Thursday, February 3, 2011

Hey Nineteen: My Rant About A Strange And Dangerous Highway

U.S.19 is an historic highway, which runs north and south, between Pennsylvania and Florida.  It is but one of the many old U.S. routes that carried automobile and truck traffic across state lines prior to the creation of the interstate highway system.  In Florida, the highway runs along the state’s western edge, and was once a main corridor for tourists heading into the “Sunshine State.”  Especially in the northern portions of the state, the highway is littered with abandoned motels, and the remnants of small and relatively unsophisticated tourist attractions which both time and traffic have long since passed by.  But if you’re coming down the highway from the north, and you’re the type of person who gets weepy when thinking about the “good old days” of the past, you better quickly wipe away those tears and get your head into the proper frame of mind before hitting the Pasco County line.

Highway 19, as it runs through Pasco and Pinellas Counties in Florida, can only be described as one wild, often bizarre, and dangerous ride.  Some locals refuse to even drive on this stretch of road.  Of those who do, they do so with caution.  Their caution is not unfounded, as this portion of highway 19 has been described as one of “the most dangerous roads in America.”   The extremely high death toll over the years is simply not acceptable, but, it is understandable.  The road, and the things that go on along its edges, can only be described as a circus.  Unfortunately, this “circus” not only delivers occasional humor, but also minor annoyances and frustration, and, all too often, injury and death.

Part of the problem with the highway is that from the Hernando/Pasco County line, on south through Pinellas County, both sides of the highway are nearly one continuous strip mall.  Every kind of business you can imagine is present.  Malls, hotels, RV parks, pharmacies, gas stations, restaurants, bars, tire dealers, used car lots, delicatessens and dollar stores, all compete with massage parlors, tattoo and body piercing studios, pawn shops, adult book stores, and supermarket size liquor warehouses.  And, there is an abundance of sign shops.  Quite frankly, the last thing Highway 19 needs are more sign shops producing even more signs which already distract too many drivers.

Vehicular traffic along the six lanes of the divided highway, is constantly slowing, stopping, and pulling in and out of the various businesses along the side of the road.   Hundreds of cross streets intersect with Highway 19, some with stop lights, and some without.  Right turn lanes veer off suddenly to the right, and U-turn lanes on the left appear without warning.  Sometimes the right turn lanes are strictly turn lanes, but sometimes they also allow traffic to go straight on through, inevitably resulting in a lot of rear end collisions.  If you think what I’ve just described is the major problem, it’s not.  The road and the environment around it are but a stage for the real problem.  People are the problem of course, but it’s not just the licensed drivers.  But, let’s start with them anyway.

It’s easy for the locals to blame the “snowbirds” for all the bad things which happen on Florida roads, and U.S. 19 is no exception.   To be fair to the locals, it is not uncommon to pull up behind a car with license plates from somewhere up north, going 20 miles per hour in the left lane.  Often the elderly driver and passenger cannot even be seen from the rear, as they are so small and frail, that they are completely hidden in their seats.  This causes many local drivers to honk loudly, as they swerve into the lane to the right, in an attempt to pass them.  And, as you might expect with these precipitous lane changes on a busy highway, accidents do frequently occur.

But most of the haphazard and dangerous lane changing I’ve witnessed has nothing to do with drivers attempting to negotiate around slow moving tourist vehicles.  Impatient Florida drivers, both young and old, are the real culprits.  Many local drivers on the highway consider the distance between one stop light, and the next stop light, a drag strip.  And, racing to the next light, while darting in and out of different lanes, really makes no sense.  Usually, if you are stopped at a stop light on U.S. 19, you will be stopped at the next one.  Like many places in the country, the stop light rule of “make one, make them all, miss one, miss them all” is in effect.  And, the vehicles involved in the improper lane changing and high speeds, like the owners who drive them, are diverse mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly.  BMW automobiles compete for dominance of the road with eleven foot high monster trucks and smoke belching junks.

As an aside, I don’t understand why so many of the Ford Tauras cars on this highway are missing bumpers?  I’m not sure it has anything to do with the highway itself,  but I’m just not ready to rule that out yet.  Perhaps we have our very own miniature “Bermuda Triangle” here on the west coast of Florida, which only strikes Tauras automobiles, and causes bumpers to disappear for no apparent reason.  It’s something I may want to ponder in the days ahead, but I suspect it’s just a case of bad driving.  And, there certainly is a lot of that on U.S. 19.

Before I stop commenting about the licensed drivers on U.S. 19, I have a few other things to mention.  Few things are more annoying than waiting in line at a short cycled left turn signal, and waiting for the “guy” or “gal” at the head of the line to turn once the light turns green.  Seconds seem like hours once the light changes, especially when there is no apparent movement from the front car. I can’t possibly imagine what takes some of these people so long to react once the light changes.  In some cases they’ve had 5 minutes to think about what to do once the light turns green, and they still can’t get it right.  I’m thinking about writing to the powers that be asking for a new law to be enacted which will only pertain to left turn signals on U.S. Highway 19 in the counties of Pasco and Pinellas in Florida.

My proposed law would require the removal of all existing green turn signals.  They would be replaced with what I believe is a much better system.   During the period the front vehicle is stopped waiting for the light to change, a camera would photograph the license plate, and immediately the car’s owner would be identified.  At the very second of the light change, blinking strobe lights would light up the intersection, followed with a quick blast of an ear-splitting siren.  Then, loudspeakers would blast an ultimatum to the owner of the front car, who had been identified by way of the license plate check a few seconds earlier.  I’ll leave it to the bureaucrats to come up with the exact language of the directive, but I’m thinking of something like, “WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR MR. JOHN H. SMITH, OF 1212 PENELOPE LANE, THOUSAND LAKES, FLORIDA?  TURN LEFT DAMMIT, AND DO IT NOW.”

Under this new law, there would be zero tolerance for offenders.  Any front vehicle which did not begin to move within 2 seconds of a light change would immediately bring forth the following additional information from the loudspeakers.  “ATTENTION ALL DRIVERS WAITING TO MAKE A LEFT TURN BEHIND THE DAWDLING AND INATTENTIVE MR. JOHN SMITH OF THOUSAND LAKES, FLORIDA.  APPARENTLY MR. SMITH IS SO SELF-CENTERED AND SELF-ABSORBED, THAT HE DOESN’T CARE ABOUT THE REST OF US.  PLEASE FEEL FREE TO CALL HIM AT HOME AND LET HIM KNOW WHAT YOU THINK OF HIS POOR DRIVING, AND RUDE AND INCONSIDERATE BEHAVIOR.  HE CAN BE REACHED AT THE FOLLOWING PHONE NUMBER.”  Perhaps I’ve taken this a little bit too far, as I have a habit of doing every once in a while, but I’m sure it would solve the problem in a hurry.  And, so, Mr. Smith, my imaginary friend, I’m sorry if I’ve embarrassed you, but somebody has to be first.
In my opinion, and in the opinion of many others, the most significant problems on Highway 19 are caused not by licensed drivers, but by pedestrians and others on the road or along the side of it.  I know most states now vigorously promote “sharing the road” with those on bicycles, but there should be limits.  One of the limits should be no bicycles.  A case in point was the time I was driving down the highway, and there, cycling down the center lane, was an elderly lady on a recumbent bike.  In her defense, she did have one small blinking red light on the back of her bike, and, she was wearing a helmet.  Words escape me about what to really say about this.  I fear, if she keeps getting her exercise in the center lane of U.S. Highway 19, she won’t be around much longer.  I’m sorry to have to put it this way, but what she really needs is less exercise and more time sitting with her psychiatrist discussing her death wish.

Unfortunately, she is not alone.  It is a very common occurrence to see bicycles on the highway, although, normally, I see them in the lane closest to the side of the road.  Occasionally, however, I see bicycles in active traffic lanes, going in the wrong direction.  But, the most ridiculous thing I've seen on the road was not a bicycle, but a motorized wheel chair.   There was this old guy with no legs, racing down the highway, and loving every minute of it.  As I passed him, he had a huge smile on his face.
Hitchhiking appears to still be a common practice along the road, and while this might have been acceptable behavior in the America of the 1920’s through the 1970’s, it seems a little outdated today.  It seems that almost anybody who claims to have a thumb in Pasco County, at some point in time, feels the need to get out on the road and try it out.  The ultimate destination for these people apparently does not seem to be that important.  I was parked in a mall parking lot one day near the edge of the highway, and was about ready to get in my car, when a man who had been hitchhiking came up and asked me if I could give him a ride to Spring Hill.  Now, I know where Spring Hill is, but he seemed confused, so I asked him which direction it was.  “Well,” he said, looking up and down the road, “it’s anywhere man, just get me the hell off this road.”  I guess it's needless to point out, but I declined giving him a ride to “anywhere.”

Hitchhiking may not be the best thing, but at least it’s usually done along the side of the road.  The really scary people are the ones who walk across the six lanes of Highway 19 completely away from any intersection and pedestrian lights.  And, unfortunately, these people are not world class sprinters.  But it wouldn’t matter anyway, because they often just walk across, completely oblivious to the moving traffic, or, anything else for that matter.   As often as not, they push a shopping cart, or, walk with a cane.
Competing for the attention of drivers along the busy highway are those who stand on the median strips at intersections and panhandle for change.  It’s not just the stereotypical guy with a beard, a dirty ball cap, holding a sign which says, “Homeless Vet Looking for Work…Please Help.”  There are also people hanging out with plastic pails, asking for donations to obscure causes, so obscure in fact, that I’ve never heard of any of them.  And I doubt anyone else has either.  Other people sell bottled water for a dollar in support of no particular cause, except their own, and the fact that they are very concerned that every driver on the road is extremely thirsty.

On Sunday mornings, the newspaper people come out in force.  Wearing their bright green colored shirts, they hawk their papers at every intersection for miles along Highway 19.  I didn’t realize so many people read newspapers anymore, but these bright green vendors seem to do a brisk business.  I suspect that what people are really buying are the Sunday coupons.  I was stopped at a light one Sunday morning, and one of the newspaper men came up to my window.  When I asked him how much he charged for a Sunday paper, he said, “A dollar, but most people also tip me a dollar.”  Hopefully, local restaurant servers and taxi drivers will not find out about this new trend of tipping at the rate of 100%.  Otherwise it’s going to be a little expensive to buy lunch anymore, or take a cab across town.

The real problem with the people doing their own particular brand of business on the median strip is that they don’t stay on it.  When the stop lights are red, they move their business out into the street, meandering among the lanes of stopped traffic, looking for anybody willing to part with a little money.  Then, when the lights turn green, they have to quickly dash back to the median to avoid being flattened by the oncoming traffic which has already started moving.

Of course, distracting the attention of drivers can be done from anywhere, not just along the median.  The shoulder of Highway 19 has its own cast of unusual characters demanding to be seen.  While not unique to this highway, as these characters are present along roadways from coast to coast, U.S 19’s population of them is quite large.  Dressed up as Lady Liberty, Uncle Sam, Clowns, Cowboys, and who knows what else, they stand by the side of the road holding big foam fingers, tall flags, gaudy signs and unrecognizable props supporting income tax preparation services, mobile phone services, and buyers of gold.  And, they’re always waving.  They wave at traffic, wave at pedestrians, wave at domestic animals, wave at insects, or, wave at nothing at all.  And the sad thing is, with the difficult economy, they are probably all paid a “nickel ninety-five” for doing so.  Just another circus side show act, I guess, being paid carnival wages.

U.S. 19 is all pervasive and all consuming.  There is absolutely no escape.  Pulling off the road never seems to get it completely done, as you’re never truly far enough away from 19 to break free.  One day, during the noon hour, I pulled off the highway to get something to eat.  I ate alone, but had a good lunch.  Unfortunately, I knew that my brief respite from the road was nearly over, and the highway was starting to seep back in, when the waitress wanted to know if I would like my check “separate or together.”  Huh?  What?

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