Last year, a University of Central Florida student left a friend’s house to pick up her mother and grandmother from the airport at 4 a.m. She never arrived. After reportedly falling asleep at the wheel, 21-year-old Chloe Arenas careened off the road and into an unguarded retention pond. Having lost consciousness from the impact of the crash, she drowned.
Now, her best friend is advocating for legislative change on her behalf. She has spoken out to lawmakers in support of a Florida bill that would require state and local transportation officials to install barriers near retention ponds and other bodies of water identified as dangerous or where other motorists have died after leaving the roadway.
The measure, called Chloe’s Law, is named after the young Orlando woman who “died in a completely preventable accident.” The bill has passed its first House committee.
The young woman’s friend noted that in Maryland, where she lives, these types of crashes are “unheard of.” But here in Florida, they happen all the time. In fact, Florida leads the country for submerged vehicle drownings. This makes sense when you consider that Florida is not only surrounded by water, but there 18.5 percent of Florida’s total area contains water.
Federal crash data reviewed by the Orlando Sentinel after Chloe’s car accident death last year showed 49 people in Florida died inside submerged vehicles from 2008 to 2012. No other state even comes close. Texas, which ranks No. 2, had 18 deaths, followed by Indiana with 14, and Arizona and Louisiana, each with 10.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in a 2011 study indicated those numbers were probably a significant underestimate. In its review, the agency indicated that just from 2004 to 2007, there was an average of 57 submerged vehicle drownings every year in Florida. Nationally, the federal agency counted, there are 384 a year.
The reason the NHTSA’s figures are so much higher is likely because the agency had access to death certificate information, which was not public record for reporters, who were basing it solely on police traffic accident reports.
That report indicated in-vehicle drownings account for 2.1 percent of the total number of Florida’s overall traffic fatalities.
Others put the figure even higher: At between 1,200 to 1,500 nationally a year.
Counties with the highest concentration of motor vehicle drownings were:
- Palm Beach
Orange, Duval, Lee and Collier Counties are tied for fourth place.
Retention ponds and roadside canals appear to be the biggest culprit. Safety experts say that while many state and local governments may have already taken initiative to install guardrails and other barriers, many have not been built in adherence of federal safety standards. Those that have not need to be re-erected, they say.
Many of these cases have been high-profile. Take for example the case of 23-year-old Scott Patrick Wilson, who drowned inside his vehicle when polo millionaire from Palm Beach County crashed into him and forced his vehicle off the road. The polo magnate was recently convicted of DUI manslaughter at his retrial.
Then there was the 19-year-old son of Julius Erving, who disappeared from his family’s home, setting off a national search. He was found little more than a month later, in his vehicle at the bottom of a retention pond, just a half mile from his home.
While there are resources out there that aim to educate people who find themselves in a submerged vehicle, the new bill takes the position that prevention is the better strategy.
Call Fort Lauderdale Injury Attorney Richard Ansara at (954) 761-4011. Serving Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
Aimed at Preventing Traffic Accident Drowning Deaths, ‘Chloe’s Law’ Passes First House Panel, Feb. 8, 2016, by Sascha Cordner, news.wfsu.org
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