Pedestrian fatalities are not unique to Leesburg. The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles reported 702 pedestrian fatalities out of 9,331 various crashes in 2018. Lake County had a total of 91 pedestrian accidents, of which nine were fatal.

LEESBURG — Go to any social media site and you will find people with the wisdom of Solomon. Just ask them — they have the solution to any problem you can name, including how to reduce pedestrian fatalities.


There needs to be better lighting, more traffic lights, crosswalks, safety education, fewer distractions, and the list goes on.


A woman who wrote a letter to the editor last year warned pedestrians not to trust drivers, who may be texting. “Being in the right doesn’t help if you are dead,” Carol Kummer noted. She was more spot-on than she realized.


Leesburg can be a dangerous place to walk for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the fault lies with the pedestrian, including, unfortunately, some homeless people.


“A lot of these accidents on the highway happen late at night with people wearing dark clothing and walking right in front of cars,” Leesburg Police Capt. Joe Iozzi said. “A lot of times you find drugs and alcohol in their system.”


Leesburg has passed ordinances aimed at cracking down on disorderly conduct and aggressive panhandling after receiving complaints about homeless people, including those who wander into traffic.


It can take up to a year for traffic homicide investigators to make a case, as they review toxicology results from labs and medical examiner reports. This year, there have been five fatal pedestrian accidents in the Leesburg area, and all are still under investigation.


The latest accident happened on Oct. 26 at about 9 p.m. Stewart Pantall, 56, was struck and killed at Picciola Road and U.S. Highway 27/441 by a 2003 Dodge Dakota driven by Robert M. Wallace, 28.


Pedestrian fatalities are not unique to Leesburg. The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles reported 702 pedestrian fatalities out of 9,331 various crashes in 2018. Lake County had a total of 91 pedestrian accidents, of which nine were fatal.


Smart Growth America lists Florida as the most dangerous state for pedestrians, with 5,433 deaths from 2008-2017, or 2.73 per 100,000 people, and the Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford areas as the most dangerous metro spot, with 656 fatalities and an average of 2.82 per 100,000.


Leesburg has its share.


In 2017, The Daily Commercial examined the 1.2 miles of U.S. Highway 441/27 that runs from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard south to where the two highways split near Griffin Road. Nicknamed the “Miserable Mile,” it was the site of 272 traffic accidents of all types and five deaths in 2015 and 2016 combined, which is almost half the 12 traffic fatalities in all of Leesburg during those two years.


Four of those were fatal pedestrian accidents, including Bobby Culvahouse, who was struck and killed on March 28, 2016.


“It’s just not fair how many people have been taken by that road,” said his fiancÚ, Diana Fitzgerald.


Traffic on that stretch is intense, with Walmart and other stores, a Ford dealership and the spot where U.S. 27 separates from U.S. 441. The area is also surrounded by residential neighborhoods.


The state widened the road and raised the speed limit from 35 to 45 mph. “They didn’t ask us,” Iozzi said, “it is their road.” But the result was that it was harder to cross safely on foot.


Planners have talked about the need for the state to erect pedestrian walk signs and vegetation barriers, like shrubs, between a sidewalk and the curb, that would force walkers to use crosswalks.


One proposal that has raised eyebrows is the creation of roundabouts. They keep traffic moving with fewer traffic lights, FDOT says.


The one safety idea that has been approved by the Lake-Sumter Metropolitan Planning Organization is the construction of raised medians from Martin Luther King Boulevard to Griffin Road. It is in the state’s 2021-2022 transportation budget at a cost of $2.6 million.


“It does away with the suicide lane,” says Leesburg Public Works Director D.C. Mauldin of the center turn lane. Mauldin is the city’s representative on the MPO.


It is not the only pedestrian safety move by FDOT. It also stretched the school zone on South Street from Oak Park Middle to Leesburg Elementary to an unusually long section.


“Usually, the state is reluctant to do that since drivers get impatient and it is the one law they are likely to break,” Mauldin said.


The state also put raised medians on Dixie Avenue from U.S. 27 to 441.


It can still be dangerous. In December, 12-year-old Tyler Khargie was trying to walk across West Dixie in a turn lane near Pasa Del Norte Avenue when he was struck and killed by an 81-year-old driver.


“Any time someone is not crossing at a crosswalk, it is illegal, but more importantly, it substantially decreases the safety of the pedestrian,” Iozzi said. Darkness and rain may have also contributed to the accident.


Besides the death of Pantall on Oct. 26, other accidents in 2019 were:


• On Aug. 18, Paris Fred Antonio Smith, 32, was struck by a hit-and-run driver while crossing the southbound lanes of U.S. Highway 441 near North Street. Police put out a flier saying the vehicle was possibly a 2007-2009 or 2012-2016 Honda CR-V. It would have front-end damage, and police were asking for the public’s help in identifying the driver and the car.


• On March 22, Jo Ann Taylor, 60, was hit by a car while crossing Pine near Knott Street at 7:30 p.m.


The initial investigation indicates that Taylor, a 60-year-old employee of Leesburg Regional Medical Center, was crossing Pine Street to get to the employee parking lot when she was struck by a westbound 2006 Honda sedan driven by Leola Jordan, 77, of Leesburg.


“Ms. Taylor was knocked to the ground,” according to a Leesburg PD press release. “Several subjects were tending to Ms. Taylor as she sat in the roadway. A short time after the initial collision a 2000 Saturn coupe driven by Norma McDuffie, 64 years old of Leesburg, collided with Ms. Taylor and another pedestrian, June Griffin, 64 years old of Lady Lake. Ms. Taylor was pronounced deceased on scene. Ms. Griffin was taken to Leesburg Regional Medical Center for treatment.” McDuffie was also driving westbound.


Witnesses said the cars did not slow down before hitting Taylor. McDuffie told police that she never saw her. Glare from the sun may have been a factor, police noted in the report. The report also noted, however, that a “brown cigarillo with a green leafy substance inside” was found in a cup holder in her car.


Police administered a blood-alcohol test and impounded her car to check for mechanical failures.


• On Jan. 28, at 9:20 p.m., Jawad Armendo Rodolpho, 59, was struck by a 2006 Honda CR-V on U.S. 441 near Lakes Boulevard, which is between Home Depot and Publix near Lake Square Mall. Driver John Sandoval, 65, of Sorrento, was not injured.


Fortunately, not every accident ends in death, including those that leave officers scratching their heads.


Santrel Morelli, 20, of Leesburg, was arrested and charged in August 2018 with hitting a pedestrian with the side mirror of her car, then leaving the injured 23-year-old man on the side of Radio Road near Pleasant View Drive. A witness said Morelli got out of the car, “walked around,” then got back in the vehicle and took off.


Morelli said told police she was “running late to work, and I was going to call it in, but wasn’t sure where it was located.”


She was charged with leaving the scene of an accident with injury and was sentenced to 18 months’ probation and had her license suspended for three years.


In April of this year, she was arrested again, and she was charged with driving with a suspended license. She pleaded no contest and was given six months’ probation.


In 2016, she was arrested for driving with a suspended license, but a judge withheld judgment.