During the Bicentennial year, 34 of the 60 persons killed in traffic accidents on Washington's streets - 57 per cent - were pedestrians. The District's pedestrian death rate was one of the highest of any large U.S. city and among the highest in the history of the nation's capital, according to the American Automobile Association.
And the rate so far this year is already much higher still, with pedestrians accounting for 10 of the 16 traffic deaths through last weekend, according to D.C. police.
The high annual death rate in 1976 came ironically during a year in which Washington had fewer traffic deaths, fewer injuries and fewer accidents - despite huge Bicentennial crowds of cars and people - than in almost any year since before World War II.
It was also a year in which city police attempted to "crack down" on pedestrians, arresting almost 7,000 for jaywalking and disobeying "Walk/Don't Walk" signals, twice the number of pedestrian arrests in 1975 and three times the number arrested in 1974.
Last year's high pedestrian death rate apparently puts Washington at the bottom of the AAA's safety list. Twenty years ago, the city was on top.
In both 1955 and 1956 the AAA ranked the nation's capital as safest for pedestrians among cities of more than 500,000 population, based on its National Pedestrian Inventory. The AAA inventory, begun in 1939 and now covering 2,462 cities, is the major storehouse of national pedestrian statistics.
Washington passed its first pedestrian law in 1941 after 70 pedestrians were killed on city streets, says Glenn Lashley public relations director for AAA's Washington chapter. "The pedestrian toll dropped for a few years but things again got so bad in the 1960s . . . there was an average of more than 50 pedestrian deaths a year . . . that police and courts set up a pedestrian jaywalking school and cracked down on pedestrian violations . . . and that's what we apparently need to do again."
The city's transportation department is concerned that the percentage of pedestrian deaths has been rising so alarmingly even though the number of total traffic deaths is dropping. But while the AAA says this is of concern "the real barometer" is the death rate per 100,000 residents. "In 1975, the last year for which we have complete statistics, Washington's death rate was 5.2 per 100,000 residents, higher than any city its size and higher even than New York, Philadelphia and any other large city I can find," says Lashley, "and 1976 appears to be just as bad."
Both the AAA and D.C. police say pedestrians are to blame in the vast majority of accidents in which they are injured and that while motorists here may be "pushy" when confronting pedestrians it's partly because pedestrians are trotting all over the streets.
"Last summer, before our pedestrian campaign began," says police Sgt. Vernon Rocke, "I stood at the corner of 18th and K Streets NW during rush hour and counted 289 pedestrian violations in 15 minutes. I was counting as fast as I could. There were droves of people crossing against the lights every which way."
Lashley was involved in a similar experiment in the early 1960s when the AAA held a conference of traffic safety officials here and they went down to observe pedestrian behavior on busy downtown streets. "I think it was on F and G Streets around 11th and 12th," says Lashley, "and in one hour we counted 4,394 pedestrian violations."
Of the pedestrian deaths in the city both last year and so far this year, most have occured at night, with a large number involving elderly men crossing streets illegally, often in dark clothing. More than 20 per cent of the 34 killed last year and about 50 per cent of those killed this year apparently had been drinking, says Sgt. Rocke.
Police records attribute eight of last year's deaths to motorists' fault, 16 to the fault of the pedestrian, four to the fault of both, three unknown and three to defective equipment on a truck. Downtown Washington is where most pedestrian accidents occur, most within the city's "Walk/Don't Walk" signal area, says the city transportation department's new full-time pedestrian coordinato, J.W. Lanum. The high accident zone is roughly between 6th and 21st Streets NW and between Constitution Avenue and Upshur Street NW, Lanum says, with 13th and 14th Streets probably the most dangerous.
One of Lanum's first jobs has been to set up a pedestrian safety coordinating committee, similar to the Joint Committee for Pedestrian Protection, established in 1964 by District commissioners to help stem the rising number of pedestrian accidents. Traffic deaths, particularly pedestrian deaths, dropped slightly for two years, then rose again.
The committee Lanum helped set up, which includes police, Metro, school and recreation officials, has already met four times but has made no recommendations.