Taking Steps to a Pedestrian-Friendly D.C.
Measures Follow Deaths of 10 People Walking on District Streets This Year

By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 29, 2006

Marion Anderson sported a Washington Nationals T-shirt and blue pants. Rose Garrett's similarly casual outfit was accessorized with a Bluetooth earpiece and white-frame sunglasses. Both women carried shoulder bags.

And as they stepped onto a zebra-stripe crosswalk on Bladensburg Road at L Street NE on a recent sunny morning, seven cars whizzed past them. Five minutes later, as they again attempted to cross the four-lane street, a mammoth Ford Excursion whisked by and beeped impatiently. For the next hour, about half the cars passing through the intersection failed to yield to the two pedestrians.

Too bad for those drivers.

For on that day, Anderson and Garrett, D.C. police officers, were working undercover, testing drivers' compliance with pedestrian safety laws. A police spotter observing the exercise radioed ahead to uniformed officers Arlinda Page and Donna Allen, stationed a half-block away, alerting them about the cars that failed to stop.

"The excuse for everyone is, 'I didn't see the pedestrians,' " Allen said.

Fifteen drivers who slowed but failed to stop for the two women got a lecture and a handout on pedestrian safety. Thirteen others who sailed right through the crosswalk were sent on their way with a $50 ticket. Eighteen drivers were cited for speeding in the 25 mph zone.

The D.C. police department's "targeted crosswalk operation" is a new enforcement technique, part of a stepped-up effort by city officials to improve pedestrian safety.

So far this year, the District has logged 10 pedestrian deaths, accounting for 43 percent of all traffic fatalities since Jan. 1. The victims' ages ranged from 2 to 68, and five of the dead were children. Six of the 10 deaths occurred in Ward 8.

Last year, there were 16 pedestrian fatalities, and there were 10 in 2004. The average for the past five years is 14, city officials said.

One recent victim was 14-year-old Torian Gibson, who died early June 18. He had been hit by a car two days earlier as he crossed the street at Pennsylvania and Texas avenues SE about 9 p.m.

On average, 550 walkers are hit on District streets each year. And although progress has been made in reducing fatalities, which reached 25 in 1993, officials are aiming for zero.

It's an important goal in a place that ranks second among U.S. cities in the proportion of commutes done on foot. The 2000 Census found that walkers account for 11.8 percent of journeys to work in Washington. Baltimore is higher, at 13 percent. New York, a prime pedestrian city, has only 10.4 percent walkers.

When commutes that involve walking to public transit or bicycling are added in, almost 47 percent of trips to work in the District are fully or partly by foot or bike, city officials said.

Speeding is a major concern, because a vehicle's speed "is the most critical factor" in determining whether a hit pedestrian will live or die, said George Branyan, pedestrian program coordinator for the D.C. Department of Transportation.

"It's almost an exponential growth," he said, noting that a person hit by a vehicle going 40 mph has a 10 percent chance of surviving, but if the vehicle's speed is 25 mph, the pedestrian has an 85 percent chance of making it.

"We're trying to get people to drive the speed limit, so that if a pedestrian does make a mistake, they don't pay with their life," Branyan said.

Under D.C. law, pedestrians crossing the street at an intersection without a signal always have the right of way, and vehicles must stop to let them pass. That is the case whether the crossing area is marked -- with stripes or horizontal lines -- or is unmarked.

Drivers also must stop and yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk even if they are waiting at the edge of the roadway, Branyan said.

Pedestrians have responsibilities, too, including waiting for the walk signal, using crosswalks and not leaving the curb so abruptly that cars cannot stop for them.

A November 2002 study by the D.C. Department of Transportation examining vehicle-pedestrian accidents between 1997 and 1999 found that pedestrians and drivers were nearly equally responsible for the accidents, but that the single largest violation, representing 40 percent of such accidents, involved pedestrians not in designated crosswalks.

It is illegal to cross mid-block if there are traffic lights with marked crosswalks at the nearest intersections. When there are no signals at each end of a block, it is permissible to cross mid-block provided the pedestrian yields the right of way to passing vehicles.

"I wouldn't recommend it, but it is not illegal," Branyan said.

However, if pedestrians disrupt the flow of traffic as they cross mid-block, they can be issued a $20 ticket for obstructing traffic, he said.

Branyan said the city is taking a three-pronged approach to increasing pedestrian safety based on "the three E's."

First, engineering: The city is setting up speed bumps and rumble strips to reduce speed. In addition, pedestrian countdown signals have been installed at 1,300 intersections -- more than in any other U.S. city. Officials plan to install countdown signals at 200 more intersections this year.

The second prong is education, most visibly the annual month-long Street Smart publicity campaign, which aims to increase safety awareness among pedestrians, drivers and bicyclists through radio spots and posters on buses and bus shelters.

All Street Smart materials are printed in both English and Spanish.

Hispanics, Branyan said, are "overrepresented" among pedestrians hit by cars because they make up a large percentage of people who regularly walk or take public transit.

"It's simple exposure. Large numbers of Hispanics take buses," he said. "They're the ones walking, they're the ones crossing the streets. They're not in the cars."

Two years ago, the city launched Street Smart for Kids, which uses volunteers from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association to train schoolchildren in pedestrian and bicycle safety. Part of the training is done at intersections and sidewalks near schools, Branyan said.

Enforcement is the third prong, including "targeted crosswalk operations" such as the recent one on Bladensburg Road. "This is a sweet spot," Branyan said, because it has "a lot of people crossing the street, four lanes, people speeding. It's a place that really deserves a lot of attention."

During the operation, Branyan watched from the sidewalk as Anderson and Garrett stepped into the crosswalk. Some model drivers stopped about 20 feet from the walk and waited for the women to cross.

Others were not so exemplary. One driver slowed but drove through the crosswalk in front of the two women, waving to them as if in apology. A driver in a white minivan stopped right in the crosswalk, smiled flirtatiously at the women, then drove off.

"It's the American way. . . . It's 'me first.' People aren't courteous anymore," Anderson said.

But some drivers might argue it's not a matter of courtesy: They fear that they might contribute to an accident if they stop to let a walker cross the street and a speeding car in another lane does not.

"That's a very good concern," Branyan said, but he noted that "it's against the law to pass a car stopped at a pedestrian crossing." His advice is to "stop farther back, 20 to 30 feet from the crosswalk. That allows pedestrians to see if another approaching car is not going to stop."

Many drivers who failed to yield to the two undercover police officers were looking in their rearview mirrors, apparently judging whether or not they'd be struck from behind if they stopped.

But even if jamming on your brakes looks dicey, Branyan said, it's the right thing to do.

"I would rather have a car run into your car . . . than have a pedestrian be hit," he said. "Pedestrians don't have steel cages or airbags."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company