The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can tailored messages to bad drivers prevent crashes? D.C. is about to find out.

Traffic moves along 14th Street NW in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Bad drivers in the District could soon get a serious warning sent straight to their cellphones.

The city is working to identify drivers with a history of traffic violations, such as speeding and red-light camera tickets, to send messages alerting them of their history of infractions while warning of their risks of getting into a fatal crash.

City officials say they hope the pointed messages will deter dangerous road behaviors.

“We know that there is a subset of drivers that are putting others at serious risk with excessive speeding and red-light running,” said Jeff Marootian, director of the city’s Department of Transportation, one of the agencies leading the effort. “We’re hoping that this creative approach can ultimately reduce serious injury and fatality crashes.”

A team of city data experts is analyzing traffic citation data to identify drivers at a high risk of involvement in a serious crash. The “tailored messages,” they say, will be sent to a sample of those drivers next year. At the end of the 18-month pilot, officials say, they expect to know the answer to a key question: Can targeting messages to high-risk drivers prevent crashes?

“This is a creative approach that we haven’t tried before, and we think that it is worth the effort,” Marootian said.

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

The concept, which D.C. officials say is a first among cities nationwide, is the latest effort to target dangerous drivers in a city where serious and fatal crashes are on the rise. City leaders said evidence shows drivers with multiple traffic violations are more likely to be involved in crashes.

Researchers have studied the relationship between repeat traffic offenders and serious collisions, with some data suggesting a strong correlation between the two. But some researchers also have pointed to other factors at play, such as the amount of time the driver spends on the road and exposure to traffic enforcement systems.

In D.C., speed and red-light cameras are widely deployed across major commuter corridors, generating $195 million in ticket fines last year, the bulk of it from the camera program, according to AAA analysis.

City officials say they hope data from the program can help them track drivers who aren’t deterred by the fines.

A team from The Lab @ DC, a project-driven agency within the office of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), is examining data from the District’s automated traffic enforcement program to predict a driver’s likelihood of being involved in a serious crash.

Working with DDOT, D.C. police and the Department of Motor Vehicles, The Lab team will create a campaign that could include text messages and mail sent to a sample of high-risk drivers.

“We will evaluate whether drivers who receive these messages have fewer red-light violations, speeding violations, and ultimately, crashes, compared to the group of high-risk drivers who do not receive the messages,” according to The Lab.

D.C. cuts speed limit to 20 mph to curb pedestrian deaths

The Lab will analyze data that includes paid and unpaid citations for speeding and red-light cameras, and also could include vehicle registration data in its analysis, according to the agency. Officials said they hope the experiment could lead to policies and educational programs around traffic safety.

The program is among the latest road-safety measures with the purpose of cutting the growing number of traffic injuries and fatalities in the nation’s capital. The increase comes despite Bowser’s Vision Zero traffic safety plan to eliminate traffic deaths by 2024.

An increase in bicyclist and pedestrian deaths has hindered progress for Bowser’s program. As of Dec. 23, police records show 36 people have been killed in traffic crashes in the city compared to 26 at the same time last year, an increase of nearly 40 percent.

More than 4,000 crashes this year have resulted in injuries, according to city data.

As part of traffic safety measures, the city lowered the default speed limit this summer 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 speed limit of 15 mph.

In September, the D.C. Council approved legislation accelerating improvements to bike and pedestrian infrastructure, expanding the city’s automated traffic enforcement program and promising more traffic safety education. Through the legislation, the city would focus more resources on high-risk intersections and areas with less access to transit.

Maryland and Virginia drivers owe D.C. more than $370 million in outstanding traffic and parking fines

City officials have been increasingly concerned about the growing number of traffic fatalities, supporting more aggressive approaches to target dangerous drivers with higher penalties.

Although the new messages appear as a warning to higher-risk drivers, city officials said the intent is to educate the recipient. Marootian said there is no violation or fine attached to the message and that the campaign is to use data to directly communicate with individual drivers.

Some questioned whether the message will work.

Matthew Sampson, a traffic safety advocate and D.C. resident, said there is “messaging all over to drivers to drive slow, but they still continue to drive dangerously.” He said the problem is many drivers, including those licensed in Maryland and Virginia, face no consequence for racking up traffic citations in the city.

“If a bad driver has a disdainful attitude toward traffic violations in D.C. anyway, what makes us think messaging from D.C. would work?” he said. “It seems to me that there’s bigger regulatory fruit to aim for. That said, it is nice that DDOT is trying.”

D.C. Council backs proposal to let e-scooter riders recoup medical bills after crashes

Some cities shut down streets for pedestrians and other uses during the pandemic. A study looks at whether people are using them.

D.C.’s 16th Street NW is finally getting its dedicated bus lane