In July 2020, Laura Finley was pulling out of the Dania Beach Library to head home after dropping off a library book. But as she pulled onto Park Avenue, a one-way road, to start heading east on Dania Beach Boulevard, a vehicle suddenly smashed into the side of her sedan.
Within a matter of seconds, Finley lost control of her car, which careened across the street into a parked car, then ricocheted into a light post. The driver’s side of the car was smashed in, airbags deployed, her phone was thrown to the ground out of reach, and when she looked down, her right leg was “twisted in all the wrong directions.”
“I didn’t even know what happened at first,” she says.
The 19-year-old woman driving the other car ran over, crying. A man who saw the accident tried to get Finley out of her car, but the door was stuck. He managed to reach her cell phone to call for help and stayed to talk with her until police and EMTs arrived. Firefighters used the Jaws of Life to cut her out of the vehicle and put her in an ambulance to Broward Health Medical Center.
After a series of x-rays, doctors determined that Finley had broken her pelvis in two places, as well as her clavicle and right femur. The next day, doctors performed surgery to insert a rod into her leg. Almost two years later, she no longer needs a walker or a cane but her leg is still twisted.
“You can be a good driver, but you can’t always control what other people are doing,” Finley says.
South Florida has a reputation for bad drivers. Or more specifically, a mash of road rage, speeding, tourists from around the world and uninsured drivers all in a rush to get somewhere now. Ask anyone who has been behind the wheel and they’ll share everything from seeing drivers on I-95 brushing their teeth to tractor trailers side-swiping cars, vehicles smashing into medians, and endless traffic as emergency services block off lanes on the highway to attend to accidents.
In 2020, the year that Finley was hit, there were more than 34,000 crashes in Broward County alone, leading to 268 deaths. This is according to the Florida Crash Dashboard, run by the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. But 2020 was an anomaly on the dashboard—for low numbers. Because of the pandemic, quarantine and working from home, fewer people were on the roads. In 2019, there were 41,114 crashes in Broward; in 2021, that number was 41,374.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes South Florida driving so bad. There’s the large number of uninsured and underinsured drivers. There’s the poor infrastructure such as I-95’s frequently run over, often missing delineators. There are the drunk driving laws that are in some ways more lax than in other states. Experts say drivers can combat this by practicing defensive driving, a method that involves anticipating danger and being prepared to avoid others’ driving mistakes. But some days on South Florida roads, that can be a tall order.
“You can be a good driver,” Finley says, “but you can’t always control what other people are doing.”
The Insurance Lottery
As in all states, car insurance is required by law for drivers who operate a motor vehicle. In Florida, drivers must have a plan with property damage limits of at least $10,000 and personal injury protection coverage of $10,000 at minimum; the latter comes in useful as Florida is also a no-fault state.
However, Florida has a staggering number of drivers who spend their days on the road with no car insurance. According to the Insurance Research Council, 20.4% of drivers in Florida do not have insurance, almost double the national percentage of 12.6%, placing the Sunshine State sixth in the nation.
And that doesn’t count those who are underinsured, as Finley learned the hard way. Once she started contacting insurance companies, she found out that the woman who hit her did have car insurance, but the bare minimum that was legally allowed. This meant that there was no money to cover Finley’s excess auto and medical bills; even with her own insurance, she would end up paying $8,000 out of pocket.
“I got nothing from her insurer,” she says. “She was responsible and didn’t owe anything at the end of the day.”
Unfortunately for Finley, even though she had good car insurance, she had not opted to have uninsured or underinsured motorist coverage in her plan. As there are many states in the Midwest and Northeast that require it—Finley is not originally from Florida—she says she didn’t realize when she purchased her insurance that she would need to go the extra step to protect herself.
Phil Sarfin, an auto injury attorney at Blakeley Law in Fort Lauderdale, has had to have many difficult conversations with his clients. Often they’ll have good insurance, but the person who hit them does not. Or, because car insurance is so expensive in Florida, people opt for the best they can but it’s not sufficient when they get into an accident. Sometimes they decide to forgo insurance altogether.
“They don’t realize they’re lacking in coverage until they’re forced to use it, and I have to give them the bad news and let them know they’re not paying for things they should probably be paying for,” he says.
Because of the high rates of accidents and congestion, Florida also has some of the most expensive car insurance in the nation. According to BankRate, the average cost of full coverage for Florida drivers is $2,364 per year. When you break it further, South Florida leads the pack, with Fort Lauderdale drivers paying almost $3,000 per year for full coverage.
Sarfin sees a lot of cases where people are hit by distracted drivers. He takes calls from prospective clients 24 hours a day—including during his interview with Fort Lauderdale Magazine, when a client called after being hit by a woman who was digging through her purse while driving.
“I have had clients who have been in two, three, four accidents and it’s unbelievable, we get a lot of repeat clients for multiple car accidents,” he says.
Delineating the Problem
When people are in a rush, they’re also more likely to bend the rules of the road. Trial attorney Stuart Ratzan, senior and founding partner of Ratzan Weissman & Boldt in Coral Gables, has seen how this can be deadly.
With express lanes cropping up on I-95, plastic poles or “delineators” have been installed to separate the lanes, a sort of deterrent. However, this doesn’t stop people from “lane diving,” or driving over the barrier. When delineators break, drivers are even more inclined to try and cut the line since they have 20 feet or more space to cross over.
But not only are drivers taking the risk of getting a ticket for lane diving, but also getting into an accident. In 2016, a man was driving in the express lane in south Broward County with his wife and 10-year-old son after a judo tournament when a driver drove over the delineators and hit their car. The accident caused a severe brain injury to the wife and killed the 10-year-old on impact.
Ratzan and his team represented the bereaved father and found that at the spot where the accident occurred, a delineator was down. Not only did the contractor hired by FDOT fail to replace the delineator within the required 24-to-48-hour window, but it was still down three months after the fatal accident, the attorney says. Earlier this year, the father was given a $7.5 million settlement.
“It just puts more importance on doing things safely,” Ratzan says. “This issue here with the delineators is pretty unique to South Florida; there aren’t many places that have that system.”
For example, in Los Angeles, reflectors are used to separate the lanes. It might be easier to cross over them, but the fine is higher for doing so and drivers in the express lane don’t have a false sense of security. Other communities that have the space use concrete walls to separate express lanes.
Another case of a highway death that Ratzan took ended up going to court. The firm represented the family of a medical student who was killed on I-75 when a tractor trailer hauling concrete barriers pulled out of the median in a construction zone, blocking all lanes of traffic and causing a multi-car pile-up. The roof of the 29-year-old student’s car was ripped off and he died at the scene; a 17-year-old girl in another car struck the back of the truck and was killed instantly. The case went to trial when the construction company refused to take responsibility, saying that the driver of the tractor trailer was a contractor and not an employee.
“The people in charge have to own their charge and it comes with a great privilege, which is tens of millions of dollars in state money to build a highway, but it comes with an obligation to do it safely,” Ratzan says.
The medical student’s family was awarded $45 million.
For more than a decade, Heather Geronemus has chaired the Walk like MADD and MADD Dash Fort Lauderdale, a sea of thousands of walkers and runners taking over downtown in support of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She walks for her father, who was killed by a drunk driver in 2009. He was crossing the street in the bustling Brickell neighborhood in downtown Miami when he was hit and killed by a drunk driver who had blown a red light—and kept going. “When he was finally pulled over because of a citizen that flagged an off-duty cop, [the driver] said he thought he hit a mailbox,” Geronemus says. “There’s no mailboxes on Brickell.”
It was a devastating way to discover MADD; the organization reached out to Geronemus to offer support from victims’ advocates, including during the trial and the driver’s eventual release. Not only did she later start the Fort Lauderdale Walk and Dash events, but she’s also the chairperson of MADD’s national board.
In Florida, there’s a need for her advocacy. In the last three years, there’s been an increase in crashes in Broward County as a result of impaired driving, from 170 in 2019 to 205 in 2021, MADD reports. Even though there were fewer drivers on the road during the quarantine year of 2020, the trend continued, with a jump in deaths as a result of impaired driving — 36 in 2020 from 28 in 2019.
Geronemus does see some reasons for optimism, particularly in generational shifts.
“I think there is a lean towards better behavior,” she says, noting that younger people are more likely to call for a ride-share to get home. “There is an understanding about it, but there is also a generation of people who have always gotten home.”
In fact, the CDC reports that people who have been pulled over impaired have driven under the influence at least 80 times before.
In Florida, the punishment for impaired driving is in some ways not as strict as it is in other states. For example, 34 states require an ignition interlock to be installed in drivers’ cars after their first DUI offense, meaning a driver has to pass a breathalyzer before the car will start. Drivers have to blow clean for a period of time before it can be removed from the car; the clock starts over if they don’t pass a breathalyzer. Florida requires interlocks, but only if the driver’s blood alcohol level was 0.15 or higher, or if there was a child in the car. Otherwise, interlocks only become mandatory after a second DUI arrest. MADD has been advocating for laws to be stricter, lobbying before the Florida Senate in Tallahassee.
Also, taking away someone’s license does little to deter some drivers. In December, a man drove into six children on a Wilton Manors sidewalk, killing two of them. Although he didn’t appear to be under the influence, he was driving without a license.
“This idea that taking away a driver’s license is going to stop people from driving is not accurate,” Geronemus says. “It doesn’t stop people from driving.”
Finley, the driver who suffered serious injuries in Dania Beach, had no desire to get back into a car after her accident. As a professor, she was able to teach classes remotely from home, and for months she underwent physical therapy and graduated from a walker to a cane. It was a hard lifestyle change for the lifelong runner. But eventually she had to overcome her fear of driving—and of other drivers.
“You see it now everywhere, the possible danger,” she says. “I gave a little thought to writing a letter to [the woman who hit me]—not in a mean way, but letting her know this is how it impacted me, because to my knowledge she didn’t get anything outside of a parking ticket.”
Sarfin says that he often has clients who are afraid to drive after getting into an accident—and some who are nervous about going after the driver who hit them. He reminds them that they’re going after the insurance company, not the driver. If they have insurance, anyway.
Seeing South Florida driving’s worst outcomes on a daily basis makes him conscious of the importance of being a smart driver.
“Everybody is just always in a rush,” Sarfin says. “You’ve got to be a defensive driver down here. You have to anticipate the person next to you is going to hit you. That’s how you need to drive because at any moment, somebody could come over and hit you.”