Image: Cars on Florida beach
John Raoux  /  AP
Vehicles share the beach with swimmers and sunbathers in Daytona Beach Shores, Fla. Safety concerns over cars driving on Volusia County beaches have risen this year with the deaths of two 4-year-old children.
updated 9/18/2010 8:10:02 PM ET 2010-09-19T00:10:02

Four-year-old Aiden Patrick was playing on the beach just yards away from his father when he yelled "Daddy" and ran toward him, into the path of an oncoming truck driving legally on the sand.

The July death has tested this area's tradition of beach driving. Along with a 4-year-old British girl who was struck and killed on Daytona Beach a few months earlier, residents are now torn between outlawing cars on the beach and persevering a deep-rooted ritual that helped form the Daytona 500 stock car race.

Vote: Should Florida outlaw cars on beaches?

"It's an extremely divisive issue that people get very emotional about," said Volusia County Councilman Josh Wagner.

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Like most local elected officials, Wagner wants to keep the custom that has long been part of the area's identity.

Black-and-white photographs of early Ford models racing on the shore decorate bars and restaurant walls around town, some dating back to the first automobiles. NASCAR even held portions of its races on the sand until 1959, when Daytona International Speedway opened and the Daytona 500 — now known as "The Great American Race" — began to take shape.

Beach driving isn't as prevalent in Volusia County as it once was. Of the some 40 miles of beaches in the county, only about 17 miles are still open for cars. Vehicles pay a $5 toll for access, and there is a 10 mph speed limit.

There's no barrier or median separating the driving lanes. Beachgoers have to cross the traffic lanes to get to the water, and when the tide rises, there is less room for children to play.

It was high tide when Aiden, from nearby Deltona, was killed on New Smyrna Beach, about 15 miles south of Daytona Beach. Aiden and his family were enjoying the day on the crowded beach overflowing with continuous traffic.

Aiden's father, Jason Patrick, had gone to the water to wash off his hands after eating watermelon. Aiden tried to follow.

Aiden "just wanted to be with his daddy," his father told the county council during an emotional hearing shortly after the accident, pleading for them to end beach driving.

"I hope you never feel what I feel to watch your 4-year-old child's life taken from you," he said. "I want this impact to our family to be the last impact to happen to any family."

The driver has not been cited.

Image: Driving on Florida beach
John Raoux  /  AP
A car drives amongst beach goers in Daytona Beach, Fla. Safety concerns over cars driving on the beach have risen this year with the deaths of two 4-year-old children.

Tragic events  
The council hired a consultant to study the issue, which could take months — if not a year — to complete because many of 2010's busiest weekends already have passed. Some have suggested immediately adding more warning and speed limit signs, and banning texting and cell-phone use, although authorities said neither contributed to the toddlers' deaths.

While fatal accidents are uncommon over the last 20 years, they do happen: Megan Hamlin, of Pennsylvania, spent 10 years in a vegetative state until she died in August at age 26. She had been run over while sunbathing at nearby Anastasia State Recreation Area. Hamlin's death led to a ban on beach driving at the park.

At least 10 people have been struck on Volusia beaches since March 2009, according to Florida Highway Patrol records. Most only had minor scraps and bruises.

British tourist Ellie Bland was holding hands with her great-uncle on Daytona Beach in March when she was killed, according to the accident report.

Councilwoman Pat Northey, one of the few local elected officials who supports a ban, said too many people are blaming the parents.

"It's not a matter of watching your kids better. It's a playground. Kids are going to play on the beach. We treat the beach as a roadway and it's time to stop," she said.

Other officials insist the county charter guarantees the public the right to drive on the beach. And any vote to pull cars off the beach, they say, would require the county guarantee suitable off-beach parking, which could cost millions to construct.

'It's what makes Daytona special'
Beach driving is allowed in several other places across the country, usually during the offseason, said Stephen P. Leatherman, director of Florida International University's Laboratory for Coastal Research. Among those: Fire Island, N.Y., residents can drive during the winter. On Southampton in Long Island, driving is prohibited only in the summer. Beach driving is also permitted on large portions of Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland, Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina and at Padre Island National Seashore in Texas.

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Dozens of other, less populated places in the country also allow it.

"It's most famous in Daytona because of the racing history, the tradition and the shear number of people who drive on the beach," said Leatherman, who is known as "Dr. Beach" for his popular annual list of the nation's best beaches. "It's what makes Daytona special."

Arthur Green, who lives in nearby Port Orange, was on Daytona Beach recently with his two boys — ages 9 and 6. He would prefer just a few miles be permitted for cars to preserve tradition.

"I understand beach driving is a part of the culture here, so maybe we should keep a little of that," Green said. "But cars on beaches full of families and young kids seems like a lethal combination."

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