Snowbird season grinds drivers’ gears

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 5.20.20 PMFor about seven months a year, Southwest Florida becomes home to masses of migrating people.

Generally starting in November when the temperature starts to drop drastically in northern states, large numbers of people travel down to Florida, especially to Lee County, where the temperature rarely dips below 50 degrees.

This group of people has a name: snowbirds.

For Florida residents, snowbird season brings with it an increase in tourism and restaurant business. However, with this increase, snowbirds also bring traffic problems.

Locals feel the dread as the fall months take over summer and the gradual change begins to occur. A 15-minute drive to school slowly becomes 30 minutes. For Andrew Pagano, 20, a Lee County resident, his 20-minute drive to work becomes a 40-minute trip.

The change in time isn’t usually a huge deal as locals getting to work or school simply allow for more time to get to their destination.

“It’s the influx of people who aren’t familiar with our roads and rules that makes me send a prayer out every time I put my kickstand up,” Pagano said. He drives a motorcycle and has seen many occasions where people begin pulling out in front of him, merge into his lane right next to him or partake in distracted driving.

“I have even seen the elderly texting and driving,” he said.

Local residents are not the only ones who have to deal with the increased traffic flow during snowbird season.

Paula Gregory, 70, lives in West Virginia, but usually travels to Florida twice a year during late fall and winter.

Gregory also thinks the traffic during that season is horrible. The only way she beats the traffic problem is by not driving around much.

“We limit our travel after getting there,” Gregory said.

Florida’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles maintains records on crashes reported. The months with the fewest crashes reported in 2014 were during summer months when the snowbirds were back up north. Data shows an increase in crashes during the snowbird season, with March showing the peak of crashes. March 2014 came in at 900 crashes compared to 590 reported crashes in June 2014.

Not everyone credits the increase in crashes directly to the snowbirds.

Alexas Caputo, 19, who lives and works in Lee County agrees traffic gets worse, but she thinks crashes occur indirectly because of snowbirds.

“People around them get annoyed and accidents happen,” she said.

A sheriff’s deputy who wished to remain anonymous for personal safety said he doesn’t receive any increase in reports involving the elderly during winter months. His reports include the elderly year-round.

He credits the increase in crash reports simply to more people on the road.

“Due to the fact that there’s an abundance of people on the road, naturally crash reports increase,” he said.

Whatever the reason for the increase in traffic crashes, the slow, bumper-to-bumper traffic still becomes a part of life during snowbird season.

Local residents try to cope with this problem because of the business that comes from the snowbirds. Kadra Maddox, 32, knows all too well about the traffic problems.

“A lot of them are rubber-necking,” Maddox said. “They’re sight-seeing the whole time they’re here, so they’re just driving slow. It’s a nuisance but we have to deal with it.”

For Pagano, even the revenue brought in from snowbirds isn’t enough to deal with the hazardous road conditions.

“I know the snowbirds are good for business down here, but I have seen and heard of too many of my friends pass away since season started,” Pagano said.

“The money is good, but I care more for my safety,” he said.

Snowbirds bring both good and bad with them. Unfortunately, there’s little that can be done on the road other than each person being more careful.

Maddox suggested a visitor’s lane to be implemented in major roads similar to carpool lanes on highway systems.

Gregory and Pagano both think the idea would be good, but Pagano doesn’t think people would respect the lane.

“People don’t even respect the left lane as a passing lane,” Pagano said. “It really comes down to people not being distracted in the first place and just being respectful to other drivers. The roads are meant for traveling and can be very dangerous if the rules aren’t respected.”

Until something can be done to alleviate the growing traffic problems as each snowbird season brings more people, drivers in Lee County will just have to be cautious to not become part of the DHSMV’s 2015 crash report.