "A lot of crashes are related to people, not roads. Our roadways are up to standards. We have to promote seatbelt usage and stop drug- and alcohol-related driving."
Gaskins, the state trooper, said his agency focuses on driver education. He said he has hosted 210 safety demonstrations for about 13,000 people throughout the Tampa metropolitan area this year.
In addition, state troopers frequently conduct enforcement patrols that target aggressive or drunk drivers, he said.
"It's all to remind motorists to drive safely," Gaskins said.