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Deaths challenge a beach-driving tradition

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NEW SMYRNA BEACH, Fla. » Sandy Fletcher, a bartender with a dark tan at the Breakers beachfront restaurant here, remembers seeing the commotion in July. Lifeguards had stopped the usual flow of Sunday traffic on the hard sand. Sirens blared. "We knew it was something bad," she said. Cell phones started ringing. "Then they said it was a 4-year-old."

Aiden Patrick’s life had ended minutes earlier. Barefoot and smiling, the boy had been running toward his father when a pickup ran him over. He was the second child killed this year on the beaches of Volusia County, around Daytona Beach, and more than a month after his death, many residents are still pretty shaken up.

But the tradition of beach driving lives on. Indeed, what others might see as another accident waiting to happen, most residents here see as a birthright, mixing two of America’s favorite summer pastimes.

"The parents should have been watching him," said Fletcher, the mother of a 6-year-old. "It was high tide; the beach was packed. It’s like crossing the street."

Patrons the length of the bar agreed. "I like it just the way it is," Susan Webster, 51, said. "There’s no other beach like it, and this is what makes it."

Holding on to history is not something Florida typically excels at. But along the central coast, where some of the nation’s first European settlements appeared, brass plaques honoring the past are surprisingly common.

The area never grew as rapidly as counties farther south, and New Smyrna Beach in particular — a community of about 24,000 — still maintains an Old Florida feel, with its creaky porches, shuffleboard courts and live oaks draped with fuzzy moss.

Inside City Hall, officials are quick to note that beach driving started with horses and buggies. Jake Baker, an urban planner, has proof: An official map from August 1889 showing that the town’s 300-foot-wide stretch of sand was marked "Beach Street" and "dedicated for a public highway."

"When you think about it," Baker said, "that was the easiest place to drive."

Old photographs also show picnicking visitors by clusters of early model Fords — perhaps the first tailgate parties. Yet speed and danger are part of the legacy, too. In the 1930s, the earliest stock car races whizzed by the water at low tide. NASCAR, founded in 1948, used the wide beach between New Smyrna and Daytona, with its hard-packed sand as fine as flour, for its races until 1959.

Debates over the practice are nothing new. Over the decades, several lawsuits have been filed, either by environmentalists looking to protect sea turtles or by waterfront homeowners complaining about property rights.

The results are mixed. Turtle nests now mean that driving is prohibited in some areas. But in March, a homeowner in New Smyrna Beach lost his case when a state judge ruled that his private property rights were not infringed by an activity that was more than a century old.

Frank Bruno, chairman of the Volusia County Council, said the lawsuits — along with other factors, including softer sand drifting south — had led to more safety regulation and less beach for driving.

A generation or two ago, nearly all of Volusia County allowed cars on the sand. Now, of the county’s 50 or so miles of beach, vehicles are allowed on only 17 miles.

"We try to make sure that people know what’s available," Bruno said.

In some Florida communities, accidents over the years have put an end to the mix of cars and children on the sand. At the state park in St. Augustine, where a 16-year-old tourist from Pennsylvania was run over 10 years ago — she fell into a coma, and died last month — driving is no longer allowed.

But in New Smyrna Beach and Daytona Beach Shores, where Ellie Bland, a 4-year-old British girl, was run over and killed in March during a family vacation, residents and officials seem determined to keep the status quo. Last month, both communities passed resolutions declaring their continued support for beach driving.

The Volusia County Council has also denied tearful requests from the Patricks to end the practice.

Instead, the Council added a bright yellow compromise: new signs that say "slow — children playing" now hang by ramps leading to the beaches and on the wooden markers noting the 10 mph speed limit. Bruno said most residents had no interest in doing more.

"Change doesn’t come fast here in Volusia County," he said. "We hold on to what we have."

Economics, he acknowledged, are at least partly responsible. Each year, 8 million visitors come to the county’s beaches. New Smyrna Beach has the second-lowest property tax rate in the county, largely, city officials say, because its beaches attract so many tourist dollars.

"On weekends as far as you can see in either direction, there are thousands of cars," said Brandon McKenney, 39, whose family owns the Breakers, which sits beside a tollbooth charging $5 for each car let onto the beach. "Where are you going to put them? They’d have to buy or build parking lots, and my taxes are high enough."

For Jason and Portia Patrick, Aiden’s parents, that is the argument that hurts the most. "You don’t want your taxes to go up — you know what, trade your child," Portia Patrick said.

She and her husband, a project designer for fire-prevention systems, live in Deltona, about 30 miles inland. Their simple concrete home still has pictures of Aiden hanging prominently on the walls. In one photo, he shows off his tiny biceps; in another, the ocean can be seen just behind his cheerful grin.

The Patricks, who have three other children, said they went to New Smyrna Beach regularly because it was close, and because they did not realize how often injuries occurred. County records show that more than 40 people have been struck by vehicles on the beach in the past five years.

Portia Patrick, 31, said that Aiden was just learning how to cross the street and that he could not have understood that the beach was just as dangerous. He darted away in an instant, she said, noting that it could have happened to any parent.

"You don’t mix cars and people. It’s pretty simple," Portia Patrick said.

The driver of the pickup, a red Dodge with extra-large tires, was not cited for speeding or any other violation. Nor was the driver of the vehicle that killed Ellie Bland.

The Patricks do not blame such people for the death of their son, a preschooler who was buried in his favorite Spider-Man costume. They blame local tradition and an unwillingness to let go.

"NASCAR graduated," Portia Patrick said, adding, "I don’t want another family to go through this."


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