Street Smart campaign: Getting smart about traffic safety

Law enforcement agencies in the D.C. region launched their latest Street Smart campaign Wednesday during a week in which traffic safety programs already were getting public attention.

The education and enforcement campaign, now in its ninth year, is renewed each spring with a media event in one of the region’s jurisdictions. Wednesday’s was at the intersection of Silver Hill Road and Marlboro Pike in District Heights.

As is usual with the Street Smart launches, police and local officials talked about what they were trying to do. “Educated drivers, cyclists, and walkers are critical to our concentrated efforts to reduce fatalities on our roadways,” Prince George’s County Police Chief Mark Magaw said in a statement.

Police then reinforced the message by engaging in some traffic enforcement at the intersection.

This is the type of thing law enforcement leaders have in mind when they say that traffic enforcement is about getting people to do the right thing rather than about raising revenue. They say what they’re going to do, they say why their going to do it, and then they do it.

Police aren’t going to be around every time drivers, pedestrians and cyclists screw up. Notions about safety have to be internalized, so behavior changes.

On Tuesday, a day-long session about distracted driving, sponsored by the National Transportation Safety Board, highlighted many of the challenges drivers face. But I think the key challenge is this: Most of us think our skills are above average.

The only data that supports that notion is the anecdotal kind. Most of us get home without crashing into anybody. Researchers and police pointed out that our ability to survive most traffic experiences does not make us good drivers.

The experts and the board discussed ways that awareness can be heightened and enforcement strengthened to make the roads safer.

Perhaps because it deals in recommendations rather than decrees, the NTSB is very good at raising awareness about travel safety and what it takes to achieve that goal.

The D.C. government took a very different approach in its first high-profile discussion of plans to expand the reach of its traffic enforcement cameras.


A camera is placed near a traffic light for drivers who run red lights on Constitution Avenue. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Gray spoke about the budget and the expanded camera program with the D.C. Council. Tim Craig reported that when council members asked how many cameras the District government would like to install, Gray said, “Eventually, we would like to be able to cover the entire city.”

I think the District has the right to enforce its traffic safety laws. Period. I think drivers, cyclists and pedestrians do not have the right to decide when and where they will obey the law. Period.

But there’s nothing wrong with getting travelers to understand the nature of their dangerous behavior and why it’s being targeted.

One reason: The mayor isn’t going to “cover the entire city” with cameras. As Craig pointed out in his story, D.C. now has 70 red light cameras and a couple dozen speed cameras.

The District has 2,295 lane miles.The entire city won’t be covered in one mayoral administration, if it ever is.

Meanwhile, the most specific thing the mayor said about his traffic calming initiatives is that they would generate $30.6 million.

When drivers say “it’s just about revenue,” that’s a cop out for their own bad behavior. But unfortunately, it’s an easy one, and it doesn’t encourage good behavior. We’ll all be a lot safer if city officials can stigmatize the behavior, rather than the enforcement program.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.

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