Driving on Daytona Beach: Park this 'tradition'

Four-year-old Ellie Louise Bland was doing what most any little girl would do during a glorious day at Daytona Beach this past Saturday — dashing here and there, playing with her family and soaking in the sunshine and salt air.

It should have been a day for making memories — the kind that inspire crayon drawings and "Guess what I did!" exclamations when the vacation's over.

Except there was nothing inspirational about Ellie's beach day. For it was her last.

A car stuck the preschooler and killed her.

One moment, she was holding her uncle's hand. The next, a Lincoln Town Car driven by a 66-year-old visitor from Georgia ended her life.

Ellie's family must be struggling with the kind of "Why?" questions that shake even the most faithful.

But a question we should all be asking ourselves is: Why does Daytona still allow cars on the beach?

The short answer is tradition — and money. It is cheaper for the city to allow cars to drive and park where children play than provide proper parking.

But whatever the rationale, the time for this tradition has passed.

Cars and children do not mix.

Neither do trucks and sunbathers, SUVs and sea turtles, or a clear summer day and exhaust fumes.

"I have always advocated taking cars off the beach," said Volusia County Council member Pat Northey. "As long as we treat our beach like a roadway, we're going to have to face the fact the people are going to get hurt."

But Northey has been outnumbered by those who believe beach-driving is as much a part of Daytona as racing.

Council member Joshua Wagner, for instance, called Ellie's death "tragic" — but stressed that he is still committed to letting people drive by the sea. "People just need to understand it's a road," said the surfer and beach native. "It's just on the sand."

It sounds simple enough when Wagner says it.

Then again, he's not a preschooler.

It's amazing what kind of adult rules and logic can flee the mind of a young child who just discovered a hermit crab and is thrilled at the prospect of showing it off. All of the sudden, a few posts or warning signs don't seem like much of an impediment.

In fact, when my wife and I used to occasionally visit Daytona Beach, we had a tough time relaxing. There was no dozing off on our towels or getting lost in Grisham novel. At least one of us was always on-guard, eyes wide, looking out for our little ones.

We usually opted for beaches we considered more family-friendly. And less dangerous.