U.S. 19 Homosassa traffic

Traffic passes through Homosassa Jan. 20, 2018, on one of Citrus County’s busiest roads, U.S. 19.

COUNTY CRASHES BY NUMBERS

Crash numbers from Jan. 1, 2012, to Dec. 31, 2017:

  • Total number of crashes: 9,079
  • Total vehicles involved: 16,063
  • Number of crashes that had at least one reported injury, including fatalities: 4,543
  • Number of crashes with fatalities: 139
  • Number of people who died due to traffic crashes: 147

Source: Florida’s Integrated Report Exchange System

Traffic crashes have increased steadily in Citrus County over the years, and local authorities are acting to curb dangerous driving habits and make roads safer.

With almost 25 years with the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office, Capt. Dave Vincent knows the county’s traffic patterns and why more people are getting into crashes.

“To me, the biggest change in people’s driving habits over the last three to four years is the amount of distractions in their car,” Vincent said. “Whatever that thing is that they’re doing is a direct correlation to the increase in crashes.”

“The invention of smart phones has changed the way drivers drive, and that really just didn’t happen a lot before,” Vincent continued.

Between Jan. 1, 2012, and Dec. 31, 2017, the number of traffic crashes climbed each year, from 1,285 in 2012 to 1,777 in 2017. That includes any crash, with or without a reported injury and/or fatality.

Those numbers are according to FIRES, Florida’s Integrated Report Exchange System, which compiles traffic data from authorities statewide.

Out of the total number of crashes from 2012 to 2017, which was 9,079, a little more than half had at least one reported injury, including fatalities, according to FIRES.

While their numbers fluctuated between the years, fatality crashes also rose from 19 in 2012 to 29 in 2017. There were 139 crashes between 2012 and 2017 that had a fatality.

Florida’s crash numbers also grew during the same period, from 283,477 in 2012 to 388,306 in 2017, according to FIRES.

Sgt. Steve Gaskins, a spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol, said growth in the state’s population and tourism industry have contributed to the escalation in crashes.

“Increases in population and tourism continue to have effects on other aspects of society such as traffic crashes,” Gaskins said.

Vincent said elevated tourism in the county and more thru-traffic account for more crashes in Citrus County than just the increase in the population.

More younger drivers, who are more prone to getting distracted behind the wheel of a car, are also getting on the road because their parents can afford them vehicles and gas prices are down, thanks to a recovering economy, Vincent said.

“The parking lots at the high schools are full with student drivers,” Vincent said.

Through a “Just Drive, Citrus” awareness event in December, Vincent and the sheriff’s office partnered with the family of the late Angelina Holloway to share the teenage girl’s tragic story of how a text to her boyfriend cost her her life in a April 2016 crash.

Deputies can’t pull someone over for using their cellphone, but it won’t take long for drivers using cellphones to get stopped for swerving in another lane because they were distracted, Vincent said.

While texting on a cellphone is a secondary offense during a traffic stop, it is very hard for deputies to prove that that’s what was going on, Vincent said.

Vincent added it’s not hard to tell a driver was driving distracted because when they’re stopped for erratic driving, they don’t appear to be impaired.

“It’s people on their phones, and they’re not drunk at all,” Vincent said. “You pull them over, they’re stone-cold sober.”

Fall and winter months also had more reported crashes, compared to the summer months, according to FIRES.

Gaskins and Vincent said that’s due to the return of greater traffic from school and seasonal residents, known as snowbirds.

“As for the timing of crashes each year, school is back in session and, yes, transitional residents often return to Florida in October and November to avoid harsher northern winter climates,” Gaskins said.

“We see it every year; traffic trying to get through in Inverness and Crystal River, it’s more than during the summer,” Vincent added.

In an effort to curtail the rise in traffic crashes, the sheriff’s office in December began “Just Drive, Citrus,” an awareness and enforcement campaign that tries to educate drivers with additional signage, events and enhanced patrols along crash-prone roads.

“We really pushed down to our guys in patrol and pushed this traffic initiative,” Vincent said.

According to FIRES, there were 151 crashes in December of last year, compared to 165 in December 2016.

While the ultimate goal is to have little to no traffic crashes, any effort that slows the rise in crashes is a win for the sheriff’s office, Vincent said.

“We just want to reduce it by any number,” he said.

Also part of “Just Drive, Citrus,” traffic enforcement was in full force in December, when deputies countywide targeted traffic “hotspots,” and the violating travelers who passed through them, Vincent said.

Deputies used opportunities during traffic stops to educate drivers and their passengers about what rules they broke, and reprimand them appropriately.

According to Vincent, deputies stopped 3,285 vehicles, issued 333 citations and gave out 1,880 warnings.

That’s compared to December 2016, when deputies pulled over 1,763 vehicles, issued 158 citations and handed out 1,045 warnings, Vincent said.

Because it’s such a demanding initiative to man, the sheriff’s office can’t conduct these traffic operations year-round.

However, more will be planned for the future and the sheriff’s office will keep on reminding drivers to stay focused on the road.

“There’s more people moving about, and when you combine that with distractions that’s a recipe for crashes,” Vincent said. “We’re just trying to bring awareness to that.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Buster Thompson at 352-564-2916 or bthompson@chronicleonline.com.