Pedestrian Deaths and Homelessness

Distracted drivers, not panhandling, harms the most consistent pedestrian in Palm Beach County — the unhoused.

By Mary Stewart

It was, like any other day, a sunny afternoon. I wasn’t panhandling at the moment, nor was I crossing a busy intersection — I was simply walking down Congress Avenue to check on a friend at the nearby motel.

I approached a side street and noticed a vehicle about to make a right hand turn. The driver and I locked eyes before I proceeded to cross the street. I then found myself on the hood of his car clinging for dear life, as it kept heading down Congress Avenue as though I wasn’t even there.

Fortunately, we weren’t moving fast, and I was able to roll off and onto the roadway. Nobody stopped to help. Instead, passing motorists honked their horns at me because I was in their way. Dazed and appalled, I limped onto the sidewalk. I could’ve died, but I was lucky — my only injury was a sprained knee.

Pedestrian deaths have been an issue on Florida roads for some time now, and continue to be an increasing concern.

The sunshine state is second in pedestrian deaths only to New Mexico in 2022, having held the number one spot the year before according to a report by Smart Growth America and their nonprofit program The National Complete Streets Coalition. Four of the top ten deadliest metro areas for pedestrians across the country were in Florida as well.

County by county, Palm Beach was fourth in the state for pedestrian deaths with 54 deaths — and 631 crashes — while Miami-Dade was the highest at 86 deaths and 1,785 crashes according to Florida Department of Transportation data.

Instead of properly addressing this issue, PBC saw it as an opportunity to lawfully ban panhandling under the guise of making the roads safer.

In 2015, the PBC Commissioners blamed panhandling for the uptick in pedestrian deaths and passed the county panhandling ordinance with a 5-1 vote. That ordinance was recently rescinded in response to a federal lawsuit.

Several of my homeless friends have been hit by cars — three of them have died. However, only one of them was panhandling when they were struck, while the rest were simply riding their bicycles or walking across the street.

Homeless people spend more time on the roadways than the average pedestrian, lacking the luxury of reaching our destination and returning home. Since we live outdoors, we regularly cross the street at all times of day and night, which could explain why many pedestrian fatalities involve homeless people.

As far as panhandling contributing to pedestrian deaths, I always thought that was a convenient excuse on the part of the county to ban panhandling and attack homeless people. Rather, I developed my own theory about the causes of pedestrian deaths.

I spend a lot of time on the roadways and have witnessed many drivers approach the stoplight with their cell phones in their hands. Often, they’re so distracted by their phones that they don’t notice when the light changes until the cars behind them honk.

I then found myself on the hood of his car clinging for dear life, as it kept heading down Congress Avenue as though I wasn’t even there. 

Also, whenever I’m trying to cross a busy intersection, most drivers making a right hand turn refuse to yield to me even when I have a walk sign. At the intersection near the Glades library, drivers regularly make left hand turns despite the fact that they don’t have a green arrow and I have a walk sign.

I’ve concluded that cell phones, impatience and plain old narcissism are the real reasons for pedestrian deaths. But it’s much easier to blame a panhandler than it is to blame an IPhone.

My friend Dilo has been struck by cars several times while riding his bicycle. He insists that he knows what the problem is: “They don’t look both ways. They only look one direction when they pull out. I’ve seen it many times.”

Dilo may be on to something.

I’ve noticed myself that when cars pull out of shopping plazas, the driver usually only checks in the direction of oncoming traffic and rarely bothers to see whether a pedestrian or bicyclist is coming from the other way. But some people continue to place the blame on panhandling.

Just a few months ago, the police threatened to issue me a traffic ticket if they caught me in the median again. I pointed out that the ordinance had been rescinded, but they replied that panhandling is still a safety issue.

One officer told me that a car could drive over the median and kill me. I thought that sounded ridiculous. Anyway, if that was to happen, the real issue would be reckless driving, not panhandling.

Fortunately, reality hit me before another car did. I was waiting for the bus at the corner of Lantana Rd. and Military Tr. when I heard the crash. I turned and saw three cars colliding with one another, two of which spun over the median. I hadn’t been panhandling when that accident happened, but I could’ve been.

I’ve finally acknowledged that there is indeed a safety risk involved when panhandling on the roadways. I returned to Boca Raton with the resolve to start panhandling on sidewalks and only go on the median as a last resort. But, when I made it back to Boca Rio Road, I noticed that the safety rail along the sidewalk was badly dented. Apparently, vehicles can jump sidewalks too.

I think back to my late friend J-bird, who was the one person I knew who was hit by a car while panhandling. His backpack got caught on a side view mirror and he was dragged into traffic. He survived, but in an odd twist of fate, he was hit again and killed the following year. That time he wasn’t panhandling — he was just crossing the street.

So, what can we do to make the roads safer?

First, I believe that there should be tougher laws against texting and driving. Every time someone gets a notification on their phone, they immediately check it. Then they end up scrolling through Facebook instead of watching the road. I’ve seen drivers do this all the time.

My friend Rooster was once hit while crossing the street. He’s adamant that he looked both ways before crossing. Next thing he knew, he was airborne. He has no idea where the car came from. I personally think the car had done a U-turn. When first responders arrived, the driver’s defense was that she didn’t see Rooster. That’s impossible — unless she was distracted by something like her cell phone.

Second, I think that Florida’s right-of-way law is outdated. In Florida, nobody is granted the right-of-way, however, the law does specify situations in which one party must yield. Motorists and pedestrians are expected to have courtesy for one another. It would be nice if we lived in some type of utopia where everyone was courteous, but that just isn’t the kind of world we live in.

As far as safety tips for pedestrians and panhandlers, I would give the following advice:

  • DO wear bright colors at night
  • DO cross at intersections when possible instead of jaywalking
  • DO look both ways before crossing
  • DO make eye contact with approaching drivers
  • DON’T walk through traffic
  • DON’T panhandle while wearing your backpack

And until Florida updates their right-of-way law, pedestrians may need to yield to motorists because most of them sure aren’t going to yield to you.

Unfortunately, these tips may not completely protect you. When I was hit, the driver saw me and still made the turn. However, if you are careful on the roadways and aware of your surroundings, it will likely reduce your chances of being hit.

I still don’t buy into the claim that panhandling contributes to pedestrian deaths, but I have conceded that it’s not a safe occupation. Nevertheless, times are tough right now, and it’s understandable for people to ask for a little help. Just be cautious out there on the roads — regardless of whether you’re panhandling or just walking to the corner store.

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