Volusia beach-driving victim still gets nervous at beach

DAYTONA BEACH — Driving on the beach can't be safe anywhere. That's how Haleigh Howerton views it.

Four years ago, as a college student sunbathing on the beach, Howerton was run over by a Volusia County Beach Patrol truck. Her spleen and pancreas were torn, and one of her lungs collapsed.

Today, she can function in her daily life and was even able to have a daughter, but she avoids driving on the sand. She settled with the county for $100,000.

"I don't think any beach driving is safe on any beach," said Howerton, now 23 and living in Fort Benning, Ga. "I do now get nervous when I go to beaches, especially ones with cars on them. We try to stay away from those until I feel more comfortable."

Volusia County officials acknowledge there is a risk to beach driving. Proponents, however, say that the practice will go on, despite Saturday's fatal accident involving a 4-year-old British girl.

Ellie Louise Bland was run over and killed near Daytona Beach's popular Sun Splash Park. She was hand-in-hand with her great-uncle when she was struck by a car. Her death is the first beach-driving fatality since 1996 and the first child killed in a beach-driving accident in 22 years.

"It has saddened all of us that such a tragic accident occurred, but I don't know of anything different we should be doing," said Joie Alexander, vice chairwoman of the Volusia County Council. "We cannot remove all threats of danger."

The Florida Highway Patrol is investigating. According to initial reports, Ellie was holding the hand of her great-uncle, John Langlands, walking slightly ahead of him, when she stepped in front of a Lincoln Town Car driven by Barbara Worley, 66, of Elberton, Ga.

The car knocked Ellie down, and Worley hit the brake after onlookers yelled for her to stop, investigators said. But Worley panicked, hit the accelerator and ran over the girl, state troopers said.

"There is no suspicion of alcohol or drugs," said FHP Sgt. Kim Montes. If charges are filed, "it will be nothing criminally, just traffic charges," she said.

Some Volusia County officials didn't think Ellie's death would prompt another review of beach driving and its risks.

"There are very hardened positions on this," said Council member Pat Northey, who has wanted to end beach driving. "I'm fighting 100 years of tradition."

The risk to public safety ended beach driving at Anastasia State Park near St. Augustine in 2000. A driver ran over two sunbathers, and one of the girls lingered in a vegetative state for several years before she died. Beach driving was halted that summer, and the ban became permanent last year.

Gary Taylor of the Sentinel staff contributed to this story. Ludmilla Lelis can be reached at llelis@orlandosentinel.com or 386-253-0964.

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