Beachgoers beware: Drivers pose potentially deadly danger on the sand

Drivers pose potential danger on the beach

Beachgoers are being urged to stay vigilant this summer amid an alarming number of injuries -- and even deaths -- caused by drivers on the beach.

At least 12 states allow you to drive on at least some beaches. But at least three accidents this year on Florida's Amelia Island are raising questions about the safety of cars and people sharing the sand. In May, security footage captured a Jeep Grand Cherokee driving over a sand dune and hitting a sunbather on Amelia Island. And just weeks earlier, Amanda Gonzalez was lying a mile up the same beach when she was run over by a different Jeep. 

"I felt a lotta pain," Gonzalez said. "I sat up and I come nose to tire with a Jeep." She added that the driver didn't even stop to see if she was okay.  "I don't know if they know they ran me over," she said. "I don't know if they saw me."
 
The mother of two is still recovering from injuries to her legs and back.  She can't drive, and has been unable to work since the April crash. Now, she wants vehicles off the beach.

"Every time I closed my eyes I saw tires comin' at my head," she said. "And still happens. And it's hard."
 
Nassau County, home to Amelia Island, charges $5 a day for visitors to take a vehicle on the beach. Technically, the law allows drivers to park there. But videos show potentially dangerous behavior like cars doing donuts. And one vehicle, driving at night, ran over a well-marked endangered sea turtle nest.

"It's preposterous," said John Phillips, a lawyer who's represented six women in the last seven years who were run over while sunbathing on Florida beaches.  He says he's identified more than 40 other incidents in Florida alone.
 
"Letting pedestrian vehicles on a beach seems to be driven by almost antiquated yore," he said. 
 
While deaths are uncommon in the states that allow beach driving, they have happened, and accidents are not well tracked.  Unlike injuries or deadly crashes on the road, beach accidents are not reported nationally.
 
"We don't know for certain how many events, and how many injuries, how many deaths occur," said Kelly Nantel, of the National Safety Council. "And any time there is a combination of motor vehicles and pedestrians in a relatively unprotected environment, and a very chaotic environment, the risk is really elevated."
 
The city of Fernandina Beach tightened its beach regulations, and police now encourage sunbathers not to lay in the area open to vehicles. Local officials are weighing whether to make the beaches car free -- but that's controversial with residents and tourists.

Linda Berry and her daughter, for example, drove hours specifically to park on a stretch of sand. "We came on here yesterday and straight to the beach and she had never drove on the beach," Berry said. "So that was nice."

Mayor Johnny Miller is hoping for some middle ground. "There are no easy answers," he said. "We can figure out a way to get along, to make it symbiotic, that we can have people and cars, you know, access the beach."
 
Cars and people continue to share the beach in Amelia Island, as both the county and city struggle with what to do to try and make the practice safer.