D.C. Targets Rising Pedestrian Deaths

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 29, 2005

Steve Laterra ignored the red "Don't Walk" signal and waded into four lanes of midday traffic on 14th Street NW yesterday. The Woodbridge man made it easily through the first two lanes but was forced to stop in the middle of the street to let a taxi whiz by -- inches away. Then, his eyes darting back and forth, he dashed across the final northbound lane.

"I'm from Manhattan, so it's not scary at all," he said from the safety of a sidewalk. "I make the assumption that the car will stop."

That is the kind of death-defying assumption driving a D.C. effort to reduce pedestrian injuries and deaths. Pedestrian-related accidents in the District have increased this year, bucking a longtime downward trend, city officials announced yesterday as they outlined a public education effort aimed at drivers and pedestrians.

The District had 16 pedestrian fatalities this year, up from an average of 12 annually during the past three years, officials said. The city is airing radio commercials that emphasize pedestrian safety and is participating with Maryland and Virginia in a regional "Street Smart'' education initiative.

About 3,000 pedestrians a year are hit by cars in the region, and pedestrian fatalities account for 22 percent of total traffic deaths in the District, Virginia and Maryland, according to the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board.

"It's confounding," said Dan Tangherlini, the District's transportation director, who has studied the circumstances of fatal accidents in the city. "There is no clear pattern."

Tangherlini said the increased accidents might simply be the result of mathematics: more vehicles plus more pedestrians equal more accidents. The District also swells daily with 150,000 commuters and thousands of tourists. A report this year on pedestrian injuries found that most accidents happened during weekday commuting hours, with the peak on Fridays.

The study, by the Inova Regional Trauma Center, also found that most accidents happened when walkers crossed streets outside intersections and that the responsibility for crashes is split fairly evenly; drivers were cited in 52 percent of accidents.

Safety officials are working on campaigns aimed at persuading pedestrians not to jaywalk and warning drivers to yield to pedestrians, who will lose any confrontation between man and machine.

Cheryl Adams of Southwest knows that too well. In 1993, she was hit by a car at 13th and L streets NW during evening rush hour.

"It pinned me to a lamppost,'' she said. Her legs were crushed.

Adams, 48, who sometimes uses a leg brace, said she has spent her time since the accident lobbying public officials to raise awareness of pedestrian safety issues.

The District has hired a full-time pedestrian-safety coordinator, made improvements to 20 of the most dangerous intersections and installed 1,200 countdown pedestrian signals since 2003, the most of any city, according to District officials. The District has also been running radio commercials this month about pedestrian safety and is paying police officers overtime to watch for traffic violations.

Striking a balance between drivers and walkers is not always easy. Transportation officials are changing the traffic pattern on Military Road NW to slow traffic and protect pedestrians. But commuters who use the road have complained that the changes will cause delays.

Traffic officials recently met with community leaders about improving pedestrian crossings on Connecticut Avenue before Charles Atherton was struck by a car on Connecticut near the Uptown Theater earlier this month. At the meeting, some residents balked at proposed street changes that would mean giving up scarce parking spaces, Tangherlini said.

At busy 14th Street and New York Avenue NW, traffic rules appeared to be followed only casually yesterday. Pedestrians crossed against the light; cars made turns cutting off pedestrians in a crosswalk; and taxis made unpredictable turns to pick up fares.

It was a typical moment in a typical day, said two downtown "ambassadors'' employed by a downtown business group to help visitors. Their perch on the southwest corner affords them an unblocked and unbiased view of the behaviors of drivers and walkers.

Their verdict: Both are guilty.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company