DESTIN — The drive across the Marler Bridge into Destin can be a dazzling experience.
Eyes that have adjusted to the relative sameness of Okaloosa Island are suddenly asked to process the gleaming white sand of Norriego Point, the sun flashing off the emerald green water of East Pass and a colorful array of boats and the carnival atmosphere of Crab Island.
It’s a sudden sensory overload that can and too often concludes with the resounding jolt of metal on metal as distracted drivers come upon traffic halted in front of them and hit the brakes too late to avoid a collision.
“People come flying across Okaloosa Island, get on the bridge, look out and go, ‘Oh, Crab Island,’ ” Destin City Councilwoman Prebble Ramswell said.
Traffic accidents on and near the bridge speak to the issue. Florida Highway Patrol records show there have been 87 crashes recorded near the bridge in the last 18 months.
“Distracted, inattentive driving,” is a real concern on the Marler Bridge, according to Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Sgt. Jason Fulgham.
Finding a way to lessen the hazards has become a priority for Ramswell and other council members since a June 14 traffic accident that killed Fort Walton Beach resident Beverly Noel Willis.
Willis was a passenger in a 2001 GMC Sonoma driven by Larry Hopson when Hopson, traveling east across the bridge, rear-ended a Toyota SUV that had stopped for traffic ahead.
The fatal accident occurred the day after a Texas man was charged with careless driving for his role in a six-car pileup on the bridge. The driver failed to notice the cars stopped in front of him, and a chain reaction crash resulted. No one was injured.
The FHP has yet to determine whether Hopson was traveling over the posted speed limit of 35 mph when the fatal accident happened, but a witness said luggage “came flying out of the back window” of the SUV he struck.
Citations written near the bridge are a good indicator many drivers passing over it are focused on things other than the safe operation of a motor vehicle. Law officers wrote 141 traffic citations between January of 2018 and mid-June, with 118 of those for speeding or reckless driving.
The Marler Bridge is a 48-year-old span that is considered structurally sound by the Florida Department of Transportation. Drivers crossing it crest a hump in the middle that allows 48.8 feet of clearance for vessels to pass under. The slope of the bridge’s swollen mid-section is 4.5 percent.
Destin Councilman Skip Overdier serves on the Northwest Florida Regional Transportation Planning Organization and the Okaloosa-Walton Transportation Planning Organization. He said nothing he has seen or read would indicate to him that anything about the Marler Bridge itself makes it more dangerous than other roads.
“It only becomes dangerous if you’re speeding. The speed limit on the bridge is 35 mph. As long as you obey the speed limit there is no problem,” he said. “The problem is, people will drive what they sense to be the speed limit. If there are a few people driving 50 mph everybody else will drive 50 mph.”
But it’s not just people in a hurry who endanger themselves and others, Fulgham said. Congestion on and around the bridge “ebbs and flows” depending on the number of tourists visiting the city and what kind of events are going on in and around it, and the beauty of the area that catches people's attention.
“There is a problem with people taking video while they’re driving across the bridge. We’ve seen that,” Fulgham said. “There’s an issue with people stopping on the bridge to take photos. They’re more interested in getting the video than they are of paying attention to their driving.”
At a Destin City Council meeting following the June 14 fatality, Ramswell called out FDOT officials in attendance and proposed posting signage on the bridge to warn drivers when a traffic light near the east end of the span has gone red and traffic could be backing up.
The sign she said she envisioned would feature a bright diamond configuration that flashes red or green and says “light ahead.”
“If it’s flashing and says 'light ahead,' that’s a good warning,” Ramswell said. “It would be one way to get people to really pay attention, something that says, ‘You need to watch what you are doing. You’re going to stop.' ”
The signage suggested by Ramswell has actually been incorporated into a FDOT plan to improve U.S. Highway 98, the roadway that runs over the Marler Bridge, all along the area just east of it.
"Flashing beacons activated by traffic will be added near the crest of the bridge,” FDOT spokesman Ian Satter said.
The driver notification beacons will be added as part of a much larger resurfacing project designed to improve travel from the bridge east to Airport Road, Satter said.
The improvements will include striping to provide a dedicated bike lane, an additional right turn lane into busy HarborWalk Village just east of the bridge and left turn lanes into businesses farther down the road. “Access management modifications” will also be made at Calhoun Avenue and Palmetto Street, just east of the bridge on the north side of U.S. 98.
The work is “designed to improve safety conditions by reducing congestion and alerting drivers of the approaching intersection,” Satter said.
But FDOT at present is immersed in improving a segment of the same road in another phase of the widening project that was initiated well east of the bridge, at Airport Road.
That work won’t be done before early 2021 and only then, according to reports, does the agency expect to even begin studying the feasibility of road work closer to the bridge.
Ramswell said she isn’t ready to accept the idea of not moving more quickly to place signs on the Marler Bridge.
"Originally, they (the DOT officials) said they were going to look at it and consider something down the road,” she said. “I said that’s not good enough, we’re having major accidents on a regular basis.”
Satter said DOT construction and design engineers plan to address Ramswell’s concerns with CW Roberts, the company contracted to do the road work in Destin.
CW Roberts spokesman Chris Riley said the company could not comment on a DOT project.