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D.C. Council unanimously approves Vision Zero bill aimed at reducing traffic fatalities

People attend a rally in April 2019 to demand safe streets for cyclists and pedestrians after a driver struck and killed cycling activist David Salovesh.
People attend a rally in April 2019 to demand safe streets for cyclists and pedestrians after a driver struck and killed cycling activist David Salovesh. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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The D.C. Council on Tuesday approved a package of sweeping road-safety measures aimed at cutting the growing number of traffic injuries and fatalities in the nation's capital.

The legislation, which passed unanimously, accelerates improvements to bike and pedestrian infrastructure, expands the city's automated traffic enforcement program, and boosts traffic safety education.

It also increases safety efforts in communities that have been plagued by traffic fatalities, a large share of which are in lower-income neighborhoods in the eastern part of the District.

The legislation, which has more than a dozen provisions, is in line with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser's Vision Zero traffic safety plan to eliminate traffic deaths by 2024.

"The number of people being killed clearly tells us that we're not closer to that goal, but a goal is only as good as what you're willing to do to achieve it," council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said. "So we have to put teeth into this. We have to pass laws. We have to take action, because we are not on our way to Vision Zero right now."

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Bowser's office declined to say whether the mayor intends to sign the bill into law.

"The bill is currently with the Council. Once the bill gets transmitted it will be reviewed," Bowser press secretary Susana Castillo said in a statement.

Allen, chief sponsor of the Vision Zero omnibus bill, said the legislation will overhaul the city's approach to reducing traffic deaths, targeting critical infrastructure improvements and stepped-up enforcement. It also aims to address transportation equity concerns, setting procedures to identify high-risk intersections and areas where access to transit needs improvement.

Over the past several years, an increase in bicyclist and pedestrian deaths has hindered progress on Bowser's Vision Zero program. So far this year, 29 people have been killed in traffic crashes compared with 16 at the same time last year, an increase of about 80 percent. With three months left in 2020, more people have died on D.C. roads this year than in all of 2019, when 27 people were victims of traffic crashes.

The increase in fatalities on District streets mirrors a troubling national trend that became even more pronounced this spring and summer during the pandemic shutdowns. People were driving less, but crashes were more deadly, according to local and national data.

Locally, officials have been increasingly concerned about the growing number of fatalities involving pedestrians and those on bikes and scooters.

Supporters of the bill say it lays out a strategy for achieving the goals of Vision Zero.

"This act has the potential to save lives, so no other families experience the grief and trauma that we have needlessly endured," tweeted the advocacy group D.C. Families for Safe Streets.

The legislation bans right-on-red turns at locations with heavy pedestrian traffic, requires sidewalks be installed on both sides of a street, and establishes hefty penalties — up to $16,000 daily — for contractors that fail to install sidewalks, bicycle lanes and marked crosswalks after completing work.

The District Department of Transportation will be required to proactively evaluate the city's 15 most dangerous corridors and intersections for pedestrians and cyclists and report on improvements for those locations. That will ensure the city invests its resources on the locations with the most risks, supporters say.

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As part of her plan, Bowser (D) this summer lowered the default speed    limit    on    city    streets   to 20 mph from 25 mph, and implemented a "slow streets" initiative in which some neighborhood streets are restricted to local traffic with a posted speed limit of 15 mph.

Safety advocacy groups backed the omnibus legislation. A report from the council's transportation committee this summer recommended approval of the bill while noting, "It is clear that the District is not doing everything in its power to eliminate transportation fatalities and serious injuries."

However, even if the legislation is signed into law this year, implementation of some of the mandates could take years. According to the city's budget office, "funds are not sufficient" to implement the package, which it estimates will cost $171 million over four years. Allen said he thinks the dollar amount, from an analysis by the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, is "flat-out wrong."

Elements of the bill that have no significant costs attached could go into effect as early as January if the bill is signed into law. More expensive components would be phased in as funding allows, Allen said.

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The legislation expands the city's automated traffic enforcement program, nearly doubling the number of red light cameras by early 2022, and requires the use of cameras in bus lanes. It mandates the city have up to 75 red light cameras and 10 bus lane cameras by Jan. 1, 2022. That number would grow by January 2024 to include the deployment of 125 red light cameras and 30 stop sign cameras.

According to a city report, there are 40 red light and six stop sign cameras in use now. No bus lane enforcement cameras are active, although DDOT is testing the technology.

The legislation requires the mayor to negotiate agreements with Virginia and Maryland to ensure drivers from those states face consequences when they break traffic laws in the city. For example, under such agreements, registrations and driver's licenses of Maryland and Virginia drivers could be suspended if they accrue District traffic fines of a certain threshold. Maryland and Virginia would receive a percentage of the fines recovered as compensation.

Roughly 90 percent of outstanding parking and photo citation debts in the District are owed by vehicles registered out-of-state, and 72 percent of those vehicles are registered in Maryland and Virginia, according to the city.

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The bill also requires warning notices be mailed to drivers caught exceeding speed limits by 8 or more miles per hour. Currently, fines are issued only to those traveling above the 10 mph threshold.

Another provision bans turning right on red at more intersections, including those within 400 feet of a school, recreation center, library, playground, Metro station entrance, or with a bike lane running through it. The original bill called for a citywide ban on right-on-red turns.

Some driver groups, including AAA Mid-Atlantic, opposed various aspects of the bill, including the ban on right turns on red. That prohibition, they said, could create other hazards because vehicles would be moving or turning at higher speeds to make the green light.

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The law also would require new developments to have designated loading and unloading zones, a measure designed to address problems created when commercial trucks park in bike and travel lanes. It also prohibits trailers from parking alongside unprotected bike lanes.

All bikes would be required to be equipped with rear lights. And applicants seeking to convert an out-of-state driver's license would have to take a knowledge test on traffic rules and regulations.