Few common links in spate of pedestrian fatalities

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 13, 2010

One was waiting for the light to change, two were crossing a six-lane highway, another was headed to a post office, one walked beside the interstate, another wandered into the path of a vehicle.

In the Washington region in the past month, half a dozen people have died after walking into the paths of cars, sport-utility vehicles and a bus, bumping up the number of pedestrian deaths in an area that has averaged almost 93 pedestrian fatalities in each of the past five years.

Although overall roadway fatalities have declined to their lowest level since 1950, the number of pedestrian-car fatalities has inched down stubbornly. Nationally, the fatality count dropped last year by 322, to 4,092. In the Washington region, it declined by one to 85.

There are few common themes in the past month's Washington area fatalities. The victims were 62 and 15; three were 26; the age of one was not known. They were a postal employee headed to work, a high school kid who had just been to a concert, a couple of guys heading home after a late night, a woman standing on a traffic island until the light changed and a woman who inexplicably ended up in the middle of Interstate 270.

The accidents happened about 20 minutes before dawn, eight minutes before midnight, 3:20 a.m. and, in two cases, 8:30 p.m.

Daylight provides scant immunity. Although neither ended in fatality, there have been two Montgomery County accidents in the past week involving strollers - one containing a 3-year-old, the other a 16-month-old - in the middle of the afternoon. On Tuesday afternoon, a man who witnesses said had just emerged from a market carrying diapers was rushed off in an ambulance after being hit on Glebe Road in Arlington County.

There is no mystery about the cause of pedestrian fatalities: speeding cars, distracted drivers and pedestrians, and alcohol are common factors.

"Regionally, we have had a real epidemic of incidents involving drivers and pedestrians and cyclists," said Gabe Klein, director of the District Department of Transportation. "As we become more urbanized, there's more tension with distracted drivers, pedestrians and cyclists."

Klein said that 11 of the 20 traffic fatalities in the District this year have been pedestrian deaths.

The difference that speed makes was demonstrated Tuesday at an event in Southeast Washington hosted by Klein and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The event was held near the scene of recent pedestrian accidents, including one in which a U.S. Department of Transportation employee died.

A test driver was able to brake successfully from 20 mph to stop short of a crash-test dummy dressed as a small boy in a Washington Nationals cap. When the driver tried to brake in the same distance from 35 mph, the car shattered the dummy.

"When someone is hit at 20 miles an hour, he has an 80 percent chance of surviving," said George Brayan of DDOT. "When it's 40 mph, there's a 20 percent chance."

Brayan said about 160 people are hit each year by cars turning at D.C. intersections. LaHood said that although pedestrians have the right of way in most situations, the driver isn't always at fault.

"When you're trying to cross a busy street," he said, "you might be better off if you stopped talking on the phone or texting."

The Washington region ranked in the middle of the pack in a study of pedestrian risk issued last year by the advocacy group the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership. The researchers developed a "pedestrian danger index" by dividing the average fatality rate for each metropolitan area by the percentage of people who walk to work.

Under that formula, cities with relatively compact core areas fared better than more sprawling, less walkable places. Orlando and Tampa-St. Petersburg ranked the worst; New York, Boston and Minneapolis-St. Paul were the best of the 52 ranked. The Washington region came in at 32.

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