After a year marked by a rise in traffic fatalities, the District is entering 2019 with a plan city officials hope will make streets safer for its 700,000 residents and the hundreds of thousands more who visit and work in the nation’s capital.
The new year brings several street safety initiatives, including a ban on right turns on red and restricting left turns at some intersections. In addition, pedestrians will have more time to cross at many intersections and there will be new zones for delivery trucks and ride-hailing drop-offs. Drivers who break traffic laws will also face higher penalties.
The ultimate goal, city officials said, is to reduce traffic deaths and injuries through changes in street design, enforcement, education and data-driven strategies.
According to data from D.C. police, 36 people were killed in traffic collisions in 2018, including 14 pedestrians and three bicyclists. That number is up from 30 in 2017 and is the highest since 2008, when 39 people were killed in traffic crashes.
“The slight uptick [in traffic deaths] in the past year gave us the energy to roll out these new strategies,” said Jeff Marootian, director of the District Department of Transportation. “Safety is what’s most important to everybody.”
Marootian said many of the department’s safety initiatives are focused on intersections. That includes efforts to make left turns safer in some spots by adding rubber barriers along the centerline to stop drivers from cutting off a corner when turning. At 40 intersections with dual turn lanes that have a higher incidence of crashes, engineers will be making adjustments, including eliminating the second turn lane.
Starting in the spring, signs will go up banning drivers from turning right on red at 100 intersections — many in school zones or within the city’s central business district where the risks to pedestrians are highest, officials said. Curbside parking zones for delivery trucks, and Uber and Lyft will go live this month at the National Zoo, the Wharf, Georgetown, 14th and U streets and Union Market.
Tougher penalties for traffic infractions go into effect this month, targeting speeding and other dangerous road behaviors. Among the changes: Drivers exceeding the speed limit by more than 25 mph face a $500 fine instead of a $300 fine; those rolling through a no-right-turn-on-red intersection face a $100 fine instead of a $50 one; and drivers who don’t stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk risk a $500 ticket and three points on their driver’s license, up from a $250 ticket.
Midyear, DDOT will take control of the city’s automated traffic enforcement program — which deploys speed, red-light and stop sign cameras — from D.C. police. DDOT’s takeover of the system, which yields hundreds of thousands of citations, could help reduce the time it takes to process tickets and expedite the deployment of additional traffic enforcement cameras, officials said.
The shift, however, is likely to increase criticism from those who say the program is about generating revenue, not traffic safety. Additionally, there are those who say citations for moving violations should be issued by police.
“The police have nearly unlimited discretion to stop motorists. DDOT doesn’t, so why in the world would it seek to seize police powers?” said John Townsend of AAA Mid-Atlantic. “This is a police function.”
Townsend said some of the other measures could also create more problems than they solve. For example, he said, banning right turns at red lights could prompt drivers to accelerate at intersections to make the turn before the signal changes.
DDOT also is studying the idea of establishing 20 mph “slow zones” and “pedestrian-only” zones in places with heavy pedestrian traffic. Under regulations that went into effect this month, certain streets near and around senior centers, recreation facilities and other neighborhood zones were designated as 15 mph zones from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Additionally, the city is planning to remove more curbside parking to create space for bikes, scooters and other uses, including more delivery and pickup zones.
The initiatives aren’t new proposals, but are part of the city’s renewed commitment to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s Vision Zero strategy — modeled after a Swedish program that started in 1997 with the aim of eliminating traffic fatalities and serious injuries.
Bowser (D), who launched the program in February 2015, proposed the tougher penalties in September and a month later kicked off a Vision Zero reset with a week-long enforcement blitz.
That transition came on the heels of an expected move by DDOT to open a Vision Zero office, creating a liaison between DDOT and other city agencies to better coordinate Vision Zero efforts.
“We want to look at everything that the government can control — how we invest in improving intersections, how we help educate our public and how we enforce the rules of the road,” Bowser said in late October following a rash of fatal collisions involving pedestrians and bicyclists — and following mounting criticism from residents and advocates questioning her commitment to the goal of ending traffic deaths by 2024.
Advocates say they welcome the stepped-up efforts, but want the city to take even bolder steps to ensure the safety of all road users. More people are walking and riding bikes in the nation’s capital, and the mix of road users continues to change with the addition of new modes of transportation, from ride booking to dockless bikes and scooters. Advocates say instead of focusing on creating 20 mph zones, for example, the District should lower its default speed limit to 20 from 25 mph, and that the no-turn-on-red rule should be citywide.
“We are not asking for anything unreasonable. We are just asking not to die or get horribly injured while we are traveling in D.C.,” said Rachel Maisler, an avid bicyclist and member of the city’s bicycle advisory council who organized several silent rides to honor traffic victims in 2018.
More than 25,000 crashes occurred on D.C. streets in 2018, resulting in more than 10,000 major injuries. Of the 36 people killed in 2018, 50 percent were walking or riding a bike or scooter; they include a visiting mother and daughter who were hit by a tour bus Dec. 19. The other fatalities were split between motorcyclists and people in motor vehicles.
One third of those killed were in Ward 8, the city’s poorest quadrant. Seven were killed in Ward 2, which includes some of the densest areas of the District and the highest concentration of jobs.
The victims were from all backgrounds and were of various ages, and the circumstances of their deaths varied, with no single cause to be blamed, officials said. Speeding and jaywalking are major concerns citywide, they said.
Greg Billing, a supporter of Vision Zero and executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said DDOT should focus on targeting speeding and other dangerous behaviors. One way, he said, is to use data from the speed- and red-light camera program to determine where problems exist and implement traffic-calming measures on wide and open roads where it is easy to speed.
“Rather than letting the camera continue to generate a lot of money for the city, why don’t you go in and fix the street,” Billing said. “When the road is designed for slow speed, it feels different, it looks different, drivers understand in that place they have to drive slower.”